Another Hero – on heroism and storytelling

Thursday , 16, February 2017 7 Comments

“I like grey characters; fantasy for too long has been focused on very stereotypical heroes and villains” --GRRM

(Note: my brief history of Japanese SF will continue next time as I track down some references.)

Heroes. Who needs them!

Just another holier-than-thou vehicle for someone’s personal hangups.

Just another overinflated cardboard cutout, a power fantasy made flesh.

Too strong, too competent, too perfect.

Real life isn’t like that.

Real people aren’t heroes.

And heroes have no place in serious fiction for mature adults.





It has become vogue over the last few decades to turn away from heroic storytelling to portray more “realistic” characters, characters that ordinary people – the readers – can see themselves in. Characters that the audience can realistically aspire to.

The problem being: realistic or not, who aspires to be “Frank down in accounting”?

OK, that’s unfair – but the fact is that in the breathless urgency to write “more realistic” characters many authors make the mistake of thinking “gritty is good” and go straight for the grey in-between world of morally ambiguous protagonists.

These flawed human beings may remind readers of themselves and the murkiness of their own real lives, but is it really compelling?

I understand the motive – the desire to show real people doing great things – and of course there have been many great literary SF novels where the protagonists were ruthlessly real.[1]

But this post-modern sense that there are no heroes, so there should be none in our fiction is absurd.

This push away from the heroic is in part based on a flawed assumption of what it takes for a character to be heroic. The image most people conjure up is of a mighty-thewed giant with stern eyes and a grim mouth who is the very manifestation of all that is good and virtuous, and who drives relentlessly forward in the battle between good and evil – never doing wrong, never failing.

But this entirely mistakes the core of what makes the hero of a story heroic:

A heroic protagonist doesn’t need to be powerful, doesn’t need to be perfect, doesn’t really even need to be “good” in the ordinary sense. Likewise, a heroic character doesn’t necessarily even need to be very much different from ordinary people in most senses.

After all, in the literary sense even the “ruthlessly real” characters currently in vogue can technically be heroic: they fall into the Everyman Hero category. And this formula is nothing new, it’s just more common now than perhaps it ever has been. Key novels and stories from the early modernist period of literature established the approach, and it’s been a mainstay of literary fiction for some time.[2]

So what is it then?

Some people believe that the core of what makes a character – and a story – heroic is a foundation based on a conflict between good and evil.

This is definitely a mainstay in the heroic fiction of the past – in the pulps and their ancestors good/evil was definitely a strong theme, and the heroic protagonists were generally presented as being good and virtuous people.

Even in cases where the character isn’t clearly good per se (think Conan), at least not in the way we usually think, he or she ultimately faces evil antagonists and clearly takes the position of opposition.[3]

This poses a bit of a problem in a modern market in that attitudes toward good and evil have shifted toward a relativist approach, and this is probably one reason why many modern readers dismiss the pulps and other powerful classic traditions as childishly simplistic: it’s taken as obvious that one man’s meat may be another’s poison when it comes to ideas of what is good[4] and so presenting good vs evil as a conflict of absolutes tends to be dismissed as naïve.

Personally I think this is a mistake for a variety of reasons[5], but perhaps the most important is that I think “good vs evil” is actually missing the wood for the trees when it comes to heroism.

The thing is, when you invoke good and evil as absolutes they become part of the world – the background on which the characters are moving. How, then, can they be a matter of heroism? The key, I think, is to remember that heroism is not a thing of the world – it’s a human thing.

What really makes a character heroic, in my opinion, isn’t the essence of good or evil, but the character’s principles.

If you look carefully at heroic fiction[6] the common theme is clear: heroic characters have principles, and they stick to them. The principles are what range the heroes against their antagonists, and while the story may be superficially driven by the conflict between the two sides the real story – the part that makes the story of real human interest – is driven by the challenge to the protagonists’ principles.

Again and again, the actions of the villain will force heroic characters into situations where there is a choice: abandon the principle to achieve an easier victory, or cleave to the principle despite the risk and (this is important!) suffer for their devotion but achieve victory because of it.

The principles characters hold may well be rooted in classic concepts of good and evil of course – think in terms of the devoted knight who swears to God and puts his faith in Christian ideals, for example – but they needn’t be, and perhaps for a modern audience other kinds of principles may be more resonant.

What do I mean by that?

