About a week ago, my four-year-old son, Eamon, and I were having a conversation about heroes. He did not understand that there is a difference between superheroes and heroes, and began the conversation by stating that there are no real heroes. So I enumerated for him the types of heroes that a four-year-old would understand. This activity got me thinking about heroes, about the heroes in my own writing, and about the history of heroes. You are now my brainstorm benefactor.
According to the conversation I had with Eamon, these are the hero types:
Superheroes: Fictional people who have superpowers (naturally or created) which they use for good. Ex. Batman, Iron Man, Harry Potter. Not “real.”
Fiction Heroes: Fictional people who have normal powers but who act as heroes. Ex. Frodo. Also not “real.”
People Who Save Other People: like in this amazing article, which I am calling amazing largely because of the story about a blind man who saved his elderly, blind neighbor from a burning house. I suppose it could include people/animals who save people/animals/things.
People Whose Job It Is: like firemen, policemen, ER docs, soldiers.
People Who Do the Right Thing, Even When It’s Hard: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi.
People Who Make Great Sacrifices for the Good: Mother Teresa.
Every-Day Heroes: like moms, dad, and nurses.
God. (Eamon added that one, right at the beginning.)
In modern times, the word “hero” is sometimes used synonymously with the antagonist or the love-interest of a story. Modern fantasy is more the venue for larger-than-life heroes, as opposed to more realistic works. Action movies (or other modern movies) feature a hero who is an ordinary person put in extraordinary circumstances, which they overcome. Their “superhuman” powers may include double portions of human characteristics, such as loyalty, strength, or courage. We also commonly refer to a hero as a figure (especially ancient) celebrated by the people. Think Joan of Arc or Brad Pitt or the latest American Idol. Or Guitar Hero.
Over the span of time, heroes could be defined as the personified cultural ideals, or at least that’s a pretty plausible argument. Think about it: whereas society was once determined almost exclusively by sovereign (power), more subtle influences have led to the idea of a hero who is the epitomization of the people’s ideals. Notably, from there, the fictional or trumped-up hero creates ideals, changes the future of the society. Which leads us to the question: is the hero archetype universal? I found mention of a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, and I am always curious to know if something truly is universal.
Historically, the word comes from the words warrior, protector, and defender. Originally a Greek concept (or so scholars say), a Greek hero was a sort of demi-god, complete with complicated relationships with the gods and goddesses, conceived unusually, attempted to be killed by a powerful man at their birth, hidden and reared by others in a foreign country, suffers a mysterious death at top of a hill where the body is not buried, leaves no successors, and leaves some sort of holy place. Of course these aren’t ALL true of every hero, but think how many heroes over time have shared all these specifics, not the least of which being Jesus Christ. The Greek Hero (that was her name) was a priestess from Greek mythology, someone who honored her vow of chastity and committed suicide from lover’s grief.
Fairy tale analysis includes the character of the hero. This hero must 1) embark on a quest, 2) react to the test of the donor (tests the hero and provides magical assistance) and 3) marry a princess-esque character. Fairy tale heroes are either seekers (who realize something on their own or prompted by the villian in a passive way) or victim-heroes (the villian kidnaps the hero or drives them out).
The romantic hero is a protagonist who rejects the establishment, is rejected by the culture, and who is self-centered. The narrative often rotates around this character’s thoughts, not their actions.
The tragic hero is the protagonist who has characteristics the audience feels sympathy or empathy for in a drama based on human suffering that provides catharsis for the audience.
The epic hero is brave and noble and has great achievement defined by grand events. To make them epic, the piece of work must be either strongly poetic, long in length, encompassing a large amount of time, or of characters or story that are impressive or majestic.
Nowadays, antiheroes are tres chic. Since heroic characteristics include morality, idealism, courage, and nobility, the antihero is a protagonist who does not possess these things. The earliest antiheroes might be characters like Don Quixote, although I would argue that for many antiheroes (or all?), what they lack in hero characteristics they make up for in other areas, for the purpose of underscoring these particular characteristics, a deficiency in society, and often for comic effect, as well. For example, Don Quixote may have been bumbling and deluded, but he was certainly idealist to the extreme. It’s funny and poignant. (Be that as it may, I found an article that called the antihero a modern fad, not bore out in best-seller lists, but only among the literary elite, and also “an aberration, not an advance” (http://martinturner.org.uk/martins-notes/the-four-kinds-of-heroes/, January 3 2012). I tend to agree, unless you consider what I just said about the antihero not really existing in the first place.)
I also really like the definition that I found, from the same place as the quote I just shared: “A person sufficiently admirable (for at least one quality) to be worth hearing about, but in a situation sufficiently arduous for the story to be worth telling.” (Ibid.) The hero can not be perfect, but must need to rally resources to overcome an incapacity in resources, physicality, morality, emotions, or intelligence.
