The hero must suffer and bleed for it

Spotted yet another internet apologia explaining why it’s okay if female protagonists don’t have to work for their powers, wins, abilities, victories, et cetera. Stuff like this always makes my eye twitch because in my opinion the gender of the protagonist is immaterial. It’s not like Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley was birthed onto the screen wholly ready and unafraid to defeat the alien menace. Quite the contrary. Ripley saw her whole crew picked off one-by-one by the horrific xenomorph, almost died herself, lost 60+ years (and her only daughter) to the sea of space, suffered crippling PTSD and nightmares, had to be talked into returning to the scene of the crime against her fears, and ultimately only ever stayed half a step from disaster — and she knew it, too. But she did what had to be done anyway, for herself, and for Newt. And that’s an amazing story in two movies.

But people keep trying to defend Rey and Danvers and other 21st century “feminist” heroines who never experience sufficient suffering to achieve their wins, but are instead divinely gifted/crafted to simply be amazing and capable without ever having to work and labor for their skill/power, to say nothing of enduring defeat and humiliation.

Ripley didn’t beat the alien in Alien as much as she escaped (narrowly) from it. This is why her PTSD is so bad. Having come so close to death, and seen the creature kill others, her subconscious knows she fled the threat more than faced it.

And so, with Aliens, we’re given the treat of seeing Ellen Ripley return and stand up to the nightmare — and win. Much like Luke returning from the ass-beating he received in The Empire Strikes Back, to defeat Vader in Return of the Jedi.

This kind of salvation motif is integral to quality heroic journeys.

Consider the classic Mad Max 2, released in the United States as The Road Warrior. Max is a capable survivor — we’re given to understand — but he’s a haunted and broken soul. In the prologue of the film we grasp that the post-holocaust Outback has taken everything from him which he considered worthwhile, and now he drifts through life scrounging what he can when he can, and not giving much credence to higher moral objectives.

Stumbling across the survivors who’ve rallied around their solitary wellhead, Max is gradually forced into a situation where caring about other people is back on the table. He cannot simply shut himself off from humanity. Not from the exhortations and upbraiding of Papagalo. Not from his would-be friend, the Gyro Captain. And not from the Feral Kid who looks up to Max, and whom Max feels the most misgiving about because the Feral Kid is the most innocent — and therefore, the most dangerous to Max’s protective shell of cynicism.

Therefore Max’s journey does not begin with Max confidently entering The Humungus’s domain and putting down The Humungus’s men. Max stumbles into trouble, and keeps stumbling into trouble the further the story evolves. Ultimately, Max is done in by his own desire to flee what’s happening to him. He loses almost everything he has left: his vehicle, his dog, and nearly his life. Then, half-crippled, and realizing he owes both the Gyro Captain and Papagalo for saving his life, Max agrees to embark upon a harrowing road chase which leaves only himself and the Feral Kid standing at the end — and then, just barely. Because never has Max’s victory been certain. Nor, do we realize as Max filters the red sand through his fingers, does this victory come without cost.

It’s a heck of an arc. Powerful, because Max is steered by events — and his conscience — to go against his instincts for self-preservation. In so doing, he ensures (we learn at the end of the film) a better life for the Feral Kid, and all the other survivors of the wellhead troupe. But not necessarily for himself, you see. Again, the victory comes at a cost. Like Moses, Max is denied the promised land. Even if his heroism in the service of others has elevated him spiritually from the place in which he dwelled at the beginning of the movie.

This is ultimately what’s missing from too many female heroines written since the year 2000. They pay no price for their victories, nor do they much have to suffer for their arcs. Indeed, we are lectured — by those with Woke chips on their shoulders — that women are amazing and awesome simply for being women. Which is a wholly preposterous idea if one understands human nature even dimly. Women are not born saints. They are as fallible as the other half of the species, and theirs is no special creation — no, not even the Lord taking Adam’s rib.

But really, the lesson applies to any story, not just Woke fairytales about female superiority.

The hero or heroine who doesn’t have to put sweat and blood equity into his or her arc, isn’t much of a hero nor heroine. The degree to which (s)he suffers and fails, is the degree to which the victorie(s) become savory. The more punishment the hero/heroine must endure, as well as mistakes and missteps, the more satisfying it becomes seeing them ultimately out-do themselves. Rise above. Master that which once utterly defeated them. No dispensations. The protagonist digs it out. Often despite his/her worst instincts and flaws.

If heroism were natural to the human being — as a creature — it would not be so noteworthy as to inform all our great legends, myths, and storytelling. But because heroism is not the norm (cowardice is, sadly, the norm) we recognize and extoll it. Even in this Woke age, when cowardice has been elevated to the status of iron-clad virtue. Some part of us still recognizes the fraud of the assertion. Hence, the fraudulence of a Rey, a Danvers, or any other super-capable, super-competent, otherwise elevated-above character who sails through a story defeating that which must be defeated, and never having to be struck down, humiliated, dragged through the dirt, or heaven forbid, forced to admit that (s)he could afford to change — on the inside.

