A Victim of Circumstance

Yep, you know it, right?  Once more I came across a promising book by a newcomer, and started reading with some enjoyment, only to hit the wall when I realized this young writer had fallen into one of the pitfalls very common to any new writer, but worse now, it seems, by the prevailing mood of the times and the great nonsense kids are taught in school these days.  Also the nonsense in the media, too.

Look, let me make it clear now in bold print: VICTIMS ARE NOT HEROES.

Victims CAN be heroes, but as a role in society, in literature, in life in general, those are quite different.

Take those young women kidnapped and kept confined for years by the madman in Ohio.  ALL of them were victims.  The one who risked everything, including possibly her life (he had threatened to kill them if they escaped) to tell the guy on the street of her plight and ask for help is a hero.  Similarly, the man who rescued them kept repeating he was no hero.  And he was right.  He didn’t confront dragons or even disgrace to free them.  He was a good Samaritan and in our day and age admirable for rescuing perfect strangers, but he was not a hero.

So, what is a hero?  And does a book need a hero?

A hero is someone who risks something that matters to him/her to achieve his/her goals.  The more important the reason, the greater the heroism.  An admirable hero is someone who risks everything to save a perfect stranger.

We all — well, me all — have heard the story of the tramp, which Heinlein considered the ultimate hero.  Like this: When a child Heinlein used to frequent a public park where there was a train line.  A young couple were walking along the tracks, when the woman’s heel became caught in the tracks.  The husband struggled to pull her off, but couldn’t.  A train approached.  A tramp, a perfect stranger, came to the rescue.  He too couldn’t free her.  All three were hit, and the woman and the tramp were killed.  (I’ve often wondered about the design of her shoe, and also if all of them weren’t caught in one of those foolish panics one gets into when the obvious doesn’t occur to one.  In that, perhaps because I’d heard the story and thought about it, when while crossing the street in Portugal one of my rather expensive stilettos caught in the tram line, I bent down, unbuckled it and abandoned it, returning home with one shoe, but rather the better for the wear.  Which is neither here nor there when it comes to heroism.)

The tramp was a hero because he was willing to risk his life for a stranger.

It’s not heroism to risk something you don’t care about for someone you love.  It’s generous and kind, but not heroism.  Say I sacrificed one of my many rings for one of my sons.  No applause.  I never wear rings, since I’m one of those persons who does things, and my hands are always at risk of getting caught, wet, etc.  So the only rings are wedding and engagement.  All others are safely in the drawer and I’d guess half of them no longer fit me.

Further there is the “risk” part.  The hero risks everything, but THERE MUST be a chance of winning.  Otherwise your hero is just a fool and a masochist.

Which brings us to “Do you need a hero?” in your book.  I don’t know.  I find I often need a bit of everything, heroes and victims, fools and sages.

But here’s the thing: your protagonist need not be a hero, but he needs to PROTAG.  That is, faced with something that needs doing, a situation that needs changing, an intolerable condition or a challenge, he should be active in resolving it.

Beyond which, you should NOT treat a victim, a martyr or a damnfool masochist like a hero.  People shouldn’t tell the poor little thing “You’re such a hero” just because she’s been kicked around by everyone her entire life.  Yes, there is a degree of heroism in merely surviving extremely difficult circumstances, but it is rarely (though not never) the kind of heroism that inspires others.

“But Sarah,” Say you.  “What about the stories of prisoners of war or abused children who grew up in closets and went on to be doctors, or that book you actually liked about the three sisters escaping the Cultural revolution?

Nota bene what you just said.  The prisoner of war who survives with mind and courage intact is a hero because he’s suffering for a reason.  He’s suffering for the sake of a cause he serves, which is greater than himself.  If he survives without cracking, more people stand to benefit than himself, at least from his example.  The same thing with the child who survives and eventually thrives under unimaginable abuse. He came through the horrors and made something out of it.  He might not have done it for others, but in telling his story he’s showing others escape is possible.  Same with the three sisters escaping the Cultural Revolution.  They did something about it.

It’s like this: I’ve heard everyone who died on 9/11 being called a “hero” and cringed.  The people of flight 93 were heroes.  Their attempt to save themselves was futile, but they managed to spare a target and many other lives.  (And they knew they were risking their lives.)  The people who went back into the towers to rescue strangers and co-workers, particularly those who went back over and over again till fate caught up with them were heroes, as great as any sang in myth and history.