If you are interested, it might be helpful to look at this webpage for a synopsis of types of characters in literature.
All of this leads me to the door of my own about-to-be-published novel. That’s where absolutely everything seems to lead right now. My dreams, my conversations, my thoughts, my dinner, my laundry, my… At any rate, it makes me want to explore how my own characters–or my main protagonist, at least–are heroes, and of what type. It makes me think I might be better able to determine what type of book I have on my hands, since at this point I would categorize it as “general literature,” or a satirical romantic comci-tragedy. Alright, maybe not a tragedy.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers, so this could be quite ambiguous.
My main protagonist is an attempted heroine, to be sure. She spends the whole book trying to save others, which is even a dialogue topic here and there. Well, to start out, she is the antagonist, so in some definitions that makes Gaby the heroine, already. The love interest could also be the definition of “hero,” and I think we can pretty clearly identify that main character as well (despite the thwarted nature of their “love”). She is, very hopefully, “a person sufficiently admirable (for at least one quality) to be worth hearing about, but in a situation sufficiently arduous for the story to be worth telling.” She’s imperfect, and she needs to rally resources (or get help, anyhow) to overcome her incapacity as idealist-to-the-extreme and relationally/emotionally/developmentally.
I’m not sure Gaby fits the category of ACTION HERO, since her circumstances are not larger than life, as they are life itself. Perhaps their outlandish nature makes Gaby’s overcoming seem more heroic? These characters–Gaby, Mihail, Melodie, Annie, Nadine, Sonja, Stellar, Adam, Mercedes, John, Betsy–do not have double portions of strength or courage or anything, but the normal tools of the human race. Mikhail is more of the burgeoning warrior, here. The legend characters can not be action heroes because they have superpowers.
GREEK: Gaby’s birth (as well as Annie’s and Stellar’s) is unusual, although no powerful males try to kill any of them and therefore there is no hiding away or being reared in a distant land (although there are a couple of formative periods spent abroad, by, again, Gaby and Stellar). In a very figurative way, it could be argued that Gaby “dies” on a “hill,” “is not buried,” and “leaves a holy place.” Really figuratively. But she does leaves successors, which is of essence to her heroism. So not a hero in the Greek sense.
FAIRY TALEs enamor me, and I am sure that plenty of my writing will have fairy tale components, some of them even overtly. This book, though, dwells more on the superhero or legendary hero vs. the everyday hero. That said, Gaby embarks on a quest of sorts (as a do-gooder), but that seems convoluted. She is reacting to prompts from both Jaden and The Queen and the general legends of Northwyth when she starts her path of philanthropy and is assisted by the donor (The Angel, who provides supernatural assistance to several characters). I don’t want to say if she marries anyone, but I think, on several levels, we can relate Gaby to a fairy tale heroine. Anyone else? Unless you consider the cosmic intervention of the mysterious seeds as motivators, no one else seems to fit (unless you start looking at the Northwyth legends themselves, but that is to be expected).
ANTIHERO: I suppose that my usual characters could be called antiheroes to the heroes of the Northwyth legends. This, actually, is sort of the point of it; real people need grace to get from point A to point B.
ROMANTIC HERO: Could Gaby be a romantic hero? She rejects the establishment because she’s a teenager, is rejected for the same reason, and is–like most people–self-centered. But I think this is stretching it. The proof is in the pudding: the book is written omniscient-ly, following the action of several characters, and not dwelling on the thoughts of any one.
TRAGIC HERO: Like I said right at the start, I think it’s possible this story is a comic-tradegy, or a romantic satire. Therefore, Gaby could be a tragic hero. Her mishaps (oh-so many of them) are her tragedy, even though her suburban life might seem anything but. The final scenes, I truly hope, provide catharsis for the reader.
EPIC HERO: It’s not an epic, unless you include the fantastic (or what might be called magic realism). The legend part of the book does sweep thousands of years, but I really don’t imagine many people wanting to label it that. It’s strongly descriptive (poetic might be a stretch) just because it’s literary fiction. Not long in length (at 350 pages), and the story is sort of impressive or majestic, again, if you include the legend part. In that case, The Queen, The Angel, The Sage, and Jaden (as well as Keir) are all epic characters and heroes, but they are built into the story as a sort of background.
Will Gaby and others come to be a symbol for the culture, admired by the culture? That is yet to be determined.
Their are also characters in the book that fit into the categories of modern FANTASY HERO, SUPERHERO, figures who are admired by the populace. In a way, the book itself is an exploration of the hero–which is maybe why I latched on to this idea for the blog. The contrast between the everyday heroes and the legendary heroes hopefully make people wonder about heroism. (Not to mention that I was trying to explore the meta narratives/legends and their possibility as real supernatural occurrences and what they might mean to us.)
Well, this has been fun.