Sunday, June 24, 2012

What Makes a Character a Hero - My Take

Today is the first day of the Clarion Write-a-Thon.  (See goals here.)  Since I'll still be asleep at the time of this posting, and won't have anything to report, I figured I'd start with a post that hits the theme of the story I'm writing.

Some time ago Chris Kelly did a guest post about what makes a character a hero. It's a popular topic and really key to all storytelling, so I figured it's about time to set down my thoughts on the matter -- especially since I'm currently writing a story called "The Misplaced Hero."  I should have some thoughts on heroism, in or out of place.

Be Brave, Be Fair, Do Good Work

What it takes to be a good hero is what it takes to be a good person.  The above phrase is my personal motto, and for me it drives what I think my characters should be doing too.  Not all of them are good at any or all of these above -- but where they are admirable is where they manage to hit that motto.

As an existentialist, I have to add that what makes a person heroic is not what's inside -- it's not what they think or how they feel.  It's in what they do.  Or at least what they try to do.

Try vs. Intend

For all that Yoda says "There is no 'try,'" I actually think try is an important factor.  I agree with those who feel that good intentions don't hold water.  It does not matter what you intend, only what you do.

However, that makes it sound like you must succeed at what you do, and that's wrong.  Anything worthwhile is hard, and runs the risk of failure.  It's easy to succeed all the time if you don't try to do anything tough.

A hero is brave and runs the risk of failure by ... trying.  Trying is a form of doing.

The issue is not whether you try or succeed or fail, but what you're trying to do, and how you do it.  People with good intentions can make half-assed efforts at the wrong thing.  They don't think it through, they aren't brave or fair, and they end up not doing good work.

That's more or less what Yoda had in mind when he said to Luke when he told him to stop trying and start doing.

But that's not even trying.  That's just intending.

Get Up, Stand Up

A hero doesn't just believe in something, he stands for something.  As in, gets off his duff and does something. Even if that thing is not heroic macho stuff, even if it's doing the dishes... or restraining himself from saying something he shouldn't, or pausing to make sure the door is locked.

The hero -- the mensch, as they say in Yiddish -- actually commits to an action.  A hero doesn't assume he'll succeed, but he commits to dealing with the fall-out if things go wrong.  You could say he's committing to an outcome.  If that outcome isn't achieved, he keeps going.  A hero follows through.

Competence -- that is, doing good work -- is important, too.  But, imho, it's a side effect of the commitment.  If you are committed, you learn from your failures. If you don't learn, then odds are you aren't really committed.  You are just intending but not doing.

Heroes who act, of course, are basic to good storytelling.   The old classic "try, fail, learn, success" is the basic model for nearly all plots of all genres and styles of literature. (With the rest being "try, succeed, don't learn, die.")

And the reason that is such a strong theme of storytelling is because that's what we need stories for: they are a way of thinking through the nature of our existence.  It's practice for life.  It's a place to try out things we wouldn't want to do, as well as those things we intend but don't yet know how to do ourselves.

See you in the funny papers.


Stig Hemmer said...

I agree with all this, but would like to add: A hero inspires. Both the reader and the other people people of his realm.

The Daring Novelist said...

True, but inspiration is what we mean by being a hero: a hero is by nature inspirational, what makes him inspirational? His actions.