Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes
 

Seven Blades in Black

Review

 
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver – Series Review
 

Chronicles of Ancient Darkness

Series Review

 
A Fantasy Geek’s Guide to YouTube: Vampires
 

A Fantasy Geek’s Guide to YouTube

Vampires

 

Hero Spectrum: Beyond the White Hat

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the ingredients for a hero, and I think it’s cool that someone asked about how not-so-clean-cut heroes fit into my list of ingredients. This is where what I call the Hero Spectrum comes in.

I don’t think hero characters are as simply defined as either “heroes” or “antiheroes.” All characters are based on some level of human characteristics, and no human I know fits neatly into any category.

And I also don’t think that the hero of a story is necessarily the same as the protagonist of a story. We tend to use those terms interchangeably, but it’s not precisely accurate, in my opinion. For instance, in A Game of Thrones, how many of you thought Ned Stark was the protagonist? Go on, don’t be shy. I did, too. But it’s kind of hard to think of him as a protagonist when he went and got himself into irreversible hot water. And what about Daenerys? Her behavior is certainly heroic in places, as is Jon Snow’s, but would you have considered them protagonists? Not really. And then if you keep reading through book three, A Storm of Swords, you start to think that maybe Tyrion Lannister has a little bit of the hero in him after all. And maybe—the seven forbid!—even Jaime has a little hero in him.

In truth, it’s hard to pin down the protagonist of any of the books in A Song of Ice and Fire. They are all protagonists of their own stories, but there’s no overarching protagonist in the series (unless you consider that Westeros is the protagonist, which is a possibility). However, there are many hero types, and I think that series really illustrates well how a Hero Spectrum can play out. With that in mind, here’s my rough outline of a hero spectrum.

The White Hat Hero

The guy can do no wrong. He’s pretty dang close to perfect—morally, spiritually, physically. He wins every battle. Women swoon over him. He’s adored by the masses. He’s also boring as a stump. Oh sure, it’s entertaining to watch his antics for a while, but when the hero is perfect, there’s no room for him to change and grow. I prefer my characters to change and grow.

My best candidate for this category: Richard Cypher/Rahl.

The Obedient Hero

This hero does what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. Noble to the very core, he may not be the best fighter or the most confident guy, but he operates from a center of strict adherence to a code of right and wrong. The code may be wrong, but he obeys it. The failing of this guy is that he often ends up a pawn of destiny or fate or other bad guys.

A good candidate: Ned Stark, whose belief that everyone else was as noble as he, ended up being his…ahem…fatal flaw.

The Accidental Hero

This guy can’t avoid being a hero. He tries, but no matter what, he falls into heroic behavior on a regular basis. He’s probably an average sort—maybe even the farm boy or noble blacksmith—and he can’t help but be thrown into ridiculous situations where he has to do heroic things to save other people—or occasionally, the whole world. Not to be confused with the Reluctant Hero, the Accidental Hero is usually willing to help—no one has to talk him into it—because he’s a nice guy. He doesn’t demand pay or anything in return.

My first thought is Durnik from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean series. I loved Durnik. He was just a nice guy. Not perfect—just a decent fellow who ended up all over the world with a bunch of sorcerers.

The Pragmatic Hero

The pragmatist does what’s best, not necessarily what’s right. He might be the survivor. He’s willing to take a few others along with him, but only if they hop on board when he’s leaving. I think some of our favorite “look out for number one” heroes fall into this category. Not quite reluctant heroes, they are more than willing to jump into the fray. They may just have unorthodox methods and/or less than noble motives.

Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Kylar Stern (okay, I ALMOST finished the first book, so I could be wrong about him, but I tend to think of him as a survivor, which would be a pragmatist to an extent) would fall into this category. They’re usually the crafty guys, too.

The Reluctant Hero

Now we’re getting somewhere. These are my favorites. The Han Solos of literature, these guys want to know what’s in it for them before they take the hero gig. Money? One of their favorite motives. Sex? Sure, that can be nice, especially if it comes with money. Glory? Eh, maybe—if the job is a sure thing. No sense risking their necks for glory if there’s a chance they’ll lose. These guys are hard-headed and strong-willed, and they often buck against fate and destiny as well as duty and nobility. Similar to the Pragmatic Hero, they look out for number one, but not so much from a survivor or outcast perspective—more from a proactive viewpoint. They LIKE being rogues. They revel in it. The whole hero gig just messes with their image.

The Antihero

No discussion of heroes would be complete without a mention of the antihero. I read somewhere there are no true antiheroes in literature—only heroes who need a bath. I tend to agree. I think the truest antiheroes are the Macbeths of literature—the villain protagonists. I’m not sure I can think of a real antihero. Every time I come close, I think of some redeeming quality that could turn an antihero into some other type of less-than-perfect hero. Let’s face it—even Macbeth was brave. But I think what we tend to do is use this category as a catch-all for the heroes who don’t fit into other places. Even the thieves, liars, rapists, adulterers, and other assorted bad guys can be redeemed, and they can still be heroes if they’re the most sympathetic guys on stage.