The people who died were victims.  This is not a disparagement of them.  Some of them might even have been brave, and under different circumstances, might have saved others.  But if they were caught about the impact line, they died.  There was nothing else to do or be done.  Nothing they could try.  They were victims.

All of us are victims sometimes, through circumstances that can’t be fought.  We all have friends who were victims of cancer.  And at some time or another, all of us are victims of circumstance.  We arrive too late to get the prize, get stuck in traffic when we head out to meet someone who could help us, have a job interview on a day when the boss is ill.

There is even a role for victims in books, to provide a foil for the heroes.

Now victims should not — preferably — be sopping wet.  By which I mean they shouldn’t behave like wet cloth, unwieldy, heavy and impossible to do anything with.  The ideal victim is plucky but defeated by circumstances.  An even better victim is a would-be hero who fails against insurmountable circumstances.

I realized yesterday re-reading Dresden, the only fair use of a helpless victim (who is neither a child nor handicapped) is a brief appearance and then offing, so as to let the protagonist know just how BAD the bad guy is.  It is important to evoke both pitty and horror.  It is also important not to have the poor sap on screen for very long, because he’s not interesting.

And here we come to what bothers me about confusing victims and heroes.  People who are heroes DO something and as such are ideal for protagonists.

So when people who have been taught that SOMEHOW there’s heroism in being sh*t upon by everyone decide to write a book, they choose the victimgest (totally a word.  Also shut up) of victims.  This is fine if that victim is at some point going to rebell against the slings and arrows of stupid writer.  But if they just lay there, being a pin cushion for the arrows, and moaning about their fate and how everyone hates them for being purple, it grows tedious very rapidly.  What they’re being is martyrs and martyrs for no better reason that that the author unfairly ablated their spine at literary birth.

Perhaps there are people out there who like reading about people who are soggy wet, and drag through the pages, leaving a trail of snot and tears in their wake.  I don’t.

And I find the author never allowing the character to fight back, as though the lack of rum-gumption made them somehow admirable, a despicable trait, that makes me want to make the author the victim of several well chosen catastrophes.

Let your protagonist protag. If he or she starts out as a victim, let him/her turn the tables and achieve something, even if it’s “just” resisting.

And if by chance your protag is a hero, you just might inspire someone in a very difficult situation who desperately needs the courage to do what must be done.  It’s been known to happen.  And it’s a goal worth fighting for.



119 thoughts on “A Victim of Circumstance

  1. The hero risks everything, but THERE MUST be a chance of winning. Otherwise your hero is just a fool and a masochist.

    So the Spartans at Thermopylae and the Texans at The Alamo were not heroes? I know many who would disagree.

    1. There was a chance of winning. NOT their lives, but of winning something, even if just a slow down of the enemy.
      See heroes on 9/11. Good Lord. Read the post.

      1. That comes close to saying that they were heroes because their side eventually won. Or, at least, they thought it could. Would the Spartans be less heroic if they had been sure that Persia would eventually crush the Greek states? That is, “we cannot win, but we must try,” is never heroic?

        1. Look, I can’t tell if you’re being DELIBERATELY obtuse or simply haven’t had enough coffee. The two examples you cite don’t even make any sense.
          Thermopylae was to slow down the advance and frankly, by culture
          to shame the other Greeks into fighting.they achieved both objectives
          which means technically it was a victory yeah, sure they died. So what?
          Same with the Alamo, which was to get other people to fight to defend TX from St. Anna. Yeah, they died. So what?
          It has nothing to do with their side winning or losing. It has to do with sacrificing everything for a goal they thought worthwhile. Objective achieved.
          Imagine Godzilla vs. Bambi. Is Bambi a hero because he got stomped? Nope. Is Bambi a hero if he rushes in to be stomped? No. He’s a damnfool and a masochist.
          Is Bambi a hero if he rushes in with an RPG he KNOWS is inadequate since godzilla just ate Tokyo, but which MIGHT slow godzilla long enough for Bambi’s mom and thumper to get away?
          YOU BET YOUR *ss. Now, do you get it, or is this a matter of finding more specious arguments because something about the post rubbed you wrong and you must prove it invalid?

          1. The heroes at the Alamo were also buying time, like the Spartans, for the rest of the Texian troops to gather. The hope was that they would then relieve the Alamo. That hope was vain; they simply ran out of time.

