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The Humanised Hero

If someone were to tell you that you are going to be a hero one day, that you alone must save the world, what would you do? Would you run in the other direction and scream at the top of your lungs that you don’t care, and that the world can suffer because you have your own shit to deal with? Or, would you be a martyr and accept the fate that destiny has so kindly written for you? It is a difficult question and one that you will probably/hopefully never have to answer. In the fantasy world though, it’s one that is answered every single day.

The hero within fantasy is becoming harder and harder to define. The lines between black and white are blurring. Today, we cheer for assassins and boo those, that millennia ago would have been deemed worthy of our cheers and attention. For example, both Achilles and Beowulf, whose battle prowess’s were renowned across the known world, sought only fame. The stories of their “heroic” deeds are told even today, but in reality when we really look at them we see two men whose quest for fame was more important to them than saving the lives of others. Is this a true hero? Is a hero marked only by his ability to fight regardless of his morals and personal quest? Or is a hero something a little more?

In older Fantasy novels, we tend to have heroes who are little short of perfect. They have a balanced set of morals, they learn quickly, their own flaws are virtually non-existent, and when they do have flaws, they are dealt with swiftly. These heroes are the true definition of the word. Hero is defined as, “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.”* In other words, annoying. A perfect example of this would be Eragon from Christopher Poalini’s Inheritance Cycle. He is too perfect, a quick learner, who circumstance would have it, is in the right place at the right time. This is flawed in itself but, suddenly out of nowhere he has been gifted with magic, a dragon, oh and guess what? He has an evil half brother.

Today we are moving away from this definition. As readers, (as the new trends in fantasy fiction dictate) we prefer to have our heroes torn apart at the seams with their inner turmoil and grief from a back-story that will be revealed slowly throughout the tale. Have them make mistakes so that we can shout at them, “No, no, no, no, no!” Have them question their own motives and find something within themselves that makes them want to fight in the end, even if it’s not saving the world, but rather themselves, or to claim redemption. “True” heroes have nothing to fight for, other than the idea of being a hero and wanting fame.

The redemption tale is one that all fantasy fans are familiar with. From Aragornto High Lord Akkarin to Ry Sabir and back to even Edmund Pevensie, it’s always been there. These are the characters we are subconsciously rooting for. We want them to succeed. We have seen them at their darkest hour, and can relate to our own personal tales of deliverance. But redemption tales, in fantasy, at times supersede something much darker. This is where the Anti-Hero comes out to play.

An Anti-Hero is a character that uses questionable means to gain the same results that a hero would. Anti-Heroes, like R. A. Salvatore’s Jarlaxle, make us question the role of a hero possibly more than any other kind of protagonist. For example, if Jarlaxle’s counterpart, Drizzt Do’Urden used the same manipulative techniques that Jarlaxle did and caused the same level of chaos we would question his heroism. Likewise if Jarlaxle killed someone in the same way that Drizzt kills his enemies. Jarlaxle would be classed as undeniably evil.

The reason that heroes have become more flawed is to make them more human, more relatable. We don’t want heroes that we can’t see ourselves being one day. The quest of humanity has always been to better ourselves, and in fiction, fantasy or not, this is the same. We’re flawed creatures, lazy, obnoxious, arrogant and if put in the role of a hero we will always rely on the “flight or fight” instinct. Modern fantasy authors have picked up on this, and perhaps drawing from their own experiences they realise that the modern hero, has to reflect the modern man.

*Quotation is directly from on 10.2.11 @ 14.15 pm



  1. Avatar Frankiehunter says:

    Very nice article!
    For me, its also easier to identify with someone who is not just the good guy.
    It’s more interesting when the main character suffers from his decisons than accepts every condition.

  2. Avatar Matt F says:

    Very well written. Good arguments. Could have explained them more though. Looking forward to the next one!

    P.S. It’s AraGORN

    • Avatar Pearl says:

      No, she was referring to Eragon from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, not Aragorn from J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

  3. Avatar Minesril says:

    Good article. Not sure that Achilles is really ‘the’ hero of the Iliad – I would give that role to Hektor, who has all the characteristics which we relate to the hero of traditional fantasy.

    • Avatar EmmaHays says:

      I absolutely agree with you about Hector being the hero of The Illiad, it’s just that by defenition of an Ancient Hero , Achilles is one. He was born a hero by been a demi-God and been a good warrior, if not a great warrior. So yeah, he’s a hero by default.

  4. Avatar Tracy Falbe says:

    I agree with your point that the modern hero has become more sophisticated in his or her feelings and flaws. This lets readers relate to the hero better and imagine overcoming our own flaws when put to the test. I would like to add that heroes have become less shiny, good, white hat characters because most people find it impossible to believe in such things these days. Everyone seems corruptible. Everyone has their price. Everyone has to make compromises against their principles just to get through a day in this cruel world. Also, if you pay attention to the news, it’s obvious that evil has way more influence and control over the world than people with goodness in their hearts. This reality adds to the appeal of the dark anti hero, someone who has done bad things but may eventually start to fight the good fight for personal redemption.

