Books, Philosophy

Rescuing the Hero

I made a rash comment a while back, and a combination of ‘brainnnzzz’ due to traveling and my usual tendency to write in mental shorthand (which drives my editors crazy too) meant that my thoughts came out garbled. So I decided I’d better unpack what I meant and make it clearer. Hopefully clear enough to communicate my intent.

I’d had a chance to sit and talk at length with my sister the other day. She is not a geek but like me, enjoys reading. We were talking about the death of heroism in fiction. She, like so many others, has seen the traditional publishing’s obsession with the anti-hero, with the characters that are broken beyond repair, and mired in hopelessness. Because she and I were raised reading a lot of Christian fiction, we also are both acutely aware that message fiction is usually poor quality, even if you are a proponent of the particular message being shoved down your throat.

But is heroism a dying art in fiction? The answer to that, which I wasn’t clear on in my comment, is that no, it’s not. If all you read is mainstream books, you might not know this. But if you are reading Indie Authors like Peter Grant, Chris Nuttall, and Amanda Green, you know that the Hero is seeing a resurgence in popularity. If you have been reading Baen, you know that authors like Lois McMaster Bujold, John Ringo, and David Drake have been the bastion of heroism for more than two decades. The casual reader may have wondered where the hero has gone, but I can assure you that he’s coming back, rescued from obscurity and a besmirched reputation by authors who want to write stories readers want to read.

Message fiction tends to confuse the idea of the hero (and I’m not talking about the archetypical hero’s journey, by the way) with the concept that the readers need to ‘identify’ with the main character in some way. So what you wind up with is what we’ve been mocking, the character that is all the diversity checklist rolled into one cardboard tube. Someone commented in a recent conversation that they had heard an author boasting of simply changing a character’s name, because there weren’t enough women in the novel they were working on.

If you can alter a character’s innate personhood simply by changing their name, you’re not writing very well. Men and women react differently, speak differently, often have different driving motivations. They are not, no matter what message fiction would have you believe, interchangeable simply at a whim. Mainstream writers are caught up in writing message, and diversity, and they have lost sight of something important.

Heroes are not only men, they are not only women. They are often flawed, but they are not broken and irredeemable. Heroes are the people we can look up to, wonder “could I do that, in that situation?” They are the people we read about, and who make us feel like being better people ourselves. Heroism isn’t always big, noble acts. I read recently about a woman I’d never heard of, who did not succeed in her efforts to save herself, and her friends. Judy Resnick was in the Challenger when it started to come apart. She put on her oxygen, and then that of the people who were sitting where she could reach. It was a futile effort, but a heroic one, and one that makes me happy to read, even as I grieve over the deaths of the brave ones. Heroes don’t always have happy endings.

There has been an effort to smirch the expectation of a hero, to tarnish them, with accusations of being too perfect. But really, Indiana Jones was not a perfect hero. He was a cad about women (as was James Bond, among others). I love reading Louis L’Amour, with his heroic men and women (Ride the River with Echo Sackett, Ride the Dark Trail with Em Talon) but none of them are perfect. Peter Grant’s Steve Maxwell series started out with the young hero being practically perfect, but as the books go on, he struggles and grows, just as real people do. We all know we aren’t perfect. But what can we learn – what do we want to learn – from ‘heroes’ who are despicable people? We might never be able to be as good as the Grey Lensman (EE “Doc” Smith), Flash Gordon, or the original versions of Superman. But those are characters we can look up to and choose traits we want to model in ourselves.

I have no problems with writing more women into books. I’m a woman, and I do tend to write female characters (the Pixie Series notwithstanding) because it’s easier for me to be in a feminine headspace. What I do have a problem with is deriding males and forcing them into villain or goofy sidekick roles just to fit some politically correct agenda. I’m a big fan of real equality, and I’m a big fan of men being heroes, protectors, and supporters when their woman is fighting too. Hero isn’t a gendered term, and it’s time to remember that, and not let it stop us from writing more heroes because it’s sexist or something.

I love both Larry Correia’s heroes, and Jim Butcher’s heroes. Larry writes more than one – and his latest is a stone-cold killer. But still a hero, even if that takes a while to happen. Redemption is a common theme in heroic fiction, perhaps because so many of us know that what we need in our own lives is redemption. We need healing. Harry Dresden is a broken man, but none the less a hero. Michael, one of the secondary characters in that series, is a perfect person, but one I love to read about. He’s pure in his faith, and I find that inspiring. Murphy, who has to juggle Harry’s danger-magnet tendencies with her job and duty, is also heroic. If you’re looking for heroes, either author is a great choice.

Heroes are not always self-confident. Sarah Hoyt (surely you’ve read her work) writes two I love, in different series. Athena is a dangerous woman, but an uncertain one. It slows her at times, but it doesn’t stop her, and I find that helpful in my own life, even if I have never (and will never) been hell-on-wheels in a fight. The other character is Tom, in the shifter books, who is a very diffident personality, but one that has gained so much power he could either be a hero or a villain – and he chooses to be a hero.