            Not even Masada BEGAN as a suicide attempt. You have to go to the Imperial Japanese military in WWII (or Islam throughout history) to find the embrace of suicide as a tactic.

            1. And even there the point of what the Imperial Japanese did was to try to attrition and delay the Allied forces, to give the Home Islands a chance. They weren’t being suicidal just for its own sweet sake — though they came close.

          1. Now, now. We have no hard evidence of trolldom. Could just be pre-caffeinated. I know I make all sorts of odd, and often specious connections before consuming the Blessed Elixir.

        2. I don’t understand why Accordingtohoyt is accusing you of obtuseness. I agree with your point, and it seems she comes round to your position herself, as well, once she finishes excoriating you: “It has nothing to do with their side winning or losing. It has to do with sacrificing everything for a goal they thought worthwhile. Objective achieved.” But isn’t this what you were pointing at? (Or am I obtuse to think so?) If one determines the good cannot be achieved except by fighting, then the voice whispering questions about winning in the end must get behind you, for one cannot win if one does not fight. One fights evil or submits to it. One is not in full control of the outcome of the battle, but one is in full control of acting freely for the good, and in control of resisting evil. On the other hand, if one doesn’t particularly object to being enslaved, why be a hero? Right? People who fight such battles understand death is not the worst thing.

          1. I accused him of obtuseness because I didn’t “come around” — he was objecting with things I HAD SAID TO BEGIN WITH. No one said that dying was a bad thing, just that you had to earn something by it.
            Again look at Bambi versus Godzilla. If Bambi rushes under Godzilla’s foot, he’s not a hero, only stupid and masochistic.
            You have the same reading comprehension issues Carrington had.

            1. You are correct, Miss Hoyt, and they are either nit-pickers or dolts. Or both.

              Nothing personal on my part—simply stating a fact.

        3. I’m with you, but I don’t think she’s implying anything specifically about the Hot Gates, etc.

          She’s talking about heroes, which is cool. You’re touching on warrior culture, which she has no way to relate to.

          You’re both ‘right’, in my opinion. 😉

    2. We’re talking fiction. If life followed the rules of fiction, things would be a good deal more interesting, and follow far more rational rules. Please don’t be purposefully obtuse. We can only have a meaningful discussion if everybody is acting in good faith. Equivocating on terms (and other logical fallacies) is an immediate indication that you aren’t.

    3. I suggest you re-read the post. You are misconstruing what Sarah said. Yes, if you take the sentence you quoted out of context at face value, then the Spartans and the men at the Alamo weren’t heroes. However, if you actually read the post and take into consideration what Sarah says here, The people of flight 93 were heroes. Their attempt to save themselves was futile, but they managed to spare a target and many other lives. (And they knew they were risking their lives.) The people who went back into the towers to rescue strangers and co-workers, particularly those who went back over and over again till fate caught up with them were heroes, as great as any sang in myth and history”, you will see the fallacy of your comment.

      1. I think Sarah and Dixon are sort of talking past one another. I don’t think Dixon is saying that their to the last man stand wasn’t heroic because they died, but asked, if things where different and Xerxes and Santa Anna were ultimately victorious, would they be regarded as heroes by this definition?

        By Sarah’s definition, though, if history was different neither the Spartans nor the Texans would have known that their stand was futile. They would have given their lives for a fighting chance and thus would still be heroes, just maybe not heroes to the Persians or the Mexicans.

        I have a hairier question, though, that’s squarely SF. What if humans encounter an alien race that values something that’s incomprehensible to us as worth sacrificing their lives? To their planet they are great heroes. To humans, though, it looks like a foolish waste of life. And by the same token what if we encounter a species so different from us that what we are willing to die for seems foolish? How can such extremes be reconciled? And if neither realizes the other is willing to die for something they see as inconsequential, what impact would that have on human/alien diplomatic relations?

      2. There is one thing – there possibly (probably) were heroes above the impact points in the towers, too. I don’t think every one of them knew they, and those around them, were doomed.

        That’s what you call the unknown heroes. I can’t say how many of those have existed in the world – because they are unknown.

      1. “In yon straight pass a thousand, may well be stopped by three. Now who will stand at either hand and keep the bridge with me?” /butting in in a conversation that’s not mine.

    4. Heroic because they went in knowing they were most likely dead, but that their sacrifice might help their people win in the end.

