Heroing For The Rest Of Us

In the favored genres here, particularly with our tendency to prefer the more old-fashioned kind of SF and Fantasy (where men were real men, women were real women, and little green men from Mars were real little green men from Mars… You know the drill), the non-villainous side of the cast list has a tendency to get a little bit larger than life.

There’s this creeping tendency to gift the hero… protagonist with extra powers, extra smarts, extra good looks and the like. There’s a definite trend towards extra muscularity in the males and gravity-defying firmness of the front-mounted weapon emplacements in the females, too.

But most folks aren’t like that. We’re ordinary, and it gets tiring – and tiresome – to see nothing but the overpowered all the time (that’s not to say that superhero tales can’t be fun or that there’s no place for the noble hero who’s a paragon of paragons. Just that it’s a bit boring if that’s the only type of hero floating around).

I’ve always had a bit of a fondness for the rogue and trickster types. There’s a lot of fun to be had in sharing head-space with a character who charms their way out of potentially lethal situations and wins through unusual and clever means rather than the more traditional victory (these have also led to some of the most hilarious books I’ve read – as Dave knows because I’ve cursed him a few times for something that had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe – for a good free starting point, try Save the Dragons complete with hero who is more of a long skinny streak of misery who thinks his way out of trouble – and usually into even more trouble).

Pratchett’s Rincewind has his moments, although there are limits to how far one can take a plot based on the main character running away – but he certainly shows a fair amount of trickery mixed in with the cowardice when he’s stuck in the malodorous deposits.

The key thing is to refrain from making the protagonist too powerful. Doing that forces you to keep coming up with more powerful antagonists to the point where you wind up escalating from personal crises all the way to saving the universe just to keep the protagonist on his/her toes. That or make the protagonist sufficiently dumb that all the problems are actually caused by said protagonist’s mistakes.

It’s also helpful to have other people check what’s happening. I’ve read drafts of works where the alleged protagonist was so noxious that the only thing distinguishing him from a seriously evil antagonist was the author’s insistence that the protagonist was the good guy. I sincerely hope the author responsible actually listened to criticism and changed things, because there’s a much larger market for mostly-ordinary decent types as protagonists than there is for amoral nutcases whose only distinction from the antagonist is the side they’re on.

I got distracted somewhere there, and my brain is currently too scattered to find it again, so I shall sign off and see what the comments bring on the less “uber-heroic” protagonist types.


  1. where the alleged protagonist was so noxious that the only thing distinguishing him from a seriously evil antagonist was the author’s insistence that the protagonist was the good guy.

    But but… That’s “Real World”!!!! [Sarcastic Grin]

    Yeah, some people think “a not perfect character” means “make the “hero” almost as nasty as the villain”. 😦

    1. Precisely. There are decent people in the real world too. It’s just that they tend to avoid going into careers where they’re going to be in the public eye all the time.

      1. and… there’s a deal of heroism to be found in the 96lb weakling who manages NOT to become a jerk despite the temptations and rationalizations attendant to being in the public eye, for whatever reason. I like them, too.

  2. …alleged protagonist was so noxious…

    I’ve been noticing this more lately. I especially hate it when it’s done with a strong hint that there is a reason the supposed “good guy” is acting this way, only to find out there isn’t, or it’s a lame reason and they didn’t really have to.

    Maybe not exactly on topic, but I’ve also been annoyed lately by how many main characters I’ve read who are whiney crybabies. “(this) is my fault, (that) is my fault, boo hoo hoo…” Sure, take responsibility for your actions, but damn, hike up your gender-non-specific undergarments and get on with taking care of business. If I want to hear someone whine about every little thing, I have real life for that. People who cry about life doing them wrong are a penny a ton.

    1. Ugh. I do not read whiny protagonists. Grump some, complain some, then pick up and *do* something about it no matter whose fault it is.

      Apparently an attitude of “this needs to be fixed; I can do something towards fixing it. Therefor I shall do what I can to help fix it.” is even rarer than common sense. And we all know how rare that is.

