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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.

Three Notes:

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!

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15 Comments

  1. Khaldun says:

    I enjoyed this first article about the nature of heroes, and am eagerly awaiting the next one on the “Hero Spectrum.” Thanks (As a side note, Han Solo is awesome!)

  2. Thanks, Khaldun! You have my complete agreement on Han, BTW. He is pretty much the epitome of awesome. 🙂

  3. Autumn2May says:

    Very cool! 🙂 I like that you seperated the cause and the reason to fight. I never thought about that before. 🙂

    • Maybe a better way to say it would be a catalyst–something that spurs him to action. Like, you can believe in good all you want, and that can be your cause, but until the Big Bad Evil is knocking on your door, there’s no reason to necessarily do anything about it.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  5. I think that is a fine list but what about atypical heroes such as Ciaphas Cain from the eponymous Warhammer 40K series? He is a coward, liar, cheat and interested only in saving his own skin and only by dumb luck seems to have become a hero.

    While Ciaphas Cain may not true hero by your list, he is none the less a hero of the series. He is the most sympathetic character, he definitely isn’t squeaky clean and is a “he”. He saves the lives of men and ensures that the world doesn’t end, etc. Or is this type of character something you would classify as something else entirely?

    I will add that I am playing devil’s advocate and Ciaphas Cain, I think, was created intentionally to challenge the traditional definition of a hero. So perhaps by that token Ciaphas helps support your definition of a hero.

    • I think you’ll see where I’m going with this when I talk about the hero spectrum. I don’t think my list precludes that kind of hero–a messy hero or an antihero. I think he still can fit the list, because, as you said, he’s the most sympathetic character. He has something to fight for, even if it’s himself. And it’s okay for heroes to be liars, cheaters, etc. “Bad” character traits don’t necessarily preclude someone from acting heroically. In fact, I think some of the best heroes in literature, and especially in fantasy, are the messiest ones.

      I think there’s some confusion among writers and readers in that we tend to use the words “protagonist,” “main character,” and “hero” interchangably. Sometimes, the protagonist isn’t a hero. Sometimes, the main character isn’t the protagonist. And sometimes, the hero is neither.

      Anyway, my hero spectrum has plenty of room for Ciaphas Cain and other messy heroes. I’ll go into it more in two weeks. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment. I like devil’s advocates. 🙂

  6. Good to see another Joseph Campbell fan! And I agree with you that some of the best heroes are sometimes the messier ones. ; )

  7. Thanks, Ashley. I think that’s why I find it useful to put heroes on a spectrum, but even that isn’t perfect. I mean, you occasionally get a guy with latent heroic tendencies who is just misunderstood or a guy who does all kinds of heroic things, but we don’t really trust him. It’s an imperfect science, just like anything around creating humans should be… 🙂

  8. Tracy Falbe says:

    Excellent points about the circumstances necessary to forge a hero, at least in a narrative. I am especially intrigued by your point about male and female heroes. I look forward to your essay on that subject. I think often a creator just slaps some guns or swords in a female’s hand and makes her unreasonably able to beat up big men and calls her a heroine. This does not work very well for me. I like strong women of course, but violence is not the rootstock of female power and heroism.

    • Tracy, exactly. And I also think a heroine’s journey might be different given the nature of women to be a little more community-oriented, you know? But I have to refine my thoughts more before I publish them, because I want it to be good and intelligent and not rambling like this comment. 😉

      Thanks for the comment!

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