    5. Slowing down an attacker to allow other forces time to get their hockey together is a very big thing. That happened both at Thermopylae and the Alamo. Both, also, served as an example to inspire others.

  2. One of the things my students like is that I’ll let them pick some of the topics. Last semester, they requested a talk specifically on villains.

    Of course, I made them work for it. I’m evil that way, wanting them to learn to reason things out rather than just hand it to them like a typical public school unionist. 🙂 I forced them to work at defining what a “villain” is. It took them nearly ten minutes, and of course the whole time I had the answers prepared on slides.

    After most of those ten minutes had passed, they finally concluded that you could not define a villain without first defining a hero; because while a hero can exist without a villain, you can’t be villainous without acting against heroic expectations.

    Fortunately for them and my time (though I’d planned on them taking about as long as they did), they remembered me talking about heroes before, in my previous lectures on characters. Heroes are those who act in a self-sacrificing manner for a moral goal. That’s it. They must, as you said, risk life, limb, reputation, or something else that is a true sacrifice. (Shall we put it as “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor”?)

    Once they had that laid out for them, they could figure out what a villain was almost instantly. A villain is one that acts in a selfish manner for an immoral goal. The selfishness or selflessness of a character is defined by that character’s actions; the morality is defined by the framework of the story. Of course, most of the time, the latter is going to be functionally the same (Phillip Pullman is an outlier), but there are always nuances even in a story that blatantly adheres to an established real-world moral code.

    And with that defined, they could see how being heroic doesn’t require a villain. A firefighter who rushes into a burning building on the off chance someone might be in there is heroic. A firefighter who rescues a cat from a tree is not. A man who donates pocket change to charity (even if he has really deep pockets) is not heroic; a man who donates his personal time to run a rec center and keep young children from drugs and gangs for no personal compensation is heroic.

    1. Hmmm. Only half-caffeinated myself, but I see a problem when you get into the fiddly details of this definition for “villain.”

      There are many examples of people that did not use selfish means – but had an immoral goal. Many Germans gave their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to the Third Reich.

      Then you have the problem of those who did so for a goal that they thought (with reason) was moral. Batista’s regime was a nasty, corrupt dictatorship; there was very good reason for someone to fight for its destruction. The fact that it was replaced by an even nastier, more corrupt dictatorship does not necessarily make the sacrifices of many Cuban revolutionaries “villainous.”

      Not going to name any names (because there would be disputes over their inclusion or exclusion) – but just about every politician that has achieved and retained high office has done so for selfish reasons, and usually with very morally doubtful means – but some of them have been very good for the nation. Not that many, if any, are really in the “hero” category – but not in the “villain” one either.

      1. You made two blunders in that, I’m afraid. First, if you look at what I wrote, you’ll see that I noted the morality of the story is defined by said story. We’re talking about something objective in the subset; whether it’s subjective in the aggregate is up for debate and beyond the scope of my classroom. I only teach creative writing, not theology or philosophy (and even then, it’s noncredit, so I don’t get to be called a professor).

        Second, and less obvious: think about what you get when you mix-and-match. A hero is a character who performs a selfless act for a moral goal; a villain is a character who performs a selfish act for an immoral goal. What happens when a character performs a selfless act for an immoral goal, or a selfish act for a moral goal? Those are anti-villains and anti-heroes, respectively. I didn’t mention them earlier because the topic was just on heroes and victims, but I can’t fault you for wondering.

        1. And when you have a hero and an anti-hero (or villain and anti-villain) encounter each other in your story, it blows up your story-world and irradiates the ashes.


    2. What about committing or countenancing an immoral act in the short term for a perceived moral goal in the long term?

  3. I think that the focus on risk and danger can derail the distinction between hero and victim. Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t dangerous. I would not consider a man who abandoned his family to seek adventure to be heroic, nor a man who left a dangerous profession in order to be home for his family to be a victim. Heroism can involve risking everything, but it can also involve doing whatever is necessary to minimize the risk to those things that really matter.

      1. Is there? I have always considered heroism to be continuing to behave decently when the world doesn’t. Shizuoka Endo’s novel “Silence” deals eloquently with that issue. Often we think we are basically good people only because being good is easy. It’s when it becomes difficult to be good that we find out who we really are.

        1. To a degree, you’re correct.

          There are times when a person “risks everything” by remaining a decent person.