Well, in chivalric romances (to go back to the example of the knight) the protagonist’s principles will be rooted in the virtues of some knightly order. This can of course create powerful stories, but in a modern, more secular society it may make it harder for readers to really identify with the heroic protagonist.[7] But that’s mainly because these virtues are actually shorthand for sets of principles that, largely, people agree are good things. Things like:

  • Loyalty
  • Devotion to friends
  • Courage in the face of danger
  • Perseverance
  • Mercy when in a position of strength

We can see all of these in the classic Toka and the Man-Bats (Fantastic Adventures Feb 1946, by Raymond Palmer[8]).  This is an awesome tale[9] even if it is a bit rough around the edges, packed with enough action and interesting ideas to please the editor.[10] But in among the weirdly 30s era gangster dialogue of the villains the story becomes compelling because it’s heroic.

Yes, the eponymous Toka is good but the man-bats, though alien, are misled, not evil. Even the dastardly Molak and his (ob.) vixen of a sister Tanda aren’t really evil.[11] Bad, certainly, but this is not a story of the fundamental conflict.

Toka is good, yes, but the key point is that he has principles.

  • His lover Roya is abducted – probably killed – and he steps up to his obligation to rescue her, or avenge her if necessary.
  • He is captured and imprisoned, told his mission is already failed.  He perseveres nonetheless.
  • He has Tanda in his power – and essentially lets her go because it would be wrong to kill her (as might seem the logical action).
  • He fights to win, but when possible not to kill. In fact, he seems determined not to kill unless his enemies make it necessary.

Faced by the weird and hostile bat men, he swallows his fear to give them a chance – even after they have performed hostile acts he gives them the benefit of the doubt and ultimately wins their friendship.

So he has principles – but so what? Isn’t that just a matter of him being good? How does this make the story heroic?

It’s not the principles themselves that make the story – and Toka – heroic. It’s the place these principles have in creating the conflict of the story, and in ratcheting up the peril: Over and over Toka’s principles are challenged, and the way the story goes depends entirely on his decision to compromise or to hold firm.

Tanda challenges Toka’s loyalty to Roya – and although he takes advantage of Tanda’s desire for him and for a time plays the part she wants of him, his actions are determined by his continued devotion to Roya, and what he does next is crucial to moving the story forward.

There comes a point where Toka has to choose between simply killing man bats or taking the riskier course of continuing to try to find some way to persuade them he doesn’t need to be their enemy.  He chooses the harder path, and things get very dangerous – but as a result he is victorious.

And of course, in the end he finds himself face to face with his nemesis Molak. Again he has a choice: finish Molak easily, or risk everything to help Roya. Again he chooses loyalty to Roya over expedience and again the level of peril rises.

This is what makes the story heroic, and thus makes Toka a hero. It’s not that he’s intrinsically good, but that he has principles, the principles are challenged, and he wins the day despite the fact he holds true and makes things harder on himself.

Now, I chose Toka for a reason.

Unlike many modern tales, Toka and the Man Bats is outlandish – it’s melodramatic to the extreme, and Palmer is very experimental in his narrative style.[12] Toka is a comic-book pure archetype of heroism in the derring-do sense, but at the same time he doesn’t have the gritty epic quality of Conan. He’s definitely good, and in a charming boy scout way.

But it’s not his goodness that makes us root for him as the story progresses.  It’s the fact that the principles he is trying so hard to hold on to resonate with us, and the fact that we would like to think that we too would refuse to compromise them.

This is the strength of heroic storytelling, I think.

None of us are dinosaur-riding cavemen in some strange alternate reality. Many of us aren’t men. Others aren’t the same colour, or don’t have the same physique, or…the list goes on. And really, when have you ever encountered a character who was just like you in these superficial ways?

That’s not what really resonates when we read stories anyway. The thing that catches our attention and drags us in isn’t whether the protagonists have the same bits as us.

It’s whether the protagonists have something they believe in – and whether that something has consequences.

No, real people don’t often have the luxury of black and white decisions regarding their principles, but we do have principles. Even if we don’t necessarily agree with all the protagonist believes in, we can all identify with the dilemma – we can all see the ideal being defended, and we can appreciate the cosmic rightness of the protagonist’s luxury to choose clearly, and most importantly to be rewarded for staying the course.

It’s human nature – we love to see people rewarded for being true, just as much as we love to see unfairness punished.[13]

In this age of grey stories, there seem to be a lot of characters who are real – who are placed in murky situations where there are no good choices, who are forced to compromise their principles, who choose right but get punished for it.

