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Alice Munro, Books, Dragon Keeper's Handbook, Dragons, Editor's Corner, Fiction, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Heroes, Heroines, Joseph Campbell, Protagonists, Shakespeare, Terry Prachett, Umberto Eco, Writing
Heroes Large – Heroes Small
No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.
Truth is, I’m not too keen on heroes, per se. They are essential but really, what can you say? Your hero is your main character, the person whose story you are telling. Simple. They are characters sometimes more acted upon than acting, but always real enough that we cheer when they triumph and shed a tear when they die. We willingly, eagerly invest hours of precious time – oh, how precious our time is these days! – in their lives, following them wherever their journeys lead.
This 3-D imaging is the essence of the writer’s craft; we have explored it before – most recently in the past couple of weeks when I discussed minor characters and villains. (If you want to learn more, read Joseph Campbell’s brilliant The Hero With a Thousand Faces or the more writer-friendly take on it, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey – you couldn’t ask for better guides along the heroic arc.)
Today I want to look at things in a slightly different way. I want to talk about the changing face of our literary heroes.
In the old days of dichromatic storytelling, heroes, like their villainous counterparts, were characters of extremes. They were always virtuous, noble, and brave, intelligent but not cunning (too many sinister connotations to that word), willing to take responsibility for their actions and, if needs be, sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They were aspirational – the sort of people upon whom we pinned all our best hopes, convinced that they could not only bear them, but soar under their weight.
Yes, they had their flaws, usually picked from amongst the cardinal sins. Hubris was a big one with the Greeks (Oedipus, Cadmus, just about every major player in the Iliad and Odyssey). Also big in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mahabharata. In the latter, the Pandava and the Kaurava are both exceedingly proud, but the Pandava are the heroes because they learn from their weakness and are humbled; the Kaurava remain proud to the end).
Love – or its extremes, jealousy and lust – is another common flaw (Lancelot, Orlando); and greed (Bilbo Baggins). For a classic protagonist, what counts is not that they are flawed, but that they learn about themselves, their weaknesses, and triumph despite them. This introspection and growth is as important, if not more so, as the slaying of any rampaging legion of orcs. (No slaying Dragons here!)
These are our neat heroes, the ones who come through with every hair in place and nary a speck of blood on their crisp white shirt (or burnished armor).
But the modern world is as messy for heroes as it is for villains. Such pristine white hats no longer resonate as they once did.
As with villains, I believe the sea change for protagonists came with Shakespeare. Hamlet, Prospero, Titus Andronicus, Lear, Cleopatra, Isabella, Richard II…. Complicated characters who, while protagonists, are not always aspirational. Shakespeare allowed his main characters to straddle the line between good and evil. They could be cruel and petty, indecisive and vengeful.
They were, to my thinking, among our first literary antiheroes – the predecessors of Heathcliff and Emma Bovary, Holden Caulfield and Lisbeth Salander.
But can we take this too far? In our effort to find relatable, sympathetic protagonists, have we made them too much like ourselves, and in the process, lost something vital? Today, just doing the right thing – standing up against bullies or bigotry, calling 911 for a stranger in trouble – qualifies you for a medal, even sainthood. Our heroes, like ourselves, are diminished. Not that we shouldn’t say “thank you” to every good Samaritan or person of conscience out there – but are they worthy of novel treatment?
Yes, we are all heroes in our own life stories, but fiction – even the most intimate fiction (like the stories of recent Nobelist Alice Munro) – is not life. It is, if not bigger, then certainly more concentrated. Our protagonists have to rise to the challenge, to satisfy that aspect of our natures that craves heroes ten-feet tall.
Some will say that is what genre books are for – fantasy and mystery and horror, that they are the new home to classic protagonists. Within their pages we get reluctant everymen and women thrust into being more than they ever imagined possible. They transform from being “us” to being what we can only dream of being and, as we tag along or the vicarious ride, we get our requisite dose of clean, aspirational heroism.