          But in general, being a Hero goes beyond “just being a decent person”.

          1. That’s what confuses some critics about many of Keith Laumer’s characters. They’re expecting heroes, but they’re just decent people doing something that needs to be done.

              1. The best example of that in Laumer’s ouvre is a pair of novellas, usually packaged together as “The Day Before Forever and Thunderhead.”

      2. A silver star recipient, and another who was awarded two bronze stars, would have disagreed. Both had the same line: They thought they were not worthy to receive their medals because, in their opinion they just did what anyone should have done. I don’t know what the bronze star recipient did, but did learn that the one awarded the silver star braved enemy fire to complete a task and dragged a wounded soldier to safety when done. To both those men, what they did was just descent behavior.

        This gets back to Heinlein’s story of the husband and the hobo risking their lives to free the woman. Had the hobo survived, he likely would have said something similar to the medal winners above.

        So what’s the dividing line between decent behavior and heroism? The US Army thought what those two medal winners did heroic, but the medal winners disagreed to the point that I learned of both their awards – and their denials that they had done anything worthy of a medal – after their deaths.

        1. I have heard that the vast majority of those who received the Congressional Medal of Honor (those not posthumously awarded) have been absolutely shocked at their selection. They “knew” of several others that they considered far more deserving…

          1. There’s a story that floats around that Richard Nixon invited surviving MOH holders to the White House. One of the holders, who didn’t like Nixon, refused on that ground.

            Nixon sent a reply that the man’s opinion wasn’t relevant; he held that medal in trust for all the others who performed acts of heroism that were never recorded, and it was his duty to represent them.

            I don’t remember how that worked out, but Tricky Dick had a pretty good sense for protocol.

    1. There is a middle ground of “normal people leading normal lives”. The inner city policeman who becomes a suburban mall security guard when his son is born is in that “normal” range. It’s a completely sensible decision that doesn’t fit the hero/victim categories.

      What he does when he discovers the vampires running the Forever 21 store might change that…

      1. EXACTLY this. There is a difference between “being an upstanding citizen” and “being a hero”. To be a hero you must risk or sacrifice something of great importance.

      2. Chuckle Chuckle

        There’s a “stock character” in some horror novels where a Big City cop has moved to a small town (to be a small town cop) in order to get away from the “horrors” of being a Big City cop only to realized that “monsters” are paying his small town a visit. 😉

    2. IMO there is a difference between “doing the right thing” and “being a hero”.

      IE you can be a Good Person without being a Hero.

      Another way of saying it is that you do not have only two choices. The choices aren’t “being a Hero” and “being a Victim”.

      Most people aren’t Victims and many people don’t get into situations where they can be Heroes.

        1. I can’t help but have Vimes popping into my head throughout all of this. Hero, or decent man? I think one could argue both there. (Though ultimately, I think it boils down to “Vimes doesn’t believe he’s a hero, he just sees it as doing the right thing.” But he risks life–and family–to do that right thing.)

        2. I guess what I am trying to say is I believe that a person who will put himself in the path of the dragon to save other people is that sort of person whether or not the dragon ever shows up. It isn’t in the moment of crisis that one becomes a hero (although one may realize it at that moment) instead it is a lifelong habit of virtue that prepares one for the moment of crisis.

          1. I think you’re saying that the “quality” that makes a person a hero may be unknown until the person gets into the situation where it is revealed.

            If so, then I can’t disagree. 😀

            1. The sad thing is that some heroes have a lot of trouble being decent citizens, outside of extreme danger. The differences between wartime and peacetime virtues can also trip them up, although sometimes it may really be PTSD.

  4. Slightly off topic, but there was an article where the article writer started out by saying that the “super-hero is inherently fascist” (I suspect because most super-heroes aren’t governed by human laws).

    I basically disagree by stating that the Super-Hero is an offshoot of the “Wandering Protector/Avenger” character who acts to right a wrong when it’s “not his job to do so”.

    Now, I agree with Sarah about the element of danger/loss involved in being a true hero.

    Of course, the Fireman who goes into danger to save others is a hero just a different type that the “Wandering Protector/Avenger”. 😀

    1. > Of course, the Fireman who goes into danger to save others is a hero just a different type

      The media pumped the “NY firemen hero” thing *hard* after 9/11.

      They were NOT heroes.