Max isn’t the same man at the end of The Road Warrior. We know it the instant he smiles at the Gyro Captain. Max has grudgingly found a badly-missing piece of himself. And people worth caring about, even if he won’t be joining them.

Characters who remain untouched by events — however dramatic or climactic — tend to be boring characters. Who among us can endure even a smidgen of what some of our favorite characters endure, and remain the same people at the end of it, as we were at the start? Most of us endure trials far less harrowing, and come away far more marked-up by the event, than is too often shown in certain flavors of stories.

Yes, I fully understand that certain kinds of episodic fiction rely on the main characters staying pretty much the same from one story to the next. Television especially has relied on this for decades. Even so, the better episodic shows do give their characters room to change and grow. This change and growth, observed over time, allows the audience to care about the character(s) as the audience themselves change and grow.

Woe be unto the person who arrives at his forties being the same person he was in his twenties, or the same person in his sixties that he was in his forties. And so forth.

Work, toil, failure, and suffering are the building blocks of eventual wins. Wins your audience will give a damn about.

Think of the failures and pain as the seasoning on your grilled steak. Because BBQ steak without seasoning isn’t nearly as mouthwatering nor delicious as BBQ steak with seasoning. The trials and errors to which you subject your characters are that seasoning. Don’t go sparingly! Being put through hell and emerging wiser, more hardened, more capable, and more understanding, is essential to any developing character(s) which your audience will remember long after they’ve turned the final page.

12 comments

  1. The hero who’s born to his powers can also work. But then the hero has to learn that he’s in many respects cut off from the rest of humanity because of it — and that’s the price he pays for not giving up the use of his powers and stopping evil instead.

    1. Nod.

      And the “best” super-hero are those who “pay a price” for being a super-hero. For example, they have to wonder “why am I putting myself into this garbage, there has to be a better way to live”.

  2. Perfect in fiction characters is boring. And boring is the death-knell to story, as far as reader dollars are concerned. If I want to see a perfectly competent female spring into being fully competent, I’ll read about Athena in Greek mythology.

    1. Exactly this. Perfection is totally boring. Meeting a challenge, and having doubts and shortcomings, and having to pick yourself up off the floor and wipe the blood off you after a defeat and trying again anyway … now, that’s interesting.

  3. By the end of The Last Solist, Adelaide is going to have paid cash for where she’s gotten. Bloodied, battered, bruised, limbs lost and regenerated, having lost (CLASSIFIED) and realizing that there is no path back to where she began, because that beginning is a lie.
    In the end, Adelaide knows what The Song of the Dead is, and the haunting lines-
    We have fed our sea for a thousand years
    And she calls us, still unfed,
    Though there’s never a wave of all her waves
    But marks our English dead:
    We have strawed our best to the weed’s unrest
    To the shark and the sheering gull.
    If blood be the price of admiralty,
    Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!

    Her paying the price, the toll that she must pay to reach the end, is her story. And, she does pay in full.
    And, any character that hasn’t paid in full at some point is a betrayal of their story.

  4. As a side note, one could argue that Rey and Captain Marvel paid their dues beforehand–for Rey, living as an orphan on Jakku could not have been very much fun, while Carol Danvers managed to make it through pilot training, which ain’t easy. (Note: the fact that both characters’ arcs are basically “you just need to discover how awesome you are” is an entirely separate problem.)

    The problem with this is twofold: first, as far as the audience is concerned, things that happened off screen might as well not have happened at all; second, neither character is given the personality they would probably have as a result of their life experiences.

  5. This is one of the things that really irritated me upon re-reading The Belgariad: Only Garion changes. Everyone else is a trope. In a way, that’s the point of the series: Everyone is prophetic tool to help him along. But it does make re-reading boring.

  6. What about the hero who works for it? Doesn’t suffer or bleed, but just puts in a lot of hard work? Like in one of my stories:

    “…how long, did all that take?”

    “Almost twenty years.”

    “You spent half your life — more than half — working your way into that time machine project, knowing you’d have to throw it all away, just to save me?”

    He didn’t risk his life, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a hero.

    1. IMO generally speaking “Working for it” counts as “suffering and bleeding for the victory”.

      Especially when his actions for another costs him resources that he planned to use for “something else he wanted to do”.

      Even more so if by “rescuing another”, he is unable to accomplish a strongly desired action.

      What annoys people is when a “heroic action” is shown as easy for the hero.

      From what you’re talking about your hero had spent time and effort to gain the tools/skill/knowledge necessary to perform the task and it appears that he used the tools/skill/knowledge to accomplish another task (which meant that he couldn’t accomplish the task he had planned to perform).

        1. OK.

          Even that could work if we “see” the time and effort he spent developing the means of rescue.

  7. I read a comment somewhere that the difference in how men and women (by and large) look at heroics can often be summed as “men recognize the need to become something” and women want to “be recognized and respected for who they already are.” It might have been Mona Lisa Foster, I have to go back and check.

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