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Heroes vs Superheroes

Greetings, Faction readers!  If my writing seems muffled, it is because I write to you from beneath a pile of boxes, books, and clothing, as I frantically prepare for my pending immigration into Canada.
Today I would like to dig into subjects addressed in my colleague Tegan Beechey’s excellent article on the trend towards dark heroes in our favorite fantasy stories (If you haven’t read it, click here to do so!).  First I would like to mention that in the exercise proposed in her article (to imagine a heroic archetype) I found that I pictured something quite different from her Mr. Blondie McPaladinpants (if that name doesn’t make you laugh, you need help.)

DrizztMy formative years in fantasy literature were focused squarely on two heroes:  Drizzt Do’Urden (R.A. Salvatore, The Forgotten Realms) and Tanis Half-Elven (Weis/Hickman, Dragonlance.)  Both were deeply conflicted outcasts who were presented in very different ways.  Drizzt was a leading man, peerless warrior without equal, and he almost always bordered on comic-book superheroism.  Tanis was a competent warrior, natural leader, but only a key member of an ensemble.
For many years, Drizzt was my favorite of the two, simply because of the aforementioned superheroism.  I devoured each new book as it was released, only to find that my interest petered out as I entered my late twenties.  It seemed, as Tegan mentions in her article, that while I matured, Drizzt did not.  He overcame every new challenge with typical heroism, often in spectacular fashion.  Salvatore even started utilizing deus ex machina in situations when it seemed Drizzt was really in trouble.

I really started to get bored with the series.  I stopped at The Orc King and I am not likely to ever go back.  Even though in later books it seemed Salvatore was finally trying to allow the series to grow, it was too little, too late.  Drizzt was less believable as a heroic figure than I had originally thought.  Maybe someday I will give him another chance, but Arlen, Leesha, Gavin, Kylar, Haern, and the Riyria boys are much more interesting to me now.

It is Tanis I find myself wanting to go back and explore again, and who I think of when I picture my heroic archetype.  Tanis Half-Elven was (shockingly) a half-elf, and not accepted by either the elves or the humans.  As an outcast half-breed, he learned to trust his own inner strength, but the insecurity brought about by his upbringing filled him with torturous self-doubt.

TanisDespite these doubts, Tanis very often found himself in a leadership role in his own circle of friends, the Heroes of the Lance.  No matter the victories they gained, the defeats they suffered, Tanis was driven to forge ahead, battling his own demons (including his self-destructive love for both the ruthless human warrior Kitiara and the kind elf maiden Laurana) along the way.  When the heroes were in trouble, it was Tanis who would push them forward, settle disputes, and choose the next path, all while he questioned why the hell they trusted him in the first place.  He is a very tragic character, is to date the only book character whose death I have truly mourned.

Tanis represents a facet of what we look for in our heroes now:  determination.  It doesn’t always matter if our heroes succeed or not, only that they make the effort.  We aren’t looking for the superhero to save the day anymore.  We want the man or woman who will have the courage to make the tough decisions.  We love Arlen Bales because he fights, even if he loses.  He never quits.  He is self-destructive, but he is determined to make the world of Thesa better, even at the cost of his own soul.  Kylar Stern is a killer, but he makes the tough choices, despite the personal pain it might bring him.  They have demons, self-loathing, and courage.  Many of us have the first two, and we always hope we have the third, but we are rarely tested like our heroes.  Still, the courage we witness in these individuals can inspire us to challenge our jaded perceptions of the world in which we live.

As Tegan says, fantasy has matured as we have.  We’ve learned that there are no superheroes to save us.  Our parents, our leaders, our heroes are all mortal and flawed, just like we are.  Dark and conflicted heroes remind us that if the world is to be saved, we must be the ones to save it, no matter the cost to ourselves.  Small wonder I used to look for superheroes like Drizzt.

Thank you again, Faction readers.  When next we speak, I will be on the other side of the border!  Take care and have a great week!

