*stares at keyboard for a while*
Yeah, my definition is kind of over against the wall, given that I’ve lately started defining “hero” in negative terms and using “protagonist” or “main character” instead. So I have to try to praise something I don’t want to praise.
1) Show why the hero’s extraordinariness is something to be aspired to.
It occurs to me that an awful lot of fantasy heroes fail this very simple test. And no, I don’t mean that they’re fictional and the reader isn’t, nor that the reader might have a very hard time imitating the hero. I mean that, within the context of the fictional world, other characters would have a very hard time emulating this supposedly admirable and heroic figure.
Because so many fantasy heroes are special/extraordinary because of something they’re born with, and which other characters cannot possess by simple virtue of genetics. Yes, again.
*Limyaael disembowels genetic heroism with glee again, because the damn thing will not stay dead*
Your hero is a princess. She rules the country, and that’s why she’s a hero. Okay. How is the average peasant sidekick supposed to imitate her, even if he looks up to her? One could show him making similar efforts on a smaller scale, but unless the author specifically links those efforts to character traits—like good management sense—instead of birth, the reader may not note the parallels. She’s a princess, she’s special because of what she’s born with, hurrah. Except that not everyone in a fantasy world can be a princess. That’s implied by the very nature of the political system (and by authors’ priorities, too; they don’t want everybody to be princesses).
Your hero is a swordsman. He pulls out the Mystical Sword of Ty’ly’tyy’r—the sheer ugliness of that thing should be all the case I need to make against apostrophes in names, ever—because he is the secret long-lost scion of the Sword’s original carrier. Then he proceeds to win battles because of his sword. Even the greatest generals cannot match him, because their strategic and tactical skills mean nothing against his blade. And your point about inspiring other people to follow him was…? Quite often, heroes who possess a Mystical Object are nothing more than hollow shells. You could exchange them with any other character in the book and that character would fit the role of hero just as well.
Your hero is an earth mage. She has the ability to call on the earth to obey her command, because she comes from a long line of witches. Yep, it’s genetic magic again. Howdy, how are ya, genetic magic? And when her comrades learn to respect and follow her, it’s entirely because of a luck-of-the-draw magical talent that came to her from birth. Saying that someone is better than other characters because of genetic magic is undercutting your own story, because the other characters can hardly be blamed for not being born with that magic. You created them that way, after all.
Instead, show characteristics that protagonists possess, and that other humans can. Then, show how other characters emulate the heroic trait. Show how her cleverness inspires other people to start thinking their way out of situations where fighting would do no good. Show other people learning from him the art of clever speech to bedazzle and fool their enemies. Show how her courage turns the tide of battle. Show how his sheer willingness to face the consequences of his actions shames a lord who was running a complicated bluff into following him.
Those are heroes. They can be extraordinary, even in several dimensions, but if that extraordinariness is something they did not earn and can’t even choose whether to exercise—most times, the mage heroes have to use their talents—then I don’t think they’re heroes, sorry.
2) Make sure that your hero fulfills and transcends her paradigm.
So your heroine is a Christ figure. That’s great. And you’re going to tell the Christian story from a feminist point of view. That’s nice.
Oh, there is no “and.” That’s the whole thing right there.
I will now steal a quote from Tolkien: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations.” Or: Don’t trust an outside story or paradigm to do all the work for you. Show us what makes your character worthy of being followed, being read about, and being admired other than the fact that she’s walking around loaving-and-fishing everybody. Steal the shell of the story, place it on someone’s shoulders, and she can go through the entire business—Last Supper, betrayal, crucifixion, wounding, death, resurrection—and not matter. Why? Because the people reading this story will not be seeing your hero. They’ll be seeing Christ, overlaid on your hero.
There’s also the fact that I think a retelling has to do a lot more than change the gender of a character to be original, and the fact that a lot of your story’s resonance will fade if it encounters the “wrong” audience, such as someone from a different religion. But we’ll ignore that for a moment, and concentrate on the heroic aspect.
How does a hero transcend the paradigm, while still fulfilling it and remaining a hero? Any number of ways:
- Use parallel events, not the same things. I’d much rather read about an original spin on the crucifixion than someone being nailed to yet another cross.
- Play up different aspects of the paradigm. I was much more interested in the Christian story (not having been raised with it) when I learned the “Let this cup pass from my lips” part, and “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I empathize with doubt.
- Reach for varied emotions. I tend to cry at portrayals of someone dying and going to Heaven, and then I feel angry with myself for falling for it and angry with the writer for mashing my emotional buttons to get cheap tears. Try for joy, irritation, pride, glee, and other emotions that will show the human existing in the middle of the paradigm, only magnified.
- Try envisioning your hero outside the paradigm, and see if you can still see her. If you can’t, if the only thing that matters is the role she plays in the story and not her, herself, as a unique person, then I think you’ve got another case of Point 1 and the Mystical Object. Anyone could play the damn part. Now stop writing an allegory and start writing a damn story.
And Limyaael said, “Lo, let there be Point 3.”
3) Suffering by itself does not make someone a hero.