Can we strike a balance between these classic (genre) heroes and everyday mensch (literary) protagonists? Perhaps. But first we must find that balance in ourselves. And remember that the hallmark of a protagonist is not leaping tall buildings or bringing peace to the Universe. It is seeing change up ahead and choosing to embrace it. It is riding the wings of the Dragon when everyone else demands you thrust a blade through her heart.
The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of
being an honest coward like everybody else.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Loving Our Villains.
You learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either.
And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something.
― Paul Gallico
Once upon a time – at least according to popular culture – the world was a simpler place. There were white hats and black hats and we walked through life with the certain belief that, no matter how grim things got, good would emerge victorious in the end. It is a comfortable worldview, littered with archetypes and stereotypes. We need not look too deep within ourselves to know who merits cheers, who boos.
Empirically speaking, of course – and taking absolute nutters like Caligula out of the equation – villainy – and heroism – are much more situational qualities. Napoleon or Nelson, Pizarro or Atahualpa, Saladin or Richard I. Each has their supporters and detractors, with the balance tipped by the passage of years and history’s shifting tide. As Ian Fleming – a man who knew a good bad guy when he penned one – wrote, “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” [Casino Royal] True-life villains are characters of passion and action, with the sort of laser conviction that makes them heroes in their own minds and those of their minions. (One has only to look at the current American shame, aka the Republican Party, to see this playing out in real time.)
The best literary villains – nutters still excepted – have always been closer to this real-life model than to two-dimensional mustache-twirling brutes or murderous harridans. Shakespeare’s legion of dark characters (Macbeth, Richard III, Goneril, Tamora, Claudius, et al), Marlowe’s Barabas, Hugo’s Javert and Claude Frollo, Quilp, Moriarty, the list is long and colorful. A complicated age requires complicated characters; modern audiences demand more layered, multifaceted antagonists, people who flirt with the shadows, one foot in light, one in dark.
It is from this ambiguity that we get characters who, though considered villains by previous generations, might be now seen as sympathetic, occasionally even heroic. Shylock, Dracula, Captain Nemo, Moby-Dick, even Milton’s Lucifer, each are characters with complicated pasts, complicated motives. Personally, I cheer for them all, cheated, abused, betrayed – human – as they are. Gregory Maguire (“Wicked,” “Confessions of a Ugly Stepsister”) has taken this one step further and made a career out of turning tales on their heads and showing us just how heroic some famous villains are. All depends on who is telling the story.
It being the Month of the Dragon, I would be remiss not to at least mention one of the most maligned “villains” of all time: Dragons. Smaug, Fafnir, Smok, Beowulf’s Dragon, all are literary black-hats who, in actuality, are simply guarding their homes and property, avenging past wrongs, in short, defending themselves from those who, by virtue of comely looks and Homo sapien “superiority,” believed they had the right to take what they wanted, when they wanted and where. Dragons are different and what is different is easily feared and vilified.
What is the role of an antagonist in an increasingly grey literary landscape? And how do we make them memorable?
Your antagonist is the one who drives your story. They compel the protagonist into action, give them someone to rise against and outshine, to save the kingdom or rescue the lost. Without villains, our heroes would just be sitting at home, enjoying their boring lives. Villains make heroes great.
To make them memorable, we must write characters we like. Their hearts may be cold as Pluto’s core, but you, the author, have to like them. You want to write villains you’d enjoy inviting over diner (just be sure to lock up any stray weapons and hide the silver).You want people who not only have an interesting take on their world but who, despite their ethical flaws, can also be understood. As much as we might enjoy the occasional larger-than-life monster threatening cosmic devastation, the best antagonists are simply people who, when confronted with crucial choices, opt for the more sinister path. The more heinous a character’s actions, the more they need some spark deep in their background that holds the possibility of being just like us.
As their creators, we have to recognize this and tread joyfully in their shoes. Then, in inky Stetson or raspberry beret, our antagonists will be memorable and alive.
You can catch up on past posts in the Editor’s Corner Archive. Enjoy.