What Is a Hero?

The panelist seemed super-human. She had drawn awed murmurs after telling us at the indie writing conference in Orlando that she had written and published over fifty romance novels. She was barely over twenty.

I was eager to hear what the prolific author was going to say, especially when the moderator asked her a question I loved, “How do you define a hero?”

As a novelist myself, I had read many definitions of a hero in how-to-write books. Many were dry and technical: “A hero is the main character of a story who struggles against overwhelming obstacles, usually for some principle, ideal, person, or goal beyond the narrow scope of his or her own ego. Heroes may be flawed but, in the end, they will always act according to their conscience, even when it means risking everything, including, sometimes, their lives.”

Although abstractly academic, the definition fit my own idea of what a hero was. As an adolescent I had absorbed countless memoirs about individuals who had hidden  Jews in their houses during the Nazi regime. I thought they were heroes because they had risked their lives to oppose a cruel government; they were the essence of courage.

As I waited for the author to provide her own answer, she appeared to look inward as if selecting her words carefully. At last she opened her mouth and said: “Well, a hero, he’s gotta be good-looking. But not too good-looking. He’s gotta be kind of rugged. He can’t look like, say, Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt, now, he’s too pretty. A man, he’s gotta to be a man, you know? Not mean. But not too nice either. He has to be, you know, dominant. Personally, I like a five O-clock shadow.”

The room had fallen silent. I squirmed in my folding chair and waited for someone to laugh. When no one did, I waited for the other romance novelists to contradict her, to explain to her that heroism has nothing to do with the way a character looks, and that a hero is more than just a sex symbol with traits that happen to appeal to an author personally. I wanted to object, too, that being dominant did not make someone a hero. Bullies and genocidal dictators were dominant, too, but no one was awarding them the Nobel Peace Prize.

I waited for someone to say a hero could be flawed, unattractive, and even prone to cowardice, yet still pull off stunningly brave acts during a crisis. I wanted someone to say that everyone has the potential for courage, and that part of why we love stories so much is that it helps us imagine how we might be brave in the most devastating circumstances despite our childhood wounds, our baggage, and innermost fears.

I felt certain that the second panelist, when questioned, would shuffle the discussion onto a more sensible path.  She appeared to be in her twenties, too, with a fair complexion and long purple hair. When asked to define a hero, she said, “Well, the main quality of a hero is he has got to be good. But not too good. I mean, I have a strong personality and I do want a man who will let me have my way most of the time, or I’ll get mad at him. But he can’t agree with me all the time either, or I won’t respect him. But still, he has to be good. You know how it is when you are with a man who has a good heart? You just feel the goodness coming off him.  You just feel it. That’s what a hero is.”

The discussion continued in this manner. In my mind, I rehearsed what I had just learned about heroes:

  1. Good-looking but not as pretty as Brad Pitt
  2. Nice but not too nice but not mean either
  3. Goodness exudes from heroes in a mysterious way, and that is how you know they are good.

The replies the other panelists gave comported with what the first two had said. No one even mentioned the female protagonists, although the main character of a story is normally considered the “hero.”

I thought romance writers must live in an entirely different universe from science fiction writers like me; their genre conventions must have been much different. But a good story is a good story regardless of genre, and I had to disagree with the definitions the panelists were giving.

Even the more familiar, technical definitions of a hero did not quite satisfy me really. They seemed to be missing something vital. What was a hero really, and why did we care about them so much? Why, in particular, did I care about them?

A few weeks ago, at a comic book convention in Charlotte, North Carolina called Heroes Con, I asked myself that question once again. I wandered through the crowded signing room looking at brightly inked comic book covers. I took in the flashy images of dauntless, grim-faced mega-men in colorful spandex costumes. Bristling with muscles, they planted their boots firmly on the ground, knees bent as if they had just leapt from the roof of a ten-story building. They squared their shoulders. They balled their fists. Gorgeous voluptuous women wearing revealing iron bikinis wielded crossbows while somehow looking fierce and pouty at the same time.

The drawings were skillfully done, but something was missing.

The male heroes seemed like the kind the panel of romance novelists at the convention in Florida had described as ideal. I had made fun of the writers in my head for their clumsy definitions of a hero, but were the messages conveyed by the comics really that different? The men struck dominant poses, leaning forward, shoulders squared, all of them rugged, none of them “pretty.”

All the characters looked so invulnerable. And maybe that was the problem. There were no underdogs.  The reason I enjoyed The Game of Thrones television series was because so many of the characters pursued ambitious goals despite apparent limitations that should have disqualified them.  Sometimes they succeeded despite their weaknesses, or even because of them.

