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Blast From the Past: Rescuing the Hero

Amanda has some life interference today, so I volunteered to step in with a post. And then my life interfered, so I was left with a choice this morning: post a thousand words of fiction I wrote yesterday, or a blast from the past. Since this is a writing blog, but it’s not that kind of writing blog, you get the post about heroism in fiction instead of the random words out of context. I, um, don’t remember where this was originally published. Sorry. 

I made a rash comment the other day, and a combination of ‘brainnnzzz’ due to traveling and my usual tendency to write in mental shorthand (which drives my editors crazy too) meant that my thoughts came out garbled. So I decided I’d better unpack what I meant and make it clearer. Hopefully clear enough to communicate my intent.

I’d had a chance to sit and talk at length with my sister the other day. She is not a geek but like me, enjoys reading. We were talking about the death of heroism in fiction. She, like so many others, has seen the traditional publishing’s obsession with the anti-hero, with the characters that are broken beyond repair, and mired in hopelessness. Because she and I were raised reading a lot of Christian fiction, we also are both acutely aware that message fiction is usually poor quality, even if you are a proponent of the particular message being shoved down your throat.

But is heroism a dying art in fiction? The answer to that, which I wasn’t clear on in my comment, is that no, it’s not. If all you read is mainstream books, you might not know this. But if you are reading Indie Authors like Peter Grant, Chris Nuttall, and Amanda Green, you know that the Hero is seeing a resurgence in popularity. If you have been reading Baen, you know that authors like Lois McMaster Bujold, John Ringo, and David Drake have been the bastion of heroism for more than two decades. The casual reader may have wondered where the hero has gone, but I can assure you that he’s coming back, rescued from obscurity and a besmirched reputation by authors who want to write stories readers want to read.

Message fiction tends to confuse the idea of the hero (and I’m not talking about the archetypal hero’s journey, by the way) with the concept that the readers need to ‘identify’ with the main character in some way. So what you wind up with is what we’ve been mocking, the character that is all the diversity checklist rolled into one cardboard tube. Someone commented in a recent conversation that they had heard an author boasting of simply changing a character’s name, because there weren’t enough women in the novel they were working on.

If you can alter a character’s innate personhood simply by changing their name, you’re not writing very well. Men and women react differently, speak differently, often have different driving motivations. They are not, no matter what message fiction would have you believe, interchangeable simply at a whim. Mainstream writers are caught up in writing message, and diversity, and they have lost sight of something important.

Heroes are not only men, they are not only women. They are often flawed, but they are not broken and irredeemable. Heroes are the people we can look up to, wonder “could I do that, in that situation?” They are the people we read about, and who make us feel like being better people ourselves. Heroism isn’t always big, noble acts. I read recently about a woman I’d never heard of, who did not succeed in her efforts to save herself, and her friends. Judy Resnick was in the Challenger when it started to come apart. She put on her oxygen, and then that of the people who were sitting where she could reach. It was a futile effort, but a heroic one, and one that makes me happy to read, even as I grieve over the deaths of the brave ones. Heroes don’t always have happy endings.

There has been an effort to smirch the expectation of a hero, to tarnish them, with accusations of being too perfect. But really, Indiana Jones was not a perfect hero. He was a cad about women (as was James Bond, among others). I love reading Louis L’Amour, with his heroic men and women (Ride the River with Echo Sackett, Ride the Dark Trail with Em Talon) but none of them are perfect. Peter Grant’s Steve Maxwell series started out with the young hero being practically perfect, but as the books go on, he struggles and grows, just as real people do. We all know we aren’t perfect. But what can we learn – what do we want to learn – from ‘heroes’ who are despicable people? We might never be able to be as good as the Grey Lensman (EE “Doc” Smith), Flash Gordon, or the original versions of Superman. But those are characters we can look up to and choose traits we want to model in ourselves.

I have no problems with writing more women into books. I’m a woman, and I do tend to write female characters (the Pixie Series notwithstanding) because it’s easier for me to be in a feminine headspace. What I do have a problem with is deriding males and forcing them into villain or goofy sidekick roles just to fit some politically correct agenda. I’m a big fan of real equality, and I’m a big fan of men being heroes, protectors, and supporters when their woman is fighting too. Hero isn’t a gendered term, and it’s time to remember that, and not let it stop us from writing more heroes because it’s sexist or something.