      They were DOING THEIR JOB. Which they got by (supposedly) competitive examination, that they went to schools and training for, and had all the equipment and tools, and a pension plan, health insurance, and the freaking union cards.

      The heroes were the ordinary citizens who ran in, dodging falling debris, to dig for and drag out whoever they could. It wasn’t their job. They didn’t have the training or equipment. They weren’t being paid to do it, but they were risking their lives anyway.

      Of course, nowadays “hero” is a word that gets attached to ball players by default, and so has almost no real meaning now.

      1. How about earlier this week, the Chicago cop on her way into work who rushed into a burning building and rescued four people and three pets? Hero, or just a decent lady?

      2. There were men and women who did not need the evac calls after the collapse but yes. Public safety professions require actions above and beyond what is expected to be performed to qualify as heroic. Can happen but it is not routine.

      3. This has stuck in my craw ever since I read it, because by your argument soldiers are incapable of heroism because they are trained in what they do. There are dangers inherent in some tasks, and it doesn’t matter how well you’re trained or how much equipment you have, you might be faced with a situation that you know is dangerous but you do it anyway. Just because you’re trained to do a job safely doesn’t mean that all jobs will be safe.

        If you run into a building to get people out and you know it could come down around your ears at any moment, you do so knowing all your training and safety equipment will do diddly squat against tons of steel, glass, and masonry. That’s heroism. Having the city give you a nice funeral doesn’t make you any less dead.

        1. This is a tricky argument that I have had with myself repeatedly. There are many risky jobs that we deem as “heroic” simply for doing such as fire fighter or soldier. People enlist for any variety of reasons that have nothing to do with defending their country while plenty do so for the primary purpose of service to our way of life. Therefore I have a hard time labeling someone a hero for doing a dangerous job, otherwise petroleum workers and men who build skyscrapers would be heroes as well because their is inherent risk in their profession. A soldier or fire fighter knows what he is risking when he takes the job. Doing that job will earn my respect but, to me, he only turns into a hero when he goes beyond the job in service to others or their cause.

          1. Have you served? (Asking to figure out how to frame a response. If you haven’t there are some examples that are less useful than others.)

    2. The superhero genre came out of pulp crime fiction. It has become stories about metaphorical armies having their champions duke it out, ala ancient Greek (and other) warfare. It is also, in theory, set in our own modern day, I think in order to be recognizable. Our modern society has a different style of warfare than the ancients, and that drives some of our distinct features.

      One could argue that the nostalgia that certain near modern political movements evoked for the Classical era is similar.

      Meh, I always bitch about the superhero genre, and never show by my own example how to do it right.

  5. I’ve noticed this trend before. There’s definitely a misconception that a “protagonist” is automatically a “hero” which leads to a lot of people misconstrue the term, which waters down the real meaning of hero and ultimately weakens it for everyone. A hero is not simply “the protagonist,” they’re an individual that displays courage and self-sacrifice for the good of others. But we’ve watered down the idea of a hero (mistakenly, for the most part) through overuse of terms like “everyone is the hero of their own story,” or the ideas of moral relativism.

    Problem is, doing so weakens narratives. Heroes, anti-heroes, and villains start to fall apart and blur when the terms are used so interchangeably. And it doesn’t help that, again, we see that growing trend of moral relativism that argues that everyone is right and tries to make it seem that the hero, anti-hero, and villain are all the same … which is a gross misconstruction of the observation that they are similar, but NOT the same.

    I ended up writing a few BaBW posts on the subject and was surprised by the amount of shocked and surprised comments I received as feedback from a number of readers who really DIDN’T know what the differences between each were. The term “hero” really has been completely watered down these days.

    Makes it all the more important to make sure that the heroes we write about are real heroes. Set the standard.

    1. Minor quibble. I think there is room for MCs that are not heroes, that entertain, and do not badly confuse the matter.

      1. Yes, I didn’t intend for that to be interpreted that way. We acknowledge that main characters are simply main characters, rather than referring to them as heroes. I wasn’t saying that we can’t have main characters that aren’t heroes, but rather that we need to make sure we’re not misconstruing main characters that aren’t heroes but entertaining protagonists as heroic figures when they are not.

      2. Yes. The story I’m currently working on, the protagonist was the hero in the previous book, but in this story, the hero would be someone else, who we only see a few times.
        The protagonist has a tough job, and he’s doing it best he can, but he’s really not in danger of ‘losing’ anything. Honestly, he’d rather not even be there, but he got loaned out.