Yeah, just like in real life.

There’s a place for stories like this – stories where the hero is broken and the world is relentless. They’re depressing, but they can also be very powerful.

But there’s a place for heroic stories as well – stories where things feel right in that fundamental way. Stories in which things go the way we wish they could in real life, even as we know they usually don’t. And the best stories? Those are the ones where the heroic characters don’t just get justice – they get justice for believing in the same sorts of things we do.

You see, that’s the secret: when people say they want to see more stories about people like them they may think they want stories about everyday people who match them in every mundane detail. And of course those sorts of characters are satisfying too. But the place where it really matters, where readers really come away feeling “that character is just like me!” (or like the “me” we aspire to anyway) is in this heroic space, a space where principles are challenged – and come out on top anyway.

So let’s have more heroes, not less.


[1] Some of Philip K Dick’s most powerful writing revolves around the so-called Everyman Hero model, for example.

[2] And that’s probably one of the reasons some SFF authors work so hard to eliminate heroic characterization in their work: in the hope of being taken as more literary, as more serious writers. But since when is heroism the antithesis of serious anyway?

[3] Generally to the antagonists’ dismay.

[4] There seems to be a bit more agreement on what is evil, but even there we see a tendency to assume a relativist perspective.

[5] If nothing else, no matter what your personal ethics dismissing absolutist “good vs evil” storytelling as naïve and simplistic betrays a startling lack of understanding of how stories compel us.

[6] And unfortunately for strong examples it’s often easier to look for the further back you go.

[7] And a character you can’t identify with is a boring one for most people.

[8] Writing under the pseudonym J.W. Pelkie – some might say wisely.

[9] No really – I kid about Palmer hiding behind the Pelkie pseudonym, but actually despite the rough writing the story itself and the images are amazing. What’s not to love about a world where buff, courageous warriors ride dinosaurs into battle against eerie bat men who speak only with their fingers?

[10] Managing editor at the time was Raymond Palmer. Make of that what you will.

[11] Not at first in any case – though Molak gradually becomes worse as the story progresses.

[12] One of the strengths of the rapid-turnaround of the 30s and 40s periodicals was the freedom to experiment. I personally feel Palmer’s unusual writing style flubs more often, but when it hits the right note it’s very interesting – and definitely not the “writer voice” that so often infests modern fiction.

[13] No, really – it’s fundamental:


  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    A pretty good take on the hero; I never thought of it this way before. It’s certainly a more uncommon approach.

  • keith says:

    You know, there ain’t anything wrong with relatably flawed characters that actually fix or transcend their initial flaws and evolve into properly heroic characters. To illustrate this with some random arthuriana, I actually far prefer my Parzivals (starts as lead, ends as gold) to Galahads (starts transcendentally flawless, ends transcendentally flawless).

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Nope, nothing wrong with that at all. A perfect hero is a certain kind of vehicle, and can get tiresome very quickly when overused. The same, I think, is true of the “grey zone” heroes that are currently in vogue. A mensch who grows into a hero over the course of the story is in a sense exactly the kind of heroism I’m talking about here – glad to hear that’s the sort of thing that appeals to others too.

  • deuce says:

    We’ve narrowed the definition of “hero” to the point that only Superman and Dudley Do-Right qualify. Whether it was Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, a hero in the old days was basically “a person — usually a man — who showed courage and upheld most of the virtues espoused by his in-group”. We’ve raised the bar so high now that people ask, “What’s the point? Unless I’m Galahad, I’ll never be a hero.”

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Part of it is the rejection of absolutes. A lot of fiction since the 1980s has been rooted in relatives, so the question of a moral peril (where the protagonist is forced to decide whether to stand by a principle or not) is by default a question of how much to compromise, not whether. I think the result is what might be called anti-heroic (if the term didn’t already mean something else). In Toka and the Man-Bats it’s the *villain* who compromises at every challenge, and as a result slides from unpleasant into evil. It’s actually an interesting and rather skillful juxtaposition.

  • deuce says:

    “And that’s probably one of the reasons some SFF authors work so hard to eliminate heroic characterization in their work: in the hope of being taken as more literary, as more serious writers. But since when is heroism the antithesis of serious anyway?”

    You can’t be serious. 😉

    Seriously, we haven’t had that spirit here since…1949. Maybe more like 1869, in some quarters.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    Indeed – but you just can’t kill the beast!

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