I love both Larry Correia’s heroes, and Jim Butcher’s heroes. Larry writes more than one – and his latest is a stone-cold killer. But still a hero, even if that takes a while to happen. Redemption is a common theme in heroic fiction, perhaps because so many of us know that what we need in our own lives is redemption. We need healing. Harry Dresden is a broken man, but none the less a hero. Michael, one of the secondary characters in that series, is a perfect person, but one I love to read about. He’s pure in his faith, and I find that inspiring. Murphy, who has to juggle Harry’s danger-magnet tendencies with her job and duty, is also heroic. If you’re looking for heroes, either author is a great choice.

Heroes are not always self-confident. Sarah Hoyt (surely you’ve read her work) writes two I love, in different series. Athena is a dangerous woman, but an uncertain one. It slows her at times, but it doesn’t stop her, and I find that helpful in my own life, even if I have never (and will never) been hell-on-wheels in a fight. The other character is Tom, in the shifter books, who is a very diffident personality, but one that has gained so much power he could either be a hero or a villain – and he chooses to be a hero.

Here, perhaps, is the kernel of it. Choices. Heroes make the right choices. Sarah and Amanda kept nudging me to read Drawing Out the Dragons, and when I finally did, James Owen points out that our lives are dictated by the choices we make. Me, I choose to read, and write, heroic fiction. It’s what I like, and perhaps I can rescue a hero in my time.

(Header Image: Cedar’s earliest heroes, her parents, before she was born. The young man in the photo went on to be sole income earner for the family, served in the USAF, and had thirty years of emergency services under his belt before retirement. The young woman was a stay-at-home mom (and if you don’t think that’s quietly heroic, you haven’t tried it!) homeschooled my sister and I in an era when that was almost unheard of, and still provides sole care to a severely handicapped adult, my other sister. So, yeah, heroes come in all shapes and sizes). 

15 Comments
  1. That picture was taken before we were married — I was eighteen and he was nineteen when we married. The kind statement is encouraging, because to be honest, I’ve felt like a failure much more often than I’ve felt like a hero. But I did try to do the best I could do, even if I didn’t often succeed.

    October 2, 2018
    • We talk about small stories, Mom, and yours has been narrow in scope, yes. You didn’t get a chance to save the universe, or draw up the plans for a more orderly galaxy with great workflow. But you did raise the three of us, and you’re taking care of a rather difficult person trapped inside her shell to this day, with no respite in sight. You’re my hero. You let me be the Elephant’s Child, growing up, which was part of what shaped me into what I am now.

      October 2, 2018
  2. Without diving too far into politics, I wonder if this is one of those places where we are seeing the toxic side of the power of stories? Individuals who appear decent, honorable, and brave in the small things (raising a family, helping those in need but quietly, mentoring the next generation) MUST have a terrible hidden flaw… because that’s what The Narrative demands. And if there isn’t a Dreadful Secret or Hidden Weakness, the media/social media/whoever digs even harder because Law&Order and Bones and all those shows and popular novels demand a Dreadful Secret. So it MUST exist!

    Even if, in real life, it doesn’t.

    October 2, 2018
    • This is something that has been aggravating me — I read a lot of romance novels (because when I’m tired or not feeling good, they don’t require a lot of thought or concentration), and it seems like far too many of the main characters have been severely abused, or had some other horrible childhood trauma that they’ve never managed to overcome. Or their girlfriend or their boyfriend left them at the end of high school and they’ve never managed to get past that. Yes, those things do happen. Yes, they leave scars and affect us. But most people are strong enough to get up and live their lives anyway! They recover and go on! I’d much rather read about the person who had the strength and the fortitude to pick themselves up off the floor (with perhaps some assistance along the way) and recover and go on to live life. And I like reading about people who have had fairly ‘normal’ lives (for whatever normal really means), and did great things — even if the ‘great things’ are ‘just’ being a good person and taking care of your family. A good writer doesn’t need huge events to make a story interesting, they can take normal, everyday, ‘boring’ people and make them and their lives interesting to the reader.