    2. Eh….
      I mostly agree, mind you. But there are exceptions.

      Luke Skywalker started out with teeth-grinding levels of whine. He didn’t want to deal with petty problems like power converters. He wanted to do something big, something important, to make an actual difference.
      So when The Call came, he started putting on his big boy pants and dealing.

      Garion was not excited to be a pawn of prophecy. It took a bit for him to embrace the role.

      The callow youth is going to whine a bit before accepting responsibility and maturing. It’s his idiom.

      1. uh … “I was gonna go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters” was his quote. He didn’t want to deal with cleaning the new droids…

  3. There’s also the older hero (or heroine) who knows they don’t have the physical chops to wade into the brawl any more, so they use sneaky, cunning, allies, and the local version of firearms to fix the problem (the famous scene from _Indiana Jones_ where Harrison Ford was sick while filming and just shot the hulking bad dude rather than bother with the bullwhip. Yep, that’s what Indie would do!) I have a soft spot for that sort of protagonist.

    1. Oooh yeah. That scene was brilliant because it was so unexpected given that the rest of the movie up to that point had all followed the normal tropes.

      1. One of the only recent Hollywood illustrations of the golden rule, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight.”

        Harrison Ford has the illustration of the other golden rule of combat too: “Han shot first!”

        Do unto others before they do unto you.

          1. Right? Obviously he shot first.

            And of course in the later re-releases Lucas changed it. Idiots.

          2. Nod, Lucas forgot that Han Solo was the Rogue, a lesser bad guy that the Heroes need work with.

            Han was also the “bad guy turns good guy” in the first movie.

            So of course, this criminal would shot first. 😀

          3. I never understood the problem with Han shooting first. Bounty hunter coming to get him and hand him over to a Crime Lord? OF COURSE he should shoot first. Why ever would that be considered a bad thing?

            Let’s put this in a real-life perspective. If a Mob Boss (a decent real life analog for Jabba the Hutt) were to put a bounty on my head, prompting a bounty hunter to try to collect that bounty. To that end, the bounty hunter finds me and points a deadly weapon at me to get me to comply. This would constitute a credible, immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm. That threat would make shooting the bounty hunter a valid use of deadly force in legal self defense, regardless of who actually shoots first, at least where I live anyway.

            I guess it is important to acknowledge that in a lot of the world, and even some places in the US, the right to self defense has been severely curtailed, so shooting AT ALL would be flatly illegal. Personally, I believe that removing the people’s rights to self defense is an egregious offence to human rights, and basic human dignity. People are free to disagree, but unless you come up with an incredibly BRILLIANT argument, don’t bother trying to argue the point. I’m pretty solid on that belief.

            1. Lucas was operating on the stupid idea that “heroes don’t shoot first”.

              Of course, besides that idea being stupid, the fact was that Han Solo (at that time) wasn’t really a Good Guy.

              On the gripping hand, some have said that Lucas was more interested (then) in selling “Han Solo action figures” and imagined that people wouldn’t purchase them “if Han shot first”. 😈

    2. My favorite older hero is Harold Lamb’s Khlit the Cossack. At the beginning of the series (which eventually ran to several volumes) our hero is expelled from the Cossacks for being too old. He proceeds to travel all over India and the Far East having adventures. I believe I recommended this series of trade paperbacks just the other day…

  4. Jack Vance’s “Magnus Ridolph” stories would probably qualify; Ridolph is, if not actually criminal, then more than a little shady, while righting wrongs or solving crimes.

    My favorite, though, is Keith Laumer’s Jame Retief. I’ve been butting heads with one SF blogger for years, who has somehow formed the opinion that Retief is some sort of James Bond superman/spy.

    Retief isn’t a spy, he’s a bureaucrat. He’s just an ordinary schmuck trying to do his job. He’s motivated, but he’s not a “super” anything. (*)That’s sort of the whole point of the Retief stories, about someone subverting a bureaucracy so rotten even an ordinary person can affect things.