Here, perhaps, is the kernel of it. Choices. Heroes make the right choices. Sarah and Amanda kept nudging me to read Drawing Out the Dragons, and when I finally did, James Owen points out that our lives are dictated by the choices we make. Me, I choose to read, and write, heroic fiction. It’s what I like, and perhaps I can rescue a hero in my time.


10 thoughts on “Rescuing the Hero

  1. “Someone commented in a recent conversation that they had heard an author boasting of simply changing a character’s name, because there weren’t enough women in the novel they were working on.”

    This sounds like the meme I saw a week or so back by Genaa Davidson (I think). –sigh- I called it utter balderdash and suggested that the writer focus on telling a good story instead. By the response I got, these people really are more interested in the message. One was along the line of “do both”, another was “most ‘good’ stories are male centric”. –face palm- Trying to explain to these people that a man cannot serve to masters. Either the craft is your master, in which case the message takes second place, or Diversity/Message/PC Agenda of the day is your master, in which case you’re working the story around the message. I doubt very seriously that they got it.

    “If you can alter a character’s innate personhood simply by changing their name, you’re not writing very well. “

    That’s not a female character; that is a male with breasts. _snort_ The sexes really aren’t that interchange able. If I need a guardian for a werewolf pack, and my model is the off-spring of Fenris, then I am going with a male. (yeah, I probably could have used a female, but female wolves are smaller, finer boned – a rouge might not back down to her, but a muscular, heavy jawed, male that stands as tall as a Great Dane would give any sane were a few seconds pause.)

    Sorry if I ran on too long, you hit an annoyance button. (and I am in a bit of a mood.) I’m actually agreeing with in, in case that isn’t too clear.

    1. I got it 🙂 And yes, I completely agree. If you’re writing an effeminate male, that’s fine. But you can’t just change a name and slack off on the character development.

  2. On the subject of heroes I’m often reminded of a scene near the end of movie “The Man in the Iron Mask” (the one staring that de cappuccino guy).

    Big fight is over, D’artagnan’s 2nd in command (of the palace guards) is berating the soon to be deposed evil king. He’s pointing at D’artagnan’s dying form and his line, “All my life, all I ever wanted to be, was him.”

    That’s what I look for in my heroes, not perfection, but something to aspire to. Not me as I am, but me as I would hope to be.

    And being that’s what I want to read, that’s what I try to write.

  3. Small quibble. Heroes don’t always make the right choices. Sometimes, they become heroes while facing the consequences of poor choices. I know you mentioned redemption earlier in the post, and I agree with that, but that’s not precisely what I’m talking about.

    For example, take the teenaged single mom who does everything she can to take care of her child. She finishes school, gets a job, moves in with family, whatever it takes to make sure her child is provided for. As parents, we both know this isn’t a matter of choice; it’s a part of who we are. I was a single dad for years raising my kids; at times, I was frustrated, exhausted, and ready to give it up. But that was never an option; the kids needed me. Technically, I had a choice; it was just that one of the options was unthinkable. (BTW, I was describing my daughters above. I’m very proud of how they handled their situations and now I’m a happily doting Papaw.)

    There’s something inherent in the heart of a hero that goes beyond choice. It’s an integrity of the soul.

    I don’t think it can be learned, but it can be inspired. If you have the spark within, it can be fanned to a flame by the example of others, but if it isn’t there, it never will be.

    In some respects, this could devalue the notion of heroism. If it’s not something that can be learned, if it isn’t a result of conscious choices, then possessing courage can be seen as mere luck of the draw. I was given courage by my Maker (or my genetics, depending on your framework.) It doesn’t reflect anything back on me. The counter argument is clear; heroism, like any other talent or gift, by itself is meaningless. It’s what you do with it that counts.

    Which brings us back to choice, doesn’t it?

    Anyway, a thought provoking article. Thanks!

    1. And thank you for your thoughts. Anything I write can always be amplified and improved on. I was just trying to express why I want to read about heroes – and write them.

  4. I’m reminded of Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy series. Lovejoy is really not a good person. He’s willing to lie, swindle, steal and kill to get what he wants. He’s a cad and a philanderer. At the beginning of the first book he slugs his girlfriend because she interrupts him on the phone. But he also lives by a strict code of his own and is extremely loyal to his friends. He’s deeply flawed, but he’s also very likable. He’s Mike Hammer with an antiques fetish instead of a PI license.

  5. Hmmm. Related to Sarah’s Human Wave concept in a way. This is complicated, and I’m half asleep, but I’ll try to make sense.

    Why does the hero have to win? Because the story doesn’t make sense otherwise, except in certain genres. In Horror the monster can win, I’ve written Horror like that, and sold it. But in 99.9% of stories the hero has to win. They can end up beaten black and blue, but be able to sit back, take a deep breath, and feel satisfaction in s job well done.

    At the same time, is the hero really a hero? I’d reference Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op for an example of a non-heroic hero.

    Again, a lot is going to depend on genre. Most Science Fiction and Fantasy that I’ve read has a strong central character. The plot is driven by that central character’s actions, and reactions to the secondary characters. The character may start out weak like Harry Potter, but over the course of the book or series develops into someone you’d want to be.

    Or at least can relate to. Because that the whole point of the hero. Can we relate to him or her, and would we like to be him or her?

Comments are closed.