      1. Being a Better Writer. A written series discussing different aspects of writing, from opening hooks (and different the different types) to heroes to doing research). Initially started as a response to readers and fans asking me questions about writing, and grew into a weekly feature on different writing subjects.

          1. Ooooooh … I’d best keep that in mind and just write out the title in the future then when not in direct circles. Thanks!

        1. OK, that doesn’t help either. In this case, I don’t think that Sarah would mind a link being posted…

          1. Never mind… More caffeine indicated. Forgot to look at the color of your handle…

  6. I think the cost is part of what makes a hero: if it doesn’t cost him anything, he’s a good guy when he does something admirable. If she risks what she’s been working toward forever, she’s a hero. And the risk must be real.

  7. This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

    ‘Employee of the Month’ is not a hero. I’d criticize gold-stars-for-everyone self esteem culture, but the debasing of the word seems to predate that.

    I think there are more than one useful definition for hero.

    I’ll read about an MC that is a bread shuttle in elementary, or gets beaten to death before reincarnating in another world. Or any number of other standard devices, some quite absurd. But a character who is a bread shuttle during elementary, works hard to escape that, and becomes a bread shuttle during middle, and so on through being a bread shuttle at the old folks home is unlikely to hold my attention.

    I will read about heroes who are simply ancient Greek chieftens, champions, nobles and warriors. Or vir that are Roman, or whatever the word is for Norse.

    I will read about a hero who is a man that holds to principle and civilization when circumstances lead those around him to abandon it.

    I will read about a hero who has a more bizarre definition, like in Gao-Gai-Gar.

    Please pardon the lack of a detailed essay, as I am under the weather.

      1. Tends to be Asian school stories. A person strong or high status students have go buy food and drinks. Sometimes they are reimbursed, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are lackeys currying favor, sometimes they are victims forced to do it as a sign of submission.

        1. Personal or group errandboy or gofer. He wades through crowds to buy sweet or savory flavored bread (“pan”, from Portuguese or Spanish) in the lunchroom, or sometimes from a nearby store.

            1. What Japanese does when it borrows words from other languages is… a lot like what English does, actually, with extra phonetic transcription errors. A lot of Portuguese words were borrowed and mangled in the 16th century, including pão and vidro (which led to things like the half-loanword “biidama” = vidro + tama = “a glass marble”).

              One of my favorite loanwords is “baikingu”, which English-speakers expect to mean “biking”, but which actually means “buffet dining” (because Viking was easier to say than smorgasbord).


    1. Even the bread shuttle case can work if the author is good enough. Case in point, “Job: a comedy of justice” by Heinlein. Of course that is the only case where it works that I can think of.

      1. If someone else said it could not be done, I would try to figure out a way to prove them wrong.

        If one is taking advice from others about writing, it may be because one doesn’t have the experience and market data to judge for oneself. If one is giving advice, one might want to keep that in mind.

        Story approaches that are much harder to do right take a lot of hard work to pull off, and probably will not often grab the majority of market share.

        ‘There is no storytelling idea so bad it cannot be saved by a good enough execution’ might be true, but ‘people read genres because the conventions fit story ideas that are easier to make work for them’ is probably at least as true.

        1. The Lord Darcy stories (by Randall Garrett) were started when Randall Garrett heard that “You Can’t Write A Good Mystery” in a world where magic works.

          He proceeded in proving that wrong. 😉

          1. I find some things very inspiring. Being told something is impossible or beyond my ability. Being asked to do something or how to do something. An obviously flawed statement that can be reformulated to highlight the flaw. A subtly flawed statement that needs a map, a straight edge, and a microscope in order to show the flaw.

      2. Most modern romance “heroines” don’t have a heroic bone in their bodies. And to be honest, usually niceness is all you want in a romance (or possibly a heroic male love interest teamed with an appreciative female love interest). Paranormal romance protags are usually reckless and stupid, but also not heroic. Some are not even nice. (And risking yourself or others for sex and/or personal power – not heroic.)

        But a love story between two main characters who display complementary forms of heroism – that is romantic.

            1. Fair enough, though I’d always figured it was Lois putting a regency romance into the Vorkosiverse.

              1. Of course. And my books have romances in them too, but when people say “these books are REALLY romances” they just a) demonstrate their ignorance of both genres (Heinlein also had a romance. Always. Simak always. In fact, the only one I can think who regularly didn’t have romance is Asimov.) b) demonstrate they’re stuck somewhere where “if you have icky feelings it’s romance.” — so around 12.

