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Posts tagged ‘hero’

Hero or Superhero

Usually by this time on Tuesdays, I have an idea about what I’m going to blog about. Heck, I usually have an idea when I get up. Sometimes I even have the post written the night before. But not today. I blame yesterday for it. Between painting and taking down cabinets and an emergency plumbing repair (nothing serious, just threw off my timing on the other projects), my brain wasn’t on writing or blogging. To be honest, I needed a day like that. But, it meant this morning, I was scrambling for a topic.

So I did what I sometimes do in that situation. I went to other blogs, social media feeds, etc., and looked to see what folks were talking about. I came across a couple of different threads on different sites about what readers look for in main characters, especially in genre fiction. The phrasing was different but it all came down to one main question: do readers want heroes or superheroes for their main characters? Or, to put it a little differently, do they want flawed characters who have issues to overcome and who might grow some during the course of the book or story arc or do they want that perfect character who, like Clark Kent, swoops in to save the day and rarely has a hangnail, much less anything seriously go wrong in their life?

In one of the discussions I looked at, someone commented that they didn’t think you needed a character to have flaws or to “grow”. They pointed out characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones and asked how they “grew”. I think those two stood out to me the most and for different reasons. Ian Fleming wrote Bond, at least in my eyes, as the “perfect” man. He could get and bed any woman he wanted. He was the perfect spy. He was the man most other men wanted to be. There’s no problem with that. For the time when the books were written and for the genre involved, that’s what readers and publishers wanted. Besides, for every James Bond, you had a George Smiley. John le Carré wrote Smiley as an older man, one who had fallen from grace in the intelligence community. He was not the perfect man and he had a past to overcome. In my mind, in many ways, he was much more interesting than Bond ever could be.

As for Indiana Jones, he was far from perfect. While those imperfections didn’t cripple him, they were there. He was impulsive. He didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions, even when those actions might put others in danger. He had daddy issues. We see some growth, especially with regard to the daddy issues in the third film. (We won’t mention the fourth film. Please don’t mention the fourth film.)

But, where my mind went first when I saw the original discussion was my own reading and David Webber’s Honor Harrington. One of the things I loved about Honor from the very beginning was that she wasn’t perfect. Sure, because of her genetic background, she was taller and stronger than some. She was also a brilliant Naval officer. But she had her own ghosts and insecurities. Those could come close to crippling her. She had a temper and a streak of vengeance a mile wide. Both of which cost her as well, at least early into the series.

I loved seeing her shine as a Naval officer and then seeing the insecurities as a “normal” person. I’ve known people like that. They excel in the office or boardroom, in the surgical suite or at the front of a classroom. But put them into a social setting and they suddenly think they are unworthy, ugly, insecure, whatever. That was Honor. Over the course of the first three or four books, we get to see her grow as a person. She was already a strong officer but as a “woman”, she had a long way to go.

That did not make her any less of a leading character or human. Far from it. By seeing her able to put those insecurities or, in some cases, prejudices behind her in order to do her duty was refreshing. those flaws kept her from being a Mary Sue (something she has come very close to being in the later books in the series, imo).

What I noticed on each of the sites where I saw this discussion happening was that they rarely seemed to mention female main characters, focusing instead on male leads. Maybe their responses stem from the belief that men shouldn’t show weakness, maybe it came from something else. I don’t know. But, I think it comes down to a matter of degrees.

I don’t know about you, but when I say I want a character with flaws, I don’t mean I want a character who has been broken by life. Oh, there are places for that, but not every leading character has to be broken. They can be bent — hey! Get your minds out of the gutter! — or they can simply be human. Growth doesn’t have to mean a major change to their behaviors and attitudes. It can be as simple as learning to admit that they don’t know everything or that they might not be the best at something. It can be learning to let someone else into their lives, be it on a romantic scale or with regard to business.

Sometimes, we need characters with some flaws to make them believable. What is appropriate to one story or genre might not be for another. So, here’s my question to you; what books do you think do the perfect (or superhero-esque) character well and which ones do you think do the flawed character well? (Yes, this is also my way of adding to my TBR stack.)

Heroes, Villains, and Others

This is more or less a riff on three of the panels I was on at Ravencon: Writing Believable Villains, the Shrinking of the American Hero, and Writing the Other. The three topics have a lot of overlap, so I figure I’ll expound, ramble, and generally blather on about all three.

To start with the easy and obvious, writers are pretty much by definition odd. Which means that more so than most of the human species when we write someone who isn’t us we’re more or less by definition writing “the other” (yes, I did make that comment on the Writing the Other panel). And like all humans, we understand others through the lens of our shared humanity, so the weirder we are, the murkier and more distorted that lens gets.

