What’s In A Hero?
Yesterday was fun. I saw Mrs. Dave off to work, as I usually do, then placated the Wee Horde with flesh of beast, and imbibed the brew of the bean. As I was turning my attention to the doings of the day, however, I noticed a spot of glare in my vision. I couldn’t remember looking into any bright lights (some of you will already have guess where I’m going with this, or rather where this took me) and the morning was rather overcast. I experienced a distinct sinking feeling as the spot spread to cover a large portion of the right side of my field of vision. I had a migraine. I spent most of the day dealing with the fallout of that, rather than getting anything done. Consequently, I’m struggling to come up with anything useful or interesting for you.
So what’s in a hero? Guts, mostly.
I have recently been listing to Jordan Peterson’s 2017 lecture series on personality. Thus far, I highly recommend them. They’ll at least bend your brain. In particular, I’m appreciating the brief moments where Dr. Peterson ties in Carl Jung’s archetypes. Particularly that of the Hero, which has sparked some brief thoughts related to storytelling. While Jung (and Dr. Peterson) is involved primarily in attempting to unpack the deep waters of the human psyche, I’m mostly interested in what I can pull out in making my own characters more engaging to readers.
So. The Hero is a young man (typically) who is often orphaned, raised apart from his people, brought to a revelatory moment of his own extraordinariness by a sage figure, and who must then contend with chaos in order to move forward. Usually this involves a descent into the underworld, and a wounding. Some (very) low hanging examples of this are Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Arthur Pendragon is another. Luke and Harry are both raised by an aunt and uncle who are mostly ordinary, both have a moment where they are told things are not as they thought they were (old, bearded men distributing quests are no basis for a system of legend. Or perhaps they are) and who then go on to struggle with chaos.
Luke descends into the Cave and encounters a vision of his Dark Father (spoilerssss!!) which is actually himself and is mirrored by his later encounter with Darth Vader in the infernally lit carbonite freezing chamber. Harry goes into the bowels of Hogwarts and fights a monster snake. Both are wounded in the hand, and miraculously healed. Magic, and magical super-science are handy things, though I should note that each felt the agony of their wounds. In order to overcome chaos, Luke must face the reality that Vader is his own father. Harry has to reconcile that much of what makes him unique was “gifted” to him by Voldemort. Both then go on to strike down that which caused the chaos in the first place.
Here’s the thing. Our protagonists- well, okay, not protagonists, necessarily. Technically, someone looking to stop a villain from resurrecting the darkest of dark gods would be an antagonist. Our heroes, to use the proper term, are those who encounter anomalies which demolish their sense of self, and who then go on to rebuild and overcome the chaos.
Now, a good bit of this definition of hero is rooted in Jungian psychology. He was working to bare the inner working of the human psyche by drawing out the fundamental commonalities of human collective subconscious. He spent his life working to codify and explain the imagery that all humans everywhere have put into their stories. More or less. Jung is deep, and worthy of study. For our purposes, this ties in nicely with Campbell’s Monomyth. In fact, the Hero archetype goes through the (sometime abbreviated) Hero’s Journey. So this isn’t going to apply completely to every story.
What we can do as writers of stories, however, is plumb these ideas for imagery. And resonance. Does your hero (or heroine. It’s not a girl/guy thing. Hero to all) have a dark night of the soul somewhere? Usually, there’s a try/fail cycle that leaves a hero bruised and battered. You can always add some under-y world-y setting to the experience, even if they’re left staring into a campfire, nursing their wounds. Or maybe it’s more overt: and actual descent into a hellish underground to fight Morlocks. Or a dragon.
Ultimately, however, you hero should experience that destruction of their sense of self. They make a mistake and a friend, ally, or lover dies. They find out All is Not As It Seems. Again. And it throws them for a loop. Something takes them out of the fight, and takes the fight out of them. The reason the Hero and his Journey is archetypal is because everybody’s been there. We’ve all failed. Use that shared experience to draw your reader even further into your story, and the eventual triumph will be all the greater.