  5. Avatar Paul Skelding says:

    I think the article is ok but a bit thin. It could have been more substantial and included some examples of heroes that traditional fantasy wouldn’t have embraced. Off the top of my head the torturer Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is a prime example of someone who I was rooting for in the book because Joe plotted and wrote the character very well. He was still human and simply had a different means to accomplish his goals.

    I’m glad that fantasy has evolved to embrace flawed heroes and anti-heroes. They are a more accurate reflection of ourselves as people having both flaws and advantages.

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      We have a few articles coming up that will follow on from this one and look more indepth at other elements that make up a hero so keep an eye out for that 🙂 I think it’s a good debut article from Emma 🙂

    • Avatar Khaldun says:

      Enjoyed the article 🙂
      I also enjoyed Inquisitor Glokta from Abercrombie’s novel (along with most of his other characters). I’m starting to only be able to enjoy characters who are not black and white. I need them grey.

      Characters who are full of contradictions are always interesting as long as those contradictions make sense. Shepherd Book from Firefly is one example and is a character I can only wish I’d been able to get to know better in future seasons.

  6. Avatar Walt says:

    I tend to get bored reading about a character that always takes the moral high ground. I think it leads to predictability, in a sense that you can count on the hero doing the “right thing” regardless of the situation. Even those perceived as perfect have a sick and twisted thought go through their mind from time to time. From a readers standpoint, I want to know what that sick and twisted thought is and see the character grow around those thoughts.

  7. Avatar cairi says:

    Call me out of step, I guess, but I’m not crazy about the new trend that says all heroes have to be dark, a reflection of modern man, etc. I don’t mind a flawed hero–indeed, at least a few flaws are necessary for depth–but I still want my hero to have, at heart, a fairly strong moral compass even if h/she flounders a little in following it. For me, anti-heroes are often *too* realistic, and I end up rolling my eyes at the idea that someone who’s so very self-serving would ever do anything worthy. And the more I see people in the real world fail to follow the high road (or the medium-high road or even stay between the ditches on the low road), the less I want to see heroes in fantasy (or any genre I read) do the same. I want my fantasy to remove me from the ugly realities of this life and transport me to a place, however unrealistic, that allows me to actually trust the hero. I suppose that may mark me as an unsophisticated or undiscerning reader to some, but that’s what I personally look for when I read fiction.

  8. Avatar VictoriaH says:

    Great article! Looking forward to the next ones 🙂

    There’s an interesting tendency to side with the villain in a lot of science fiction and fantasy, perhaps because the villain is so ‘larger than life’ and the hero can sometimes be a bit wet. Weirdly, though, when a hero is too awesome and achieves everything too easily, this is instantly annoying (unless written by a VERY good author), but when a villain is too awesome and achieves everything easily, people think he/she is cool and often end up siding with them instead. I wonder why this is. Perhaps a bad person reflects what it means to be human better than a shining example of goodness, which is why so many readers and writers are leaning towards a good middle ground now. Or perhaps it’s because we don’t expect anything from the villain?

    Cairi, I like flawed heroes and heroes who feel like real people, but I’m also not sure I like the very dark anti-hero. I find it hard to side with someone who is too grim. The other kind of anti-hero is the arrogant and selfish (but oh so charming) rogue. These are easier to like, but I still think there’s a fine line. Tony Stark irritates me a little (sorry! I know he’s almost universally loved). Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movie was too cocky for me to stand. Han Solo is fine, I think because it is so obvious that he does really care a lot. Same for Mal from Firefly. It’s also interesting that anti-heroes almost always end up saving everyone and acting nobly in the end, becoming the hero, not anti-hero. This shift from anti-hero to hero seems to be a stereotypical and vital part of the anti-hero’s story. I think this works really well if handled right, if there is enough justification for the change. If not, I think it’s very jarring – the person appears to be acting out of character and the story can seem forced.

    The only real anti-heroes who stay anti that I can think of are some of George R R Martin’s characters, and Cugel the Clever in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. Cugel’s basically only out for himself, and he has no sudden changes that seem to come out of the blue. He’s also surprisingly not detestable, though some of the fun does actually come from seeing him suffer for being an ass. These characters can be fun for a change, but I wouldn’t want them to become the norm. I think I prefer my hero to have a bit more hero in him, even if he starts off as an anti.

    I wonder if all the flawed heroes and anti-heroes will produce a backlash soon, swinging back to the shining knight hero image? This might be interesting, but I hope we don’t ever lose the kinds of heroes who feel like real people, who have some flaws and are sometimes frightened, but who fight on anyway. Isn’t that more heroic than the person whose morality and bravery never falters, who has nothing to overcome?

  9. Avatar James says:

    The image used for this piece is very annoying. A very young male likely to appeal to teenage girls with perfectly symmetrical features.

    I’d rather see the likes of Abner Marsh in GRRM’s Fevre Dream – overweight, old, different and compelling.

  10. Avatar Shadowkat678 says:

    No lie. I squealed a bit at the Jarlaxle mention. Artemis and Jarlaxle are my favorites. I love Drizzt, but he’s no where near as entertaining or, yes, complex.

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