Why Are Our Heroes Getting Darker?
I know this is a terrible request in my first article, but I am going to ask you to close your eyes. Go ahead! After putting in a few hours of hard reading here at Fantasy-Faction, I think you’ve earned it.
Now, picture a hero. A generic, off-label, all purpose hero. Flesh out the details: gender, age, hair color, clothes, weapons, and mission. Close your eyes and picture the first heroic figure that comes to mind.
Don’t over think it, and don’t worry – I’ll wait.
Back with me? Good!
If you are up to the challenge, post a description of your heroic icon in the comments below. And remember- this is Science™, so be honest about what you pictured!
Now, in an attempt to lead by example, I offer you the following.
As a budding writer, it is a bit embarrassing to admit that my template for a hero is a blend of Arthurian archetypes and Western ideals. But if you are anything like me, chances are your hero had at least a few of the following qualities:
– shiny armor
– white clothes
– blonde hair
– a blinding smile
– piercing eyes
– a shiny weapon
– a mission of justice
– a penis
(As an aside, it’s nice to know that, in spite of 20+ years of education, marketing and mass media is still so effective at programming my brain for me.)
Would I bother to read (or write) about Mr. Blonde McPaladinpants?
My answer is a resounding “heck no!” And judging by bestseller lists in the fantasy genre, I’m not alone. Squeaky clean, pink cheeked, maiden-saving do-gooders are just, well, predictable. We know their story because we’ve heard it every day of our lives. They live by a code that is unrealistic, they carry out tasks that are altruistic, they succeed with nigh comedic regularity, and they are almost always rewarded in spite of their insistence that they thrive on little more than righteousness and sunshine.
It seems that there are four main problems with this heroic archetype:
1. They have an extremely naive code and worldview, which makes it hard to respect them.
2. They act with no ulterior motives or expectation of reward, which makes the entire story unrealistic.
3. They succeed in spite of everything, including themselves, which makes it hard to relate to their experience.
4. They are about as diverse as the cast of the Brady Bunch, which makes it hard for most of us to imagine ourselves in their shoes.
It’s true. We live in a grossly unheroic world. Most people over the age of ten can tell you that believing something is true does not make it so, and most people over the age of fifteen know that when someone offers you a hand, you’d better be prepared to give them a bit of cash or help them move a couch.
Traditional heroes don’t line up with our world on a good day. And this mismatch is all the more insulting for those of us following the fantasy genre. Who among us has not thought about Aragorn’s coronation and let off a bitter laugh as we try to reverse an atomic wedgie?
We’re dorks. We get picked on, knocked down, tongue-tied, and most of the time, defeated. We do our own awkward battle in a world where cute boys stare past us and pretty girls forget we exist, which makes marrying them at the end of the story kind of difficult. We come in every color and shape, and according to society’s rather narrow standards, most of them aren’t ideal. We do the right thing and help one another, and get laughed at for it.
No, the problem with the classical heroes isn’t the heroes- it’s the stories they live in. The truth is we grew up with these do-gooders as our idols, and we try to live up to their ideals every day. But we know how their stories actually play out, and reading about their happy endings insults our intelligence and serves as an ugly reminder: We’re probably never going to come out looking that good.
We want the truth instead. The more we see the bad in the world, the more we need heroes who experience similar troubles and survive them. Forget triumphing over their challenges, or even meeting them – we just want someone who makes it to the next act without becoming a complete monster.
Over time, we’ve come to demand realistic change in our heroes. When tragedy strikes, the protagonist has to be altered by it. Their actions, motivations, and even worldview are put on the line – and that is what we hunger for – because every day that we live in our own chaotic world, our worldview is challenged.
We need heroes we can look up to and learn from. We can’t respect a hero enough to admire them, though, if we are savvier and less naive than they are. So we seek out heroic figures that are jaded, weary, and watchful. At times, their doubt in the world is well founded, offering us a cautionary tale. Other times, their mistrust is countered with a reminder that there is still good in people and in the world – a reminder that we desperately need in our own lives.
We need a hero whose motivations are in flux, because our own intentions are constantly changing. It is not enough to see a hero claim they simply want to do good. Even if their intentions are admirable, we must fully understand them to trust their actions and believe in their fight. Flaws, such as selfishness, greed, or revenge tinge their mission with reality, and remind us of our own mixed motivations. These flaws also serve as a path to redemption or enlightenment for some heroes, reminding us that we have a choice to make in how our intentions shape our actions.
We need heroes to reflect our experiences. Success is never guaranteed in our world, and it should not be guaranteed in theirs. Stories that offer cycles of triumph and failure seem much more realistic, and speak to our own personal victories and defeats. When we are not certain that a hero with prevail over the odds set against them, or even their own flaws, we celebrate each step forward as a mirror to our own. When they lose, we grieve just as deeply, and take this as a change to reflect on our own losses.
We need heroes to reflect ourselves. As fantasy as a genre grows in popularity, the audience expands in terms of diversity. Gone are the days when an Anglo-Saxon man is sufficient in all roles. We want to see heroes which carry a part of us – some women, some men, some black, some Chinese, some 15, and some 65. Books and movies which explore these new fantasy heroes take risks, of course, but we seek them because there is a piece of us in even our most basic descriptors. Furthermore, the impact which these features – age, race, religion – have on a character help to explain our own histories.
We ask for these new, more realistic heroes, darker in attitude, surroundings, and world. We want them because we seek a cipher for ourselves and our lives. Being able to relate to their appearance, worldview, intentions and experiences is key to trusting them with our personal and intellectual growth.
In the end, the heart of a hero has not changed much, though. Regardless of their world-weary attitude, their mixed intentions, their string of losses and their increasingly diverse exterior, the soul of a hero still sits in their basic act of doing good in a bad world. They are changing, yes, but I believe this change is simply maturing.
The wonderful thing is, as we watch them mature, the genre matures with them. It’s not enough for fantasy to be escapist anymore – we seek reflection, introspection, and understanding about ourselves and the world around us in our fantasy literature. Having darker, more complete heroes as guides offers a gateway to this enlightenment.