Saturday, November 22, 2008

Building a Good Hero

**Artwork by Michael Dougherty** There have been some excellent posts on some of my favorite blogs about stereotypes. Both Charles and Steve have made the point that writers attempt to break stereotypes at their own peril. And while what they say is undeniably true, I think it also bears looking at how varied certain stereotypes can be. Take the hero for example. Heroes come in all varieties, the action hero, the comic-book-hero, the anti-hero and so on. But for a character to be a hero there has to be a common thread of goodness that runs through them; a desire perhaps to save something. But what are the best, most desirable characteristics in a hero? Lets look at some of the options. Innocence: At first glance innocence might seem like an odd trait for a hero to have. But some of my favorite heroes have a way of looking at the world with an unguarded view that reminds us that there may be more good in the world than we realize. Frodo Baggins of "The Lord of the Rings" isn't a hero that's going to awe the world with his physical strength but his belief in doing what's right keeps his feet to the hero's path more surely than any other trait he possesses. Hiro Nakamura of "Heroes" is at his endearing best when he looks at the world, and his own abilities, with wide-eyed wonder. Even Neo from "The Matrix" could be looked at as an innocent since he was thrust from one life into another beyond anything he could have previously comprehended. Cynicism: You're more likely to see a cynical hero than an innocent one. This is probably due to the fact that it's the harsh realities of life that most often creates the hero in the first place. James Bond is the perfect example of the cynical hero who has seen so much of the dark side of society he often seems to forget that not everyone has a secret agenda. Indiana Jones often has a cynical look in his eye; as if he's seen too many of the same tricks played out over the years. Detectives, like Spencer from the Robert B. Parker series, often fall back on their cynicism to protect themselves from being lulled into complacency. Strength: This is probably the most common attribute associated with the classic hero but there are so many kinds of strength for us to examine. Brute strength is the most obvious choice for the superhero with Superman being the ultimate example; though the Incredible Hulk could make a run at the title. But strength of character is probably much more important. If Frodo hadn't had the inner strength to throw the ring away he would have ended up like Golem. If Superman or Spiderman were of weaker character they would have turned their backs away from humanity a long time ago and used their powers for their own benefit. Mystery: A lot of our favorite characters are accidental heroes. Luke Skywalker never thought he'd save the universe from Darth Vader, he was just reacting to extreme circumstances. But heroes like Batman set out on a deliberate path to benefit humanity and cloak themselves in mystery for a variety of reasons. Batman seeks to hide his identity as well as strike fear into his enemies while Spiderman is likely trying to hide the fact that he doesn't look too threatening without the costume. Intelligence: It's hard to be a hero if you don't have the intellectual chops. Professor Xavier is proof that a hero need only have a strong mind to succeed. Batman wouldn't exist if Bruce Wayne didn't have a healthy I.Q. to go along with all of that money. And while the Incredible Hulk may represent brute strength, Bruce Banner balances the two sides with his cool intelligence. A good hero has to always be a step ahead of the villain. Decisiveness: Captain Kirk has often been called rash but he is nothing if not a man of decisive action. When he sees a situation he acts first and deals with the consequences later. James Bond is never at a loss either. Many of the best heroes never waste time at a crossroads wondering which way to turn; they pick a direction and go. Calm Deliberation: As Yoda would say. “Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi..." Decisiveness is good but sometimes a plan is better. A Costume: A hero doesn't need a costume, but they sure look cool. Comic book heroes are the best when it comes to costumes. Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man-- even The Incredibles; they all know that a hero is instantly identifiable when they where a costume. Indiana Jones might wear a suit when he's teaching, but whenever adventure calls he grabs his hat and his bullwhip. A Weapon: Indiana Jones has his bullwhip while Luke Skywalker has his light-saber. Wolverine has the knives embedded in his hands while Daredevil has his billy club. It's good to go to a fight well armed. Sidekicks: Batman and Robin. Kirk and Spock. Frodo and Logolas. The Fantastic Four. Heroes always seem a little more approachable when they need help don't they? And even Superman needed Lois Lane now and then. It's always good to have back-up. Money: It isn't cheap being a superhero. Just ask Batman. Most of us average folks wouldn't even be able to think about being a hero just because of the cost. How many of you could afford a Batcave? Even if I had the knowledge, I would never have enough money to build Ironman's suit. Superpowers: Mostly it's the comic book heroes that have the unnatural abilities. Superman, Spiderman, Wolverine-- they all have something that puts them beyond mortal men. A hero doesn't have to be super-powered, but it definitely gives them an advantage. Fighting Ability: Batman makes up for a lack of unnatural powers by technology and ninja training. Daredevil uses martial arts to devastating effect as well. Frodo might not be able to fight, but his companions know how to wield a sword. Neo downloads a full knowledge of Kung Fu into his brain because sometimes you might not have an automatic weapon handy when you need it. A Mission: The accidental hero is usually thrust into circumstances beyond his control-- something that is especially common in fantasy fiction in which you have the "prophesied" hero. Other characters, such as The Punisher or Batman, end up on their missions due to tragic circumstances that might start them on a path of revenge only to see it develop into something bigger. It's not unusual to see a hero so consumed by their drive to do.. whatever it is they see as their purpose... that they cannot allow themselves to have a normal life. A Nemesis: Superman and Lex Luthor. Batman and the Joker. Spiderman and Green Goblin. Just when a superhero thinks they've got it all under control, someone shows up who makes it their personal mission in life to make the hero's life miserable. As you can see, there are so many different facets to the "stereotypical" hero, and I could keep going. I listed what I think are some of the most common aspects, though there are many that directly contradict each other. So what makes a good hero great? Why do some resonate more than others? Personally I like the ones that live on the dark side. James Bond and Batman are probably my two favorites-- though Wolverine isn't far behind. There are times when I think Hiro Nakamura is the best too, but I'm always afraid of seeing the light of optimism go out of his eyes and I prefer not to witness that. If I were to build my own hero, he (or she) would likely come from the Batman mold-- with the tragic circumstances that shaped their determination to do something bold. I think my character would be less impulsive than a James Bond though. I think my hero would plan with calm deliberation but act on his plans without remorse. I'm haven't yet decided if I prefer a hero with super-powers though. I like the mutants of X-Men but I admire the ingenuity of characters like Iron Man. And I'm all for a character than can kick some serious a**. I lean to the no-costume variety of hero though I think money is certainly a big plus. And I would most definitely give my hero a mission and probably a sidekick or two... So how would you build your hero? What attributes do you think they should have? Any that I haven't mentioned here? And what existing heroes are the best in your opinion?