If it did, then the most common fantasy stories would not be about lost scions of noble lines questing for this, that, and the other object named after an element; they would be about the peasants, who most often lose not only family members but their livelihoods, their homes, their health, and their safety in the wake of the hero’s and the Dark Lord’s battle. You want suffering? There’s suffering. Any of the people who get tossed in as local color in most fantasy worlds knows more about personal pain than most heroes. And yet, authors don’t spend a lot of time following the trials and tribulations of peasants who become refugees, or stay in the same place and try to eke out a living, without some Wise Old Mentor sweeping them off. I wonder why.
So. Back to the point (or this shall turn into an anti-high fantasy rant, and I am trying very hard not to let it turn into that). A hero can be an abused child. She can be raped. He can lose his entire family in the slaughter of his village—why in the world that is such a popular beginning for a novel I will never know. She can grow up never knowing the terrible secret that her parents are keeping from her, all the while haunted by a ghost. It doesn’t matter. None of those things make someone a hero just by virtue of them being in the place where they happened. All the characters have to do is lie back and take it. And though it might win them the readers’ pity, it’s awfully hard to build heroism on a foundation of pity.
You know what to do with suffering?
Show someone surviving it.
Yes, I know that it’s hard to write a story of psychological healing; it’s not something that most experience writing fantasy trains us to do. (Though I have something to say about that, too. See point 4). But you can do it anyway. Or you can write a story about someone who, yes, has experienced suffering, but that is not the whole of her life; she’s gotten past it so well that she doesn’t brood on it every moment of every day, the way a lot of heroes do. Or you can write a story about someone who rides out each day as it comes. That means she has bad days, but, once again, brooding does not eat all her time alive.
All of those are more heroes than the heroine who suffers, then bursts into floods of tears and tells her story to sympathetic ears, then broods on it, then “overcomes” it—with the help of companions and genetic magic and a love interest that the author handed to her on a silver platter.
4) Write differently-heroic stories.
Oh, yes. That’s easy to say but hard to do, right?
Actually, I think it’s both hard to say and hard to do, because, as I noted above, it’s not the way most fantasy writers are taught. Someone can be self-taught and self-read in the fantasy genre (hi there!) but still not pick up many different examples because so much of the genre follows so many of the same “heroic” patterns and “heroic” stories. The story is conflict; the hero is extraordinary—usually because of inborn gifts—but initially reluctant, because self-will and ambition are traits of the bad guys; there’s a quest or a war or both, in which the hero must play a significant part; and at the end, the world is righted again.
Now that I think about it, that’s a good place to start. Set up your own paradigm of most fantasy stories concerning heroes. It can have the same steps as mine does above, or entirely different ones. For now, we’ll use mine, since it’s convenient.
Then, find ways around all those roadblocks.
Does a story have to be all conflict? Maybe yes. Maybe no. It is very hard to write a fantasy story in which characters don’t conflict with a Dark Lord or a dark past or evil magic, but I think it’s hard because that’s not what we’re trained to do. So, if your mind immediately jumps to a good vs. evil conflict when you’re considering this stage, try plotting out a different one instead. Inner conflicts, conflicts unresolved at the ending, and familiar conflicts set in utterly different territory because of the way the viewpoint character sees things are all places to start with. Or you could try studying how a vignette does what it does and then making it into a story.
Does a hero have to be extraordinary? In the definition I’ve been using so far, yes. But, as I think I’ve mentioned and mentioned and mentioned and mentioned, I love stories where ordinary people are the heroes. I’ve heard them called “boring.” On the other hand, is the next story about a blond barbarian swordsman storming into a city to rescue a mystical sword, or the next story about a barbarian swordswoman getting revenge for her rape, really that interesting? Tone down the muscles and the swords and see what happens, or switch the emphasis to another part of the character altogether.
Do the gifts have to be inborn? HELL NO. I think we’ve already discussed that.
Does the hero have to be reluctant? HELL NO. I meant to put an option on this poll on how to write good reluctant heroes and didn’t get around to it, but right now I am glad of it, because that means that I can attack this concept even more viciously. I realized lately that a lot of the first story ideas I think of involve reluctant heroes, which dismays me. Come on. Show characters taking charge of their own lives. Start the story near the moment of crisis, instead of ten steps back from it. Show a character putting up with things until she can tolerate them no more. Put her in a cramped life she’s longing to get out of. All those are possible answers.
Does the plot have to be a quest or a war? HELL—okay, that’s enough of that for right now. But, seriously, try this once. Tell yourself that your story will not involve your hero going on a journey that seeks for anything, or getting engaged in large-scale or small-scale violence. See what wriggles out when you pin the plot, instead of the character.
Does the world need to be righted? Ironically, this is where I think the fantasy genre could benefit from looking at Tolkien, who is often blamed for a lot of things that are really not his fault. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the ending to LOTR, because, surprise surprise, it goes on after Aragorn’s coronation. Why not end on a moment of joy?
Because that would be false, of course. Because then it would look like the world was all right and righted, and we know that’s not true. The Elves are leaving, the Rings are leaving, the Elvish lands are fading, Frodo is going, Gandalf is going, the Hobbits and the Dwarves will fade in time. There’s a massive, massive loss here. And it is still better than what would have happened if Sauron had won. Middle-earth has won the lesser of two evils, and it makes Tolkien’s story more powerful, not less.
If you can’t fit a real hero into a falsely shiny happy ending, then perhaps you should not try. Change the ending instead.
All right, I think the poor heroes have taken enough of a beating.
Not that inborn virtue idea, though. That can take more beating. *goes after idea with bat*