– – –

I think within the Hero Spectrum there is a lot of room for overlap, too. A Pragmatic Hero can easily turn Reluctant. A Reluctant Hero can turn Obedient once he’s seen the light. Han Solo started out pretty reluctant, but in the end, he saw the light and came to the rescue and turned somewhat obedient. That’s character growth.

My Hero Spectrum is a work in progress, so tell me—did I miss some? Do you agree or disagree about antiheroes? What are some of your favorite examples in these categories?

Share

16 Comments

  1. Amy: See, now you’ve gone and left me a challenge. My upcoming project was going to be about an Anti-hero character that I love to write about. And now you’ve challenged me to show just how anti-hero he can be.

    I’m gonna enjoy this. 🙂

    Great article btw, loved it. 🙂

    • If you can create a true antihero that I don’t want to see die a fiery death, I will bow to the master. 🙂

      I think that’s the difference between an antihero and a villain protagonist, perhaps. We know Macbeth has to lose for balance to be restored to the world, and Macduff is a hero antagonist who has to do it. Macduff is the one we root for (well, unless we’re psychopaths). The brilliance of that play is that even though we know Macbeth has to lose, we sympathize with him. So maybe we sympathize and care for an antihero enough that we want to see him win and/or come back for another story, and a villain protagonist has to lose.

      I look forward to seeing how you develop your antihero! 🙂

      Amy

      • Here’s a taste for you, a mock pitch I did for it, though I want to finish my WIP before I move on to this:

        Sticking to the shadows and hunting my prey, I was a creature of the night. An assassin and one of the best in the business. But that was before my last target, a wizard, caught me and caged me like an animal. Before the experiments, and before the accident.

        Now I am hunted like a dog. Tracked by my own kind that are hired by the filthy wizards that created me. They don’t dare come after me themselves. Their magic comes to me like steel to a lodestone, siphoned away as they try to cast their spells. The energy crawls through my veins like millions of spiders, always itching to be released.

        But their efforts to capture me backfire time and again, and now they have a bigger problem. Driven by my own thirst for revenge, I turn hunter once again, endlessly searching for the one man that started it all. I would give my last breath if I could see his face as I plunge my dagger into his heart.

        My name is Taraxle Zaurette, and this is my story.

        • This is a brilliant premise and I would love to read about this guy, but I’m already not sure he’s a true antihero. You’ve left open the potential for remorse. If he feels remorse at all, then is he a true antihero? I already sympathize with him, so that’s not the problem. And I’ll grant you he doesn’t sound like someone I’d want to have dinner with. And yeah, the bath he needs is probably a very long one with a lot of scrubbing and soap involved…

          But is he a true antihero? I don’t know. I’d have to read more.

          I’m not entirely sure what we mean when we say “antihero,” the more I think about it. The line between an antihero and a villain protagonist seem rather blurry. I think I have to play with this idea more.

          And this could be just me, but I think everyone is redeemable to some degree. Even the one really evil baddie in my own novels is starting to show signs that he doesn’t like what he’s doing, and I’m almost struggling to keep him evil and villainous.

          Maybe it goes to motive? I don’t see your character’s motives as evil. Would a true antihero have evil/bad motives? Or no? I don’t know.

          Much more thinking to do on this topic…

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Joe Abercrombie writes some pretty unheroic characters. I think Abercrombie is as close as you can get to a true antihero, seeing as some of the reviews I read note that the reviewer didn’t enjoy the novel because they couldn’t feel even an ounce of empathy towards any of the characters (specifically with regards to Best Served Cold). Monza Murcatto? Black Dow? Logen Ninefingers? Glokta? These guys need more than a bath, I think.
    Another interesting article, Amy!

    I would disagree about Han Solo becoming somewhat of an obedient hero by the end. Why did he bother coming back? If I remember correctly, Han got the money already but I think Luke or someone else basically called him a coward. Wasn’t it someone tickling his pride that made him come back? Star Wars experts come out and settle this!

