Alright, while I try to think of ideas for next Monday, here’s a less-regular set of themed articles, focusing on ideas (mostly in writing) that I think are good, but need extremely careful handling. You may be wondering if I ever intend to put some actual, ya know, stories up here. I may; it depends on how gutsy I’m feeling. In the meantime, I’m going to fire off some ideas here that should serve as a nice counterpoint to yesterday’s article. ‘Ideas about what?’ demands some hypothetical fellow who completely ignored the title. ‘Why, about heroes, of course!’ I respond, with a cheerful bound to the main body of the post. This is part one of three, the next two covering the fine line between a flawed hero and an antihero, and the final one concerning why I think your main character’s biggest trait should never be ‘depressing.’
So yes, about heroes. They’re supposed to offer us some sort of ideal to work towards or look up to, or at least that’s the case now; some of the Greek heroes seemed to go for something else entirely, but maybe the ancient Greeks just had very different aspirations from us. Hard to say, I haven’t met any, what with every last one of them being dust in the grinding gears of time. But enough dallying with metaphor- what is a hero character these days? Well, bearing in mind that different authors all have different ideas, most of them seem to have a bunch of common traits. They’re courageous, resourceful, morally upright, kind, and either begin wise beyond their years or get that way with pretty alarming speed; a lot of them are intelligent, though not necessarily all. They do the right thing, simply because it’s right, even when it’s hard or makes things harder.
Disclaimer: I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as much as anyone else, and more than some. But every time he refused to attack someone in a lethal fashion, I cringed a bit. I get that it goes against his character to sling around fireballs and all, but sometimes I have a hard time believing he’s human. Now, it’s been a while, so my memories are probably skewed, but I can’t recall him even being tempted all that much to blast someone. Multiple other characters in the book, friends and allies of The Boy Who Lived, have absolutely zero qualms about killing their opponents when said opponents are also trying to kill them. Harry sort of vaguely considers it a couple of times, then throws the idea away. I think I’ve seen more righteous fury in people who get overcharged for food at the campus ‘convenience’ stores.
This is one example of something I keep seeing- heroes who are in fact so heroic that they come around to meet villainy from the other direction. Harry himself is a good mid-range example of the heroic cliche that I’m going to call, Friends Are Totally Expendable ( or in short, F.A.T.E. [Ha. Ha.]) Now, like most heroic cliches, this one has varying levels of intensity, but I see it in some form all over the place. Generally speaking, this means that the hero, usually without realizing it but sometimes while fully aware, will sooner let a friend die than abandon their moral high ground by killing an enemy. This is usually shown as a very admirable thing, but let’s think about this really: you have the power to kill an enemy to save a friend. If you do not kill that enemy, your friend will be A. Seriously f***ed up, and/or B. Dead. Refraining from action still an action in this instance; you’re not killing that friend quite as directly as by deliberately shooting them yourself, but by refusing to act in a way that doesn’t align with your principles, you are choosing to let that friend die so you can keep acting all altruistic and morally sound.
Here’s the big issue with F.A.T.E.: If you value your moral integrity more than the lives of your friends, you founded your principles pretty poorly. The two should line up. Loyalty is the most basic component of any moral system- something that you are devoted to. Even if you’re a stereotypically violent anarchist with no concerns of social thinking, you still need to stay loyal to your radical nature in order for it to actually be yours. Furthermore, unless your side is absolutely crushing the enemy, it’s a terrible decision to let members of your force die so as not to unfairly impose death on the enemy. You know, that big group who have chosen to attack you of (mostly) their own free will? Now readers, some of you may be thinking, ‘But what if the conflict’s not that clear-cut? What if not everyone chose to take this path?’ Well then, the hero should be even more devoted to the handful of people whose allegiance he/she is actually sure of. Don’t discard the silver you have on the off-chance you’ll find a random diamond floating in the middle of an onrushing lava flow.
Also, remember that one person in your school (pick a grade, any grade!) who was so utterly perfect that you simply hated his/her guts? Yeah. Don’t have your heroes resemble that person, you know your readers will have the same reaction you did to Suzie Jenkins at your Senior Prom. Your hero needs at least enough flaws to be relatable. Now, in Harry’s case, some of his… call them, ‘preachier’ traits I’m willing to forgive in light of the fact that he makes mistakes, but learns from them, keeps going, and doesn’t spend too much time moping (in the last two books, a little depression is totally understandable.) That being said, your character’s flaws should be ones that make sense in light of their character; they don’t have to be ones of competency.
Suppose I’m writing a science-fiction character who has been bred for war even before he was born. He’s one of the deadliest members of an already horrifyingly dangerous group, and he’s been doing what he does best for twenty years. If I’m going to give this guy flaws, they must not be ones involving competence in battle. At all. Not individual fighting skill, not bravery, not his ability to plan. These simply aren’t things he should be below-average in. He may have betters in some areas, but it’s because those people focused on those areas, and so are less skilled than our protagonist in others.
So what can I do to make him less perfect? Here’s where we get to the Razor’s Edge part of this post. If my character doesn’t have any meaningful flaws in his abilities, than he has to have ones of personality, or of thinking aside from the battle-oriented stuff. So what makes sense for him? What kind of flaws would it be perfectly logical for him to have? A bunch of ones that are really easy to go overboard with, I’m afraid. He could be overconfident if he’s never had a meaningful defeat, even arrogant to a point, but arrogance will put readers off very quickly if I don’t play it just right. He might have problems communicating about things in peaceful terms, but past a certain point that’s contradictory- picking fights just because you don’t know how to avoid them is just another sort of strategic screw-up.
This is hard, isn’t it? But I finally think of some flaws that I might, just might, be able to put the right spin on, and even squeeze something nearly original out of as well. This character is mostly morally upstanding, but not totally. He can be harsh, very possibly unfair, particularly when he’s pissed off about something. He prefers permanent solutions to any sort of wishy-washy redemption stuff. He has his reasons for this; he’s well aware that at times, they sound an awful lot like Greater Good arguments.
But his number one issue is more insidious than all that. This character simply loves his work-and that work involves killing people. To have passion for something gives anyone an edge, but when the risk of getting addicted is becoming a mass-murderer, then it gets pretty sketchy, doesn’t it? In a way, this is good, because the idea of an otherwise heroic character who enjoys lethal encounters to this extent is sufficiently jarring, even to me as the writer, that I probably don’t have to give him all that many other issues. Minor quirks like the ones I listed will suffice.
If all that reads like I’ve thought it out before, it’s because that character actually exists, in a WIP format. Done correctly, I think he’ll be one of the favorite characters in this series I hope to pull off. Done badly, he’s going to seem like he should be a villain, and I’ll have legions of disappointed readers baying for my blood. But it’s not in the spirit of the books he features in, or me personally as an author, to avoid risks just because they might not pan out. And you have to remember, even if you don’t fall off the razor’s edge, your feet still take some nasty cuts.