                1. A friend once told me that all the songs in the Childe Catalog — the great catalog of traditional songs from the British Isles — are about sex, war, drinking, the supernatural, or some combination thereof. I thought about it for a moment, and said “Of course. What else is there to write about?”

                  (No, he wasn’t drunk at the time. Neither was I.)

  8. As a counterpoint argument, you can bring up the folks who say “Sacrifices must be made!” while ignoring the fact that you can’t sacrifice somebody else’s valuable things. You can steal them, but if you give up somebody else’s stuff, it’s not actually a sacrifice on your part…

      1. I’ve always been able to post here; it’s ATH I can’t post on. (But I still read it.) It’s something about our internet address, because I’ve been able to post there when I’m on a trip while using the same computer, but not from home when using a different computer.

  9. I tried to nobly refrain from singing Billy Joel’s classic song “My Life” which sprung unbidden to my head when I read the title. Alas, I have a failed. I have a message for the whiny, the confused, the Progressives, and the SJW’s:

    “You can speak your mind
    But not on my time.”


  10. I thought this was a great way to clarify the difference between hero and cannon fodder. Never really thought about it that way. Very helpful, and I’ll keep it in mind in future writing endeavors!

  11. I knew 2 seniors, one WW II vet and the other a Korean War vet. Without mentioning his politics, they both agreed that John McCain was not a hero for refusing to leave the POW camp. More like a noble gesture than “heroic”. In their eyes the term hero is reserved for the Audie Murphy/Sgt York types. Maybe our definition of “hero” has “evolved” just as the term “racism” has “evolved” to mean even trivial things, often politically related. It dilutes the traditional meaning and (almost) mocks it.
    Not sayin’ I agree with them, just putting their perspective out there.

  12. Real martyrs tend to be cheerful, although of course not everybody can manage that all the time, with death and torture staring them in the face. (Imitating Jesius can also mean imitating Gethsemane.) But self-dramatizers don’t bother with keeping a stiff upper lip (or pretending to), these days.

    1. Yes. There is heroism in martyrdom of the religious kind (Christian at least) because if you die with a song on your lips other people will want to (and did want to) follow your religion. So heroes.

  13. Heroism is an external factor. Defined by the observer, not action.

    While the milquetoast may not embody common accepted heroic behavior, their morals could be a suicidal case of “violence only begets violence”, their suffering endurance to live/achieve their morals would be heroic.

    Just not admirable.

  14. I find the use of hero used to often for the wrong reasons; it has lost its meaning. I am a veteran and my son is in the Army. On FNC he and I hear hero thrown around for service members like him, just doing their duty and he had two tours in Iraq. We both cringe when we hear this modern use of the word. Many are called heroes who have no choice as with the 3 young men on the train to Paris who told the world they were not heroes. They were brave, but I agree not heroes. Someone who is outside of the situation and risks life and limb to save people is a traditional hero. If a terrorist attacks a club full of people and I rush them and die; I would not be a hero and would not want to be called one.

  15. Indeed, one of the most moving character arcs is From Victim To Hero, which is when a character who survived being a victim of some evil learns how to fight back effectively and then heroically combats that evil in the future. This arc is impossible if “victim” and “hero” are synonymous, and the reason it’s so corrupting to tell a victim that she’s a hero by virtue of her victimization is that it precludes this more positive future development, since it robs her of the motivation to rise above her defeat and become heroic in the future.

  16. The physical hero risks his life.
    The psychological hero risks his soul; Dirty Harry is a hero because he dares to go into the grey area. That’s far braver.

      1. And if he goes too far, then he himself becomes the bad guy.
        Believe you have an immortal soul? Or even that what we do in life matters? Then it’s the risk of overstepping that belief. that makes him a hero.
        Indeed, that belief makes it easier to die. physically.

  17. I do find a disturbing number of modern SF and Fantasy stories that claim to depict “heroes” fail to follow the classical definition of a hero as someone who does something extraordinary, or the modern definition as someone who does something noble and brave.

    Instead we have that “But they suffered so beautifully/Had a tragic past/Check off all of the right boxes on the Bingo card!” conceit you describe. So many passive, listless, pouty, limp, colorless characters. Urgh.

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