Monday, October 25, 2010

Guest Post - What Makes a Character a Hero?

I'd like to welcome Chris Kelly, blogger at Dun Scaith, who is currently on a blog tour for his new book, Matilda Raleigh: Invictus. He's currently hosting a series of guest posts on his own blog, while he's out visiting this month.

The subject of this post is heroes - which is an important one not only to the more heroic steampunk genre, but also to mystery, I think. You could say that mystery began with the intellectual hero of Victorian fiction - often a person not only of greater skills, but of stronger character than those around him.

What Makes a Character a Hero?

People quite often call protagonists heroes, and yet it is often not true. Whilst a hero can be a protagonist, a protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero. This gets muddied further when anti-hero’s are included. A protagonist can be a hero, anti-hero, or just a protagonist.

A protagonist is someone who moves the action forward, and an antagonist is someone who holds the action back. In a lot of fantasies it quite often seems to start out with the mentor as the protagonist and the hero as the antagonist.

An example of when a main character is neither hero nor anti-hero would be Adrian Mole. Adrian Mole is the protagonist of Sue Townsend’s Diaries of Adrian Mole series. If you’ve ever read the series, you will know what I mean. If you haven’t, they’re very good.

The difference between an anti-hero and a hero is, at best, a motivational one. Issues of attitude can also be included. Heroes are motivated out of an altruistic desire to help others – as in Spider-man’s “With great power comes great responsibility.” Anti-heroes have a more personally validated motivation – keeping with the comic theme, the Punisher seeks vengeance for the murder of his family. On an attitude note, heroes tend to be happier, more well-adjusted people than anti-heroes.

Interestingly, anti-heroes often end the story happier, as if the events of the story were a form of therapy. Heroes often become darker as the story progresses, quite often needing therapy by the conclusion of the climax. They almost seem to meet in the middle.

But what makes a hero stays the same no matter what the characters motivation, and has no bearing on their attitude. It doesn’t matter if they are reluctant, or eager. It doesn’t matter if they are jealous, angry, and bitter, or so happy they seem to have smile-scars.

A hero makes the hard choices.

That’s it. That’s all they have to do to be a hero. In real life or fiction. Not a lot, and yet not easy. In fact, the difficulty in making the hard choices is what makes a hero so rare. Think you could do it?

A fire-man enters a burning building. He goes so far. From training and experience, he sees the danger. He has a minute until the entire building collapses. It will take him fifty seconds to get out from here. He has barely enough time to save himself. Up ahead, somewhere, a child cries...

There’s a reason not everyone is a hero. Most people just can’t make those choices.

In my novel, Matilda Raleigh: Invictus, Matilda, an old-style hero (hero through motivation and attitude) is forced to make a choice between the deaths of 1500 innocents or letting the villain win, which would lead to the deaths of countless more. She can’t just invent a third option, she has to choose one; either way it’s a hard choice, and I think that’s what being a hero truly comes down to. What do you think?

Chris Kelly is the author of the steampunk/ sword and sorcery extravaganza Matilda Raleigh: Invictus. Whilst not a hero, he understands them, and writes them convincingly: to sample or buy his novel, click on this link: Invictus.

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Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks for the post, Chris. It's fun to read about heroic lead characters--always inspiring to see someone save the day, even in fiction!

Anonymous said...

That was an interesting read.

I think that constructing heroes is one of the most demanding tasks known to writers. Too little and the reader doesn't see anything heroic in them; too much and they seem invincible.

Jagged Edges said...

Absolutely. This is one of the most interesting aspects of fiction to me, because it deals with the very essence of human nature. Anti-heroes are fascinating -- who doesn't love Batman? Flawed heroes, flesh and blood, make fiction fun.

Pam Zollman said...

Great definitions of hero, anti-hero, and protagonist. I hadn't quite thought of them in that way. I'd always assumed that your protagonist would have to make some hard decisions, especially at the dark moment when all seems lost and there's no "good" choice. But, now that I think about it, I think a hero has to make a series of hard choices throughout the book, more so than a regular protagonist. That's what separates the two. Great post! Thanks!
Pam Zollman

The Daring Novelist said...

Great post Chris!

It has inspired some thoughts on this topic on my own. (In particular the idea of how important the situation is to the character's heroism. They can only be the mere protagonist if we don't put them in the situation to make the tough choice. Once we've posed that situation to them... they become a hero or an anti-hero.)