I loved watching the dwarf Lord Tyrion Lannister rises to perilous and seemingly impossible challenges using wit, cunning, and courage, dispelling any prejudice against him. Young and petite Daenerys Targerien is sold by her brother, yet she charms, and falls in love with, the barbarian leader who has bought her. She ultimately wins over the tribal army he leads and manages to turn the harrowing situation into a win until she becomes a force to be reckoned with in the battle to take the Iron Throne.

Game of Thrones has no monopoly on underdogs. They are as old as David and Goliath, the tortoise and the hair, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.

But there has to be more to a hero than being an underdog. A ruthless dictator may emerge from humble origins and ascend to power with something resembling courage. A hero does have to be “good” – although people may  disagree about what good means.

Author Maren Elwood in her book Characters Make Your Story tries to define a hero by what one is not.

She says  that a hero must never be shown acting cruelly toward others, seeking revenge, flying off the handle based on little provocation, or indulging in abject self-pity. The implication is that these traits will cause readers to throw down the book in disgust.

But even the most sensible sounding “rules” seem to have exceptions. Two popular movies, Gladiator and Kill Bill are stories in which a hero is driven by revenge; the audience sympathizes with, and even pulls for them because of the intensity of their suffering and the unfathomable cruelty of their opponents.

Elwood goes on to say that readers of fiction hold the main characters of the stories they read to a much higher standard of morality than they do for themselves. Readers want their fictional characters to act in a way that they like to imagine they would, not the way they really would act.

I remembered how, as a formerly bullied twelve-year-old, I had marveled that my bullies enjoyed the same books I did. They pulled for characters who had been abused, even though the bullies themselves were abusers. They empathized with the suffering of imaginary people. They pulled for characters who were “good”  even if — at least in my judgment — the bullies were not “good” at all.

Determining which behaviors are off-limits in heroes is not enough to define what one is. In general, the fictional characters I admire, however flawed they might be, are driven by love of something or someone to act with courage.

However, sometimes heroes in books seem impossibly unselfish. The courage to dash into fires to save tenants  comes too easily to them. Part of me is constantly asking, “Would I have acted as fearlessly in that situation as they did?” It is an uncomfortable question because, too often, I am not so sure.

But I remember something one of my college literature professors had said about the heroes of literature. He said, “Yes, literature is filled with characters willing to risk their lives or be tortured for their beliefs and principles. But should we worry because we might not be as brave as they are in their situation ? I would like to think I would always do what was right, no matter what the consequences. But honestly, if the punishment were horrible enough, I would probably do some squirmy deed, if I had to, to escape being beheaded, lynched, or tortured.”

He had made a good point. It is much easier to write a dauntless hero into existence than it is to become one. So why did I or anyone else bother making self-comparisons to fictional heroes anyway?

I think it has to do with one of the reasons we admire heroes in the first place: they give us a vision of rising above our limitations in order to honor what really matters to us.

The heroic literary figure speaks to the universal struggles and limitations of being human. Life is hard and death is certain. Too often, we feel helpless.

Our most cherished dreams evaporate like a morning mist. Everything we care about the most, we are destined to someday lose. As much as we try to control life, there are certain things that will always be beyond our control.

It seems impossible to even master ourselves, our drives, our obsessions, and our impulses. We fret about what others think. We live life carefully, even when we have goals that we are passionate about. We feel confused. We are indecisive. We are afraid.

A hero offers a glimpse of something different, something that perhaps exists within all of us, a potential freedom from the strait jacket of fear and the possibility of accomplishing something greater and more lasting than just getting through the day.

A hero sees hope where others see despair. He sees opportunities where others see impossibilities, even if the opportunity requires descending into hell. But few of us want to descend into the nightmare of a torturous, uncertain struggle, and it is sometimes hard to identify with anyone who does.

We like underdogs because through them we can start from a familiar place of vulnerability and cross an imaginary bridge to strength,  resolve, and freedom.

A hero is freer than most because he is willing to lose everything for the love of a person, a principle, or an ideal, yet he never becomes a rock without any feelings.  A hero might stand his ground even when a gun being pointed to his head, yet still be afraid. What makes him free is that he insists in every situation, upon preserving his right to make a choice.

The hero model offers a fantasy of how things could be different, if only we were willing to be audacious enough to accept the penalties and risks of true freedom.

Heroes should not be a cudgel for beating ourselves up though. They are instead a window into another way to live, the tantalizing possibility of what life might look like if we could set our fears aside and live for what truly matters to us, even if it means losing the stable floor beneath our feet and the illusions that make us feel safe.

Not every story features the kind of hero that speaks to the love, fears, vulnerabilities, and suffering that come with being human. Stories are about people striving to get what they want. But the fictional heroes that mirror the real fears and potential courage that lie within every reader are the ones most likely to endure.

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