8 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

This is an excellent piece. Well worth bookmarking for future reference. I particularly liked the stuff about innocnence. Hadn't really thought of that.

I think decisiveness is the ultimate key. Heroes must act.

SQT said...

Thanks Charles.

I think decisiveness is important too... Hesitation can kill in the hero's world.

Steve Malley said...

Excellent post!

I enjoy tales of reluctant heroes, m'self, be they Bagginses or retired gunfighters who strap their guns on one last time.

I might also suggest CHOICE: every hero *must* be given a clear choice to back out, to let it go and mind their own business. It can be just one moment (like Marv in Sin City or Jack Reacher in Bad Luck & Trouble) or it can be an ongoing internal crisis (Frodo and Shane come to mind), but the choice to stand against the bad guys must be a conscious one.

Heroes can be reluctant, but only in comedy should they be accidental...

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A fine piece about how heroes function. They indeed come in many guises.

SQT said...

Steve

Oh choice is a good one! I must add that to the list. I always think of Bruce Willis' character of John Mclain when I think of the reluctant hero.

Jean Luc

They certainly do.

ShadowFalcon said...

I like my heroes but there are some who never sit well with me - superman for example is too good too perfect but spidey well you know he tries but things just don't work out for him which I find far more interesting. Well each to their own I suppose. Either way interesting post.

I do love bad guys gone good but that could be because both Rogue and Xena come from that sort of story line.

SQT said...

Shadowfalcon

I think the bad-guy-gone-good-ones are the best. They have this attitude of I know exactly what you're up to...

T.D. Newton said...

I noticed an interesting shift in Action Movie Heroes over the past 20 years or so. It used to be that Schwarzenegger or JCVD could make a movie where they were basically a cardboard cut-out do-gooder hero but after so many clones of that in the 80's, they all started to have feelings and families.

This creates the inevitable "hostage situation moment" where the villain seizes something the hero cares about and uses it against him (a la Batman Forever).

Sometimes it's okay with me if the "hero" is just a juggernaut of justice without the strings of conscience to hold him back; in that way he's almost as zealous about achieving his goal as the villain is.

Good post. I like archetypes.