    (*) unless you count cynicism and ability to tell BS from gospel a super power…

    1. I always liked Retief. Those stories are Superior Fun in my estimation.

      The thing about Retief as a hero was that he recognized he had -two- enemies to defeat on any mission. The other side, and his own side.

    2. Not a superhero? Maybe. Retief is stronger, taller, quicker, and better looking than those around him. He’s a crack shot, a superb gambler, and a world-class grape-stomper. He even wears a cape!

      I will grant he was never bitten by a radioactive spider, though.

  5. amoral nutcases whose only distinction from the antagonist is the side they’re on.

    But that is my authentic true self. 🙂

    1. Tell those authors they should write fiction — instead of thinly disguised autobiographies.

  6. The real heroes of The Lord of the Rings are Frodo and Sam, and the book is much better for their presence.

    Talking about using intelligence and trickery makes me think, of course, about Kipling’s Stalky and Co.

  7. David Gemmell’s heroes tend towards the larger-than-life yet realistic side.

  8. It is difficult to find a decent hero these days. I like a -moral- hero, who wins by being smart, tough and not giving in to temptation.

    When I wrote my guy, he’s an Accidental Hero who gets tremendous power dropped on him without warning. So the powers and abilities aren’t his. His true, inherent power is A) morality and B) smart-assery. He takes on immense, world-destroying problems and finds a way to beat them other than punching them in the face.

    There’s a little face-punching too, of course. Bad guys need a bit of chastisement in a proper story.

  9. I’ve always loved the paragon type b/c it inspires me to try harder. That and most current cultural favorites are the anti-villain or anti-hero when it comes to tv trends. I like how the Gokus, Lukes, Gandalfs or Supermans play off their entire cast, to see how it effects others. I’ve never really identified as much with Batman type characters. But that’s just my personal taste as a reader. Its also why I hate what Bendis is doing to my Superman. Tomasi/Jurgens and Gleason were doing fine and then DC gave us fracking Bendis to blow it ALL up. I esp loved Supersons. Young Jon and Damien were excellent foils for one another.

    To me, Paragon isnt boring at all but its something that is needed. I get why people like their Lokis or other various rouges but it all comes down to personal preference.

    Aside: I also have a distaste for protagonists that get too whiny. The Twelve Kingdoms, Youko Nakajima started out this way esp bad in the anime adaptation but the book internalized most of that back and forth. By the middle she really started growing as a character though. In both the books and screen adaptation. But i very nearly stopped with the first vol. of the show.

    The book showed her whiny side but through much better prose. It was a close thing though. Have a character thats too “Blarg” in the beginning, middle or end like Shinji Ikari from NGE, that was my breaking point for whiny protag.

    I suppose I am ultimately asking for more book reqs for non paragon characters that wont immediately be off putting. Or a mix of good and bad like the Black Company books.

      1. SAO is pretty awesome that way. I have a soft spot for protags like that, though.

        Watching Eva is tough, though, definitely. The (very dark) story is well-told, but Shinji is Just. So. Whiny. … Now I wonder if it would be better if Asuka were the lead, though. She’s still got Issues, but at least she whines less.

        1. You must watch One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100. Those two are hilarious.

          My current season faves are SAO and That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime. I also watch Girlie Airforce, mostly for the name. How can you not watch a show called Girlie Airforce? ~:D

          1. Okay, so somehow I haven’t heard of all but two of those. Going to have to check them out. 😁

            Right now DH and I are rewatching Outlaw Star, but we’re almost to the end of it. And I may be playing SRW V in no small part because they brought in FMP…

        2. The whole purpose of Shinji and Evangelion is to deconstruct the Giant Robot stories. He doesn’t man up or take a level in badass, it destroys him well before the last episodes.

