Revisiting the Fantasy Hero
I confess: I see heroes everywhere. Maybe that’s one reason why I enjoy writing fantasy so much. I think we all have a little bit of latent hero in us, and I think we’re all the protagonists of our own stories.
But when it comes to reading about heroes, no one wants to read about the kind of stuff we all post on Facebook and Twitter. We want to read about guys who kick butt and take names, right?
Or, do we?
What really makes a hero, and more specifically, what makes a hero in fantasy? We could go back to Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey, and while I think that can be useful, it’s a discussion that looks backward at the hero. What I mean by that, is that the hero’s journey is great for literary criticism, but what about starting from scratch—building a hero from the ground up in your writing?
I think a compelling hero needs to have the following:
1. A Cause to Fight For: It can be a love interest or family member. It can be his home. It can even be something nefarious—a treasure that he wants to steal, for instance.
2. A Reason to Fight: Something has to make the hero step out of his comfort zone and fight for his cause. Luke Skywalker would have stayed on his little desert planet forever if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been murdered. Harry Potter would have left Hogwarts with the title of ‘Most Hated by Snape’ if Voldemort hadn’t chosen him.
3. The Means to Fight: It doesn’t have to be sheer brawn or pure magic. Tavi, the hero of Furies of Calderon, uses his wits more than his weapons, and he has no magic. In a non-fantasy example, the hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful Rear Window, fights with only a camera and a flash.
4. The Guts to Fight Back: It’s okay for a hero to be reactionary at first—for the catalyst event to get him moving—but I think for a hero to be truly compelling, he has to start being proactive at some point. In a sweeping epic fantasy, I don’t think that proactive side has to show up immediately—it’s okay for him to be more reactionary at first. But at some point, he needs to start demonstrating enough confidence that we will follow him and not throw the book at the wall.
5. A Modicum of Humility: The best heroes are the ones who can occasionally step back and say, “Well, that didn’t work,” or “I was an idiot.” It doesn’t have to be a lot, but the hero characters who stride through a story without ever stopping to readjust their methods quickly end up looking arrogant, foolish, or just plain ridiculous. I don’t think they need much humility, but I’m a lot more willing to trust a hero who can admit he’s not perfect. Even Han Solo admitted his faults, and he still came across as arrogant, rakish—and ultimately, heroic.
I do not think that a hero is necessarily the same as a protagonist. They often are the same, but my classic example is Macbeth. The protagonist is a horrible, evil man—a true villain. The hero of the play is Macduff, the antagonist.
I also don’t think the hero has to be the squeaky clean good guy. He just has to be the most sympathetic guy in the story, or the guy who’s better than the rest of the candidates.
And one more note: I’ll be using “he” when I talk about heroes for one main reason—I think heroes and heroines are different. I’m developing that theory a little more, and I’ll come back to it later. I think we look for different things in our heroines, so I want to talk about them separately.
FYI, the rough schedule for this column will involve a topical or thematic post such as this one every two weeks. On the off weeks, I’ll look at more structural and craft topics. Next week, I’ll be discussing fragmented sentences and the whys, whens, and hows of using them. In two weeks, I’ll look at what I call the Hero Spectrum—everything from the Knight in Shining Armor to the Antihero—and how fantasy heroes fit into my spectrum.
See you next week!