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar thejohnsondesign says:

    ah, everyone has some sort of moral compass. fantasy and science fiction as genres put those out there for you; who good guys are and who the bad are and why. it’s almost impossible for you to hang out with a group of fantasy buffs and not hear a quote about “the force” and what’s dark or what’s light. but the term “good” just barely covers what i feel a true robust hero is. real people rationalize. real people let others down. real people look out for their own interests to an extent. real people feel real emotions. rage, hate, jealousy, insecurity, lust, the need for vengeance… the list goes on. in my later years, i consider a good character is one that can acknowledge those emotions, feel those emotions, make mistakes, and yet press on past them to do what needs to be done. someone that “smites” a villains for a living seems about as 3 dimensional as a fresh unfolded piece of paper. however, someone who decides another is utterly evil, stalks them, curses them, spits on them, uses every trick they can muster to meet out punishment is more of a force than a hero and earns my awe and respect accordingly.

    i feel as adults, the lines blur on what’s good and bad, and sometimes doing the right thing means basically shooting oneself in the foot, hurting others or asking for a fight one can’t win. those that can navigate those straits and still do what they believe to be right–they make us question ourselves to see if we can’t do the same. someone formidable that can breakdown prejudices and notions taken as law and still be humane in some facet is more of a hero in my book than the usual bright protagonist born into the role. someone that works for it and knows the cost earns my respect outright; even in a fictitious setting.

    currently, my favorite hero is none other than Sand Dan Glokta of the First Law Trilogy. no super powers, no genius abilities. just the right person for the task. he’s got a vast knowledge of human nature, and he’s suffered enough to be fearless. he almost feeds off his own self-loathing and apathy to do unspeakable things, but he gets results. his mirth is unequaled and while he’s full of gallows humor and a repetitively self-pitying inner monologue, he’s no one’s fool, highly factual and incredibly motivated.

  2. Avatar Terry says:

    Fantastic article. Do you think that the current evolution of characters is in part influenced by the world shifting towards science and logic in contrast to the ages of mysticism we blissfully accepted for so long. People no longer accept there are absolutes. The notion of an ultimate good that needs to be protected at all cost and against all odds no longer washes well. We have seen to much injustice, too much inequality and too much failure in man to digest without vomiting any suggestions of a fairy-tale. We have the information highway at our fingertips and it has become second nature to dissect our leaders, celebrities and figureheads. We do this with such precision that before stones are turned we already accept there will be flaws. Why wouldn’t they be just like us? The only question asked by Joe public is do we find the flaws to be acceptable? What some great current authors are doing is something S.R.

    • Avatar Jesse says:

      I do think it has a lot to do with the continuing scientific revolution. It’s like the day your parents tell you (SPOILERS!) that there is not really a Santa Claus. You start to wonder what else they haven’t been truthful about, and you learn to question further. We learn to empathize with heroes who question the status quo.

      We want to know why we were misled. Heroes who do this resonate profoundly with us as we go about our own adventures of school, work, family, and friends. Ultimately it is about what stories we will tell our own children. Will we simply repeat what was told to us (as was done for so long) will we tell new stories, or will we educate them sooner on the truth of the world?

  3. Avatar Terry says:

    2. Donaldson did with Thomas Covenant and that is to create characters you are desperate to like but making you constantly asking if they are acting in a necessary and defensible way. I love the fantasy literature of ages past but agree with the OP in my feeling that they haven’t evolved as we most certainly have.

  4. I think that’s why as I grow older, writers like David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett become more appealing to me: their flawed, mixed-up, mistake-making heroes are so much more satisfying than the superhero type. For instance, given all that he’d done in the first of the Song of Ice and Fire series, George RR Martin’s Jaime Lannister gained a little of my sympathy in the later books of the series because of the selfless things he did.

    I’d much rather have a real person than a superhero – they have so much more to lose.

  5. Avatar AE Marling says:

    How much is this a product of the times or our individual wisdom? I was the same way, loving Drizzit as a youth but growing board of him in adulthood. I feel that purer heroes, such as Harry Potter in the early book, are still desired by a younger audience, and perhaps a broader audience. Those with more experience in reading may be more drawn to characters of nuance.

    “The true heroes are the ones willing to make the tough choices.” I like that.

  6. Avatar Austin Cornwell says:

    Great article that I agree with wholeheartedly regarding Drizzt. I do wish that you had put a spoiler alert about Tanis dying! I was looking froward to reading it but have lost interest now that I know the eventual conclusion.

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