          I knew I had hit the point where I had to throw the series away with great force was the 3.33 movies, where the moment in the last movie that Shinji let his balls drop and do the right thing didn’t just make everything worse. It ruined the world, and when he came back (to him) ten minutes later, everyone blamed him, despite knowing better.

          (I actually feel a great swell of pity for Shinji-the entire universe hates him, throws him into situations that he doesn’t know what to do and he gets punished if he does the right thing, and will destroy any efforts of his towards happiness. Of course he’s suicidally depressed in the movie duology. Who wouldn’t be?)

          1. This. We’re probably still going to watch 4.44, if it ever comes out, just for the sake of completion, but it’s always been a story DH liked better than I did.

            1. I might see it if there’s a movie theater playing it. But at the rate things are going, I think I’m going to see The Last, Dangerous Visions first.

    1. I’m amazed how Bendis gets carte blanche to stomp all over everybody else’s work. What he did to the Guardians of the Galaxy was criminal (though I’m sure some of that was Marvel’s forced “synergy”.

      1. Bendis had roughly seven years where he -was- a solid writer and grew an impressive, devoted fan base that followed him onto pretty much every book he wrote.

        Sadly, it’s AFTER those seven years that he was given the keys to the Guardians, Avengers, X-Men, and now Superman & Young DC Heroes. When he’s burnt out, writes via the “slap some action figures together” method, and makes EVERY character he didn’t personally create really vile and unlikable.

        But Marvel and DC seem dead set convinced that the guy who existed from roughly 1997-2006 or so is still there, somewhere. :/

        1. Yea, the problem is that Marvel and DC can’t back down from where they’ve gotten, because that would require them to admit that they were wrong and that they need to write for the core fanbase. But, they utterly despite the core fanbase and would rather see them all die in a fire before ever admitting that the core fans were right.

          1. At this point they have demonstrated to have hired a particular set of people that hate the core fan base and want to Say Important Things rather than, you know, making comics that sell. Near as I can tell, Marvel’s entire circulation now is less than what they would sell of a single X-Title in the early 90s.

            1. Exactly. The only options coming down the line are either to do a scorched earth purge and replace most of the staff with people that the core fanbase will respect (and have them tell stories the core fanbase will enjoy) or collapse and publish just enough to keep control of the copyrights and IP.

              A burn and purge would be interesting, mostly because most of the writers that would be respected have either burned out or don’t want to work with the Big Two anymore. A lot of trust rebuilding would be needed.

    2. I like to read ’em too, so I try to write them. (Not all the time. Some story ideas don’t work with paragons.)

      1. To me, its fine to be a paragon. Preferable, even. But the guy/girl/whatsit can’t be a sap. Or a bore. Its a fine thing to have morals, showing everybody else how moral you are is not so fine. AKA virtue signaling.

        Its enough to make the right choice, and move on.

  10. Poul Anderson had heroes ranging from the superhero level (Holger Carlson) on down. Van Rijn, Falkyn, and Flandry aren’t superheros — but they’re resonsible for heroic deeds.

    1. Ben, that distinction is crucial. I like the person who isn’t a superhero but is responsible for heroic deeds. They help to remind me that I can also be responsible for heroic deeds, even though I’ll never be a superhero.

  11. It’s been interesting writing my story because I have to be careful about my characters. There are things that I hate to see, and I need to make sure I don’t do them.

    1. The characters will tell you when you mess up. “I’m not doing that.” is something I hear a lot from lippy characters.

      Or possibly that’s just me and my weird brain. ~:)

      1. …the problem is, I think one of my characters doesn’t care, as long as I play with her.

        Wait a minute, am I writing a story or am I herding cats? Or running a harem? Or all three at the same time?

        1. Mine is a harem. They don’t even pretend otherwise. They’ll take a run at anybody. Human, AI, they don’t care. Getting them to do anything other than that is a challenge.

        1. Do they? That’s a relief. I’m not the only one.

          And sometimes they’re so rude, right? With the raucous laughter and the flipping off! And the eye rolling! Always with the eye rolling.

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