This, children, is why research matters. Research is not going to tell us what emotions someone will feel – although, being human, we can make a guess – but it can tell us what the socially acceptable expression of those emotions might be. A man will grieve just as much when he loses a loved one no matter what culture he’s from – but if he’s from a culture that says men don’t cry he probably won’t cry much and might divert that grief into anger or into building something as a memorial or… who knows? A man from a culture where lots of tears and big noisy expositions of grief are expected is going to do all that. He might also move to anger or building something. The important thing here is that the fellow who’s expected to be stoic feels much the same emotions as the one who’s expected to be demonstrative. It’s his culture that decides how he acts.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is why writing something Other is no big challenge. Hell, if I could manage to write Vlad the Impaler’s perspective (which is, frankly, about as close to alien as you’re going to get without a spaceship being involved somewhere) with a combination of research and figuring out what the culture and his circumstances would dictate, anyone can do it. Gay male… pfft. Honestly the panelists who were so busy focusing on sexuality and race are suffering from a lack of imagination. That inner-city black lesbian they considered so very Other grew up with the same technology and mass media and whatnot as I did. Maybe not quite the same, but close enough I can extrapolate easily enough. She almost certainly grew up with at least one loving parent-figure, and a fair chance at two. They might not have been all that functional, but they almost for sure did their best.

Now, try someone from a culture where anyplace you couldn’t walk to in a day might as well be a foreign country. And an environment where it’s normal for kids to be raised by Dad’s worst enemy with the threat they’ll be killed if Dad misbehaves. Where you hardly have any interaction with your mother – or any other females – after you’re five or so. Where “advanced technology” is cannons that might not explode if you give them enough time between firing. Where glass windows are expensive and precious. That modern day inner-city black lesbian seems kind of familiar by now, doesn’t she?

See, what makes Other is not genetics. It’s not sex or sexuality. It’s the lack of shared experience. Those much-derided dead white males from as little as three hundred years ago might as well have come from a different planet for how much we have in common with them. They really are Other. And six hundred years ago? Those dudes are really alien.

Now, of course, this feeds into the question of heroes and villains and how they work. After all, they’re points on the spectrum of Other so to speak. And with the exception of your elemental Evil (best avoided unless you keep it as a shadowy mysterious force that can be undone by your world’s equivalent of tossing a trinket into an active volcano) and the barking mad (not caused by stress or anything of the sort, please. That will give your books a quick flying lesson and put you on my Do Not Touch Not Even With A Ten Foot Barge Pole list), villains are – or bloody well should be – people who would be the hero if you wrote the book from their perspective (and if you ask any self-respecting villain, they’ll tell you that you damn well should be writing the book from their perspective).

I know whereof I speak. I am, after all, the woman who wrote Vlad the Impaler as the hero (he makes a rather compelling hero, actually. Honest, honorable, courageous… yeah that was that thing with kebabbing his enemies, but hey, everyone has their flaws, right? Besides, he was no worse than any of the other rulers of his era. The difference is he lost and he got shafted by all parties, complete with the fifteenth century version of trial by propaganda).

Anyway. Heroes, antiheroes, and villains are all on the same protagonist/antagonist spectrum. As characters they have goals. The “villain’s journey” is often something of an inversion of the hero’s journey, but can also be a separate hero’s journey that fails (unless of course your villain wins). The same broad classes of challenges happen, the villain will have one or more advisers who serve for him the same purpose as the hero’s mentor. He’ll get kicked out of his comfortable rut (probably when the hero defeats him). And so forth.

I really don’t distinguish that much. The villain as a character is someone whose purpose puts him at odds with the hero. Period. He could be a really nice guy, but that damned hero has gone and started a revolt against him and now he’s got to defend everything he worked so hard for and he can’t afford to act the way he wants to because the hero will treat it as a weakness and then he’ll lose it all (alternatively, he could be a right bastard. Being the hero and being the villain don’t necessarily mean someone is going to nice. Or nasty). Basically, they’re people first and “roles in the story” somewhere after that. Unless I’m doing the shadowy figure kind of villain I use in the Con books. Being sort-of mysteries, those work better if the culprit isn’t obvious from the start as it were (speaking of which, it would be nice if the culprit for #3 would bloody speak up and let me know what’s supposed to bloody well happen. Damn you muse! Put that drink with the umbrella down and come work. The rest of us have to, you don’t get to be immune. Um…)

So there you have it. For me, heroes, villains, minor characters… I don’t actually go looking for “Other” things to give them, and I don’t class them as heroes, villains, or whatever. They’re people first. Usually bloody irritating people who tell me things on a need-to-know basis and figure I don’t need to know until I actually write the scene where it happens.