    • I sort of think the hero spectrum goes in a big sweeping arc from White Hat to Evil. I suppose that all along the way, there’s a point for everyone where they stop caring, and maybe that’s a subjective thing for readers? I don’t know. I’ll go pretty far giving heroes a chance and try to find reasons to like them–like I said, even Macbeth was brave–but not everyone will go that far. Maybe that’s more of a subjective element on the part of the reader? I definitely don’t have this all worked out, and the Fantasy Faction audience is my big cage of guinea pigs. 🙂

      Re: Han… It’s been so long since I watched the movie that I’m totally going by memory, so I could be wrong. It could have been pride, it could have been guilt, it could have been the love of a woman, but yeah, I think he already got the money. There was no real reason for him to come back except what was internal. I’m not sure we ever get to know everything that was going on in Han’s head–he says something about “I couldn’t let you take all the glory” to Luke, but was that honest? Or was it just Han blustering because deep down, he had some other motivation? Complicated guy, that Han…

  3. Interesting article. I think there are two major types of anti-hero. The ones who are the opposite of heroic -they’re cowardly and self-interested. Vance’s Cugel the Clever, or George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman might be good examples. These are perhaps the true anti-heroes and are more common than the 2nd type because they are easier to identify with and therefore easier to write. The second type is the ‘bad man’, these anti-heroes will fight, they can be brave, they can do the things heroes do and sometimes will, but they’re evil. Now what makes them anti-heroes rather than villains may be simply the absence of a hero – if a book focuses on the villain & there is no hero, the villain becomes an anti-hero. The difficulty for the writer is making you want to read about someone you’ve no reason to like…

    • Interesting, Mark–the absence of a hero creates an antihero. Hmm…

      I agree that the writer has to make the reader want to keep reading. That’s the real problem with delving into the world of the antihero.

      I keep thinking of Jaime Lannister when I write about antiheroes… He started out as a villain with a few heroic qualities, but he’s sort of growing into a hero. But would he have become a hero if Ned Stark were still alive?

      I think I need to ruminate on this some more. Maybe antiheroes need a post all their own.

  4. Avatar Khaldun says:

    I love it when you’ve got characters who are a bit of both. Take the main character from the TV show Rescue Me. He is a firefighter, so by the very nature of the job we have to give him some credit for performing heroic acts. Sometimes they are stupidly heroic, but often heroic nonetheless. However, he is also a drinker, a cheater, and a thousand other things that people often find deplorable. Same with someone like McNulty from The Wire. Anti-heroes at their very best.

    • …Or Dexter — a serial killer who only kills bad guys. Is he good or bad?

      But you touch on that one aspect that makes a hero an antihero, right? That there’s some redeeming quality in there somewhere–even if it’s just stupid heroic acts that are part of the job.

      So then the question becomes… How evil does one have to be to be a true villain? And how many decent things does a person have to do to be considered, on any level, a hero? Like Littlefinger–it’s hard to say that anything he’s ever done is heroic, because everything has an ulterior motive with him. And yet…. He certainly did Westeros a great service by shoving Lysa off a mountain… So is he an antihero? Or a villain? Or will time only tell?

      Tricky questions…

  5. I’d like to challenge the paradigm that presents characters as heroes (or villains) of any sort. I think it’s far more effective to simply look at (or create) characters as having goals. Especially if you look at the writings of GRRM, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks and their contemporaries, we see that the definition of “hero” has been not only completely stretched and redefined, but destroyed. Labeling characters as types of heroes doesn’t work anymore.

    The aforementioned writers have simply done just that, created characters who have goals who then interact with other characters which creates the conflict(s) which drives the story forward. Greater differences in goals produce different conflicts by magnitude and type. And this is exactly why the writers mentioned are popular.

    • Paul, yes, I agree with you in the sense that those writers create brilliant characters who simply have goals that interact with other characters. And I like your challenge–I think it has merit. I myself hate being labeled… And yet…

      It can be useful to categorize or label people (characters) for clarity and discussion purposes. Take me, for example–I hate saying I’m “conservative” because there’s huge baggage associated with that word, I don’t always agree with other “conservatives,” and not all of my opinions fall into “conservative” dogma. But when I’m discussing politics, for the sake of brevity and ease, I’ll tell people I’m conservative.

      Categorizing characters as heroes or villains is not clean cut, that’s true. And even splitting them up into subcategories or spectrums isn’t ideal or perfect. But I think it can be useful, especially for writers, because it helps us think about HOW the characters we create are going to interact with other characters. Then we don’t look like we’re pulling stuff out of our butts or making our characters act inconsistently.

      I hope that makes sense… 🙂 Thanks for your comment–good stuff!

  6. Great discussion and very thought provoking. Labelling characters for clarity can help aspiring writers see the aim and the reasoning behind the individual categories. Any way to help mould characters and avoid obvious pitfalls along the path to becoming published and/or a successful writer is terrific.
    This discussion leaves ideas brimming and characters bucking their labels!

  7. […] was pleased to see so much discussion around my posts about heroes and the hero spectrum. After quite a bit more thought and research, I put together one more post focusing on the […]

  8. […] week: My thoughts on the hero spectrum. In two weeks: Comma splices and the run-on sentence. VN:F [1.9.16_1159]please wait…Rating: […]

  9. […] spent several weeks talking about heroes, antiheroes, and villains, and how to define them, so I think it’s time to apply the knowledge a little. But […]

Leave a Comment