      October 2, 2018
      • Well this is an encouraging comment for me. I’m trying to write about a girl who ends up on a sheep farm helping her great uncle because her fantasies about saving the world became toxic. And she does meet a nice guy…

        October 2, 2018
      • I recently read a romance where the male protagonist’s family were nice people – well, his mother and half-siblings, at any rate. He’d helped build a stable environment for them while growing up with a feckless father as best he could, and they all turned out alright as people, and is implied that after he’d helped put them through school/get a start in life they didn’t hound him for money, and showed they loved him as family should. Most of the male protag’s mistakes were toward the heroine, really; because he being the eldest, had grown cynical about love from watching his father’s stupid careless choices in life.

        I found it rather refreshing to have a portrayal of rich person’s family members not being superficial greedy self-absorbed monsters.

        October 3, 2018
    • Sadly, not even Mother Teresa was immune to this.

      Was she perfect? Probably not, nobody is. But if one were to try to come up with a “gold standard” for what a good person is, I would think that Mother Teresa would at LEAST be in the top 10, and I’m not even Christian, let alone Catholic.

      October 2, 2018
      • There were two factors in the search for a “dark side” to Mother Teresa.

        1. Commentator with issues, fighting them and the urge to believe.

        2. Commentator who is sure he could run a charity better, even though he never does anything charitable.

        To be fair, though, it’s historically common for people who want to think of themselves as good to react with desperation against people who are obviously, unmistakably good and/or holy. Tests, insults, nasty rumors, obstacles, outright crimes, and so on.

        Sometimes, even often, a gangster is a safer companion for a saint than your local do-gooder. The gangster might be fascinated by naked goodness, but the do-gooder is often terrified and murderously offended.

        October 2, 2018
    • Draven #

      Short answer: Yes.

      October 2, 2018
  3. I am so very tired of watching people do rewrites on reality. I was just watching a PBS show about Tolkien and Lewis, where they interviewed various academics. Apparently they all had reading comprehension problems, even with the men’s essays.

    It turned out that they were taking info about one part of their lives, and forcing every other statement to fit the other statement — even and especially when Tolkien or Lewis had been talking about several different things that worked differently!

    One super-annoying point was when they took comments about Christian liturgy, and tried to make them about all human religious rituals. And then they used a visual of some kind of, I think, a Buddhist ceremony. (It was hard to tell what it was, and they did not identify it, but it involved a woman leader and some kind of spherical rock. If it was a Christian group, they were doing weird things.)

    But it happened several times. They would put a quote onscreen, and the academic would explain how it meant something else other than what it said. I was particularly annoyed by the overtly Christian guys, but they were all doing it. Bah humbug.

    Anyway, Tolkien and Lewis have been used as main characters in several published novels, and I have still never seen them used well. They fail to portray them as English profs, as knowledgeable in their fields and interests, as sticking to their beliefs (Christian and otherwise), and in being non-idiots. Also, Tolkien keeps getting made an example of the Magical Linguist trope, which is particularly not amusing in the case of a man who worked very hard and often pointed out the limitations of the field.

    Why, why, why? I don’t expect accuracy about technical matters of Old English or whatever, and it would be legit to use or reinterpret the more shadowy bits of their lives. But it is the obvious and clear stuff that gets changed! Why!!!!!????

    October 2, 2018
    • I read a book about Tolkien this summer and then had a very odd thought. Is he perhaps the inspiration for Miss Lydgate in Dorothy Sayer’s book Gaudy Night? Someone who has invented numerous symbols to explain some obscure point in philology but struggles to get papers to the publisher, always wanting perfection… Very kind.

      October 2, 2018
      • Possible. But there used to be a lot of philologists in English programs, and the publishing problems are still endemic….

        October 4, 2018
    • Bob #

      Don’t even get me started on what’s been done with Lovecraft.

      October 3, 2018
  4. Oh, and that horrendous Branagh version of Murder in the Orient Express, that turned Poirot into a wishy washy loser, and changed the legal theme into a “nobody should be judged” piece of goo. Even worse than the Suchet version, which was so dumb that I never made it to the end.

    Poirot has to be pigheaded and in control, even when he has moments of doubt and drama. That is his structural role as well as his character. If he were wishywashy, he would never get so much done.

    October 2, 2018
  5. Bob #

    This guy makes some good points. And sort of made me wistful for the old Highlander TV show and (first) movie. Something refreshing about a hero who’s good. Not sanctimonious, not self-righteous, just…good.

    October 3, 2018

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