The following article was written by author William J. Benning. William Benning is the author of the First Admiral series of science fiction novels, and several other published works of genre fiction.
It is highly unlikely that, as human beings in the twenty-first century, we will never ever have heard a story, read a book, scanned a comic- strip, browsed a short story or watched a movie. And, in these diverse types of entertainment there will have been some form of lead character; a protagonist or, in other words, a ‘hero’ (or ‘heroine’ to be fair to the ladies out there in Sci-fi-land – for the purposes of this article the terms will be interchangeable). These heroes might not even have been human. It may have been a creature, a machine, a force of nature or even a thought, but we would still recognise whatever it was as significant – whether we loved it or loathed it – as the hero.
So, what is a hero, and do we really still need them?
The word itself originates from the ancient Greeks and referred to a demi-god such as Perseus, Achilles or Heracles. Meaning, broadly, ‘protector’, these first hero(es) had a close, if at times, conflicted, relationship to the (often parental) Olympian Gods in the mythology. However, in the more modern interpretation, “…the hero is often simply an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, who, despite the odds being stacked against him or her, typically prevails in the end. In some movies (especially action movies), a hero may exhibit characteristics such as superhuman strength and endurance to the point of the hero being nearly invincible.” (Wikipedia)
But, enough of the history lesson.
What is it that makes a hero? What attributes or abilities should he (or she) possess that sets them apart from other characters? You might have a list as long as your arm to describe what you consider to be a hero or even as heroic. Your hero might have super powers; be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. They may have unswerving courage either physical or emotional. They may be incredibly intelligent or blessed with extraordinary compassion. Heroes come in all shapes and forms, from super beings, to those with magical powers and those who are exemplary by their sheer ordinariness.
However we define our heroes – although, we usually hate to admit it – we tend to aspire to be more like those we consider as heroes. Many would argue that we can never truly be ourselves without striving to be more like those we admire. We all seek to be ‘better’ human beings and the role models – or heroes – that we choose to emulate may be a reflection of our own aspirations.
For us lesser mortals – who write stuff about heroes – the problem about understanding these elusive beasts is multiplied by the need to describe them to others (!) And, although many writers work on a more instinctive level in describing their characters, how many of us could put hand on heart and say that there was absolutely nothing of ourselves in the heroes that we create? Do we all not seek to create a better version of ourselves on the pages that we spend our precious creative hours writing? It would seem both natural and sensible to create ‘upgraded’ versions of ourselves. We may choose to base our characters on someone we know and/or admire. Ultimately, they would become extensions of how we would like to see ourselves. Ask any sketch artist to create a wholly original new face. They will find it next to impossible to do so without using elements from themselves or from people that they know. I would argue that the same is also true of the heroes we create from our imaginations. There may be a spark of the Divine in each of us, but there must be a spark of ‘Us’ in our heroes.
So, are our heroes simply an extension of our own vanity – a striving to be something that we are not capable of achieving by our own efforts? After all, why do we write about it rather than try to do something about it? Those who can do, those who can’t teach/write about it (!)
Well, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter as the saying goes.
Maybe, through our heroes, we try to make the world that we live in a better place. By trying to be better people through our hero(es), do we not try to inspire those that read our humble offerings? In some way our readers may identify with the heroes (or characters) that we create. And, many for the same reasons that we created them for in the first place. We all aspire to be better people. We want to feel that even a small part of us is somehow worthwhile – or, even what is described as ‘good’ or ‘special’ – and which sets us apart from every other human being. We all want to be ‘heroes’, even if it is only in our own minds. And, sometimes when we fail to live up to our own ‘heroic’ expectations, the disappointment can be crushing.
Do our readers identify with the heroes that we, as writers, create? If the reader has no ‘connection’ to, or is not inspired by our creations, then they will go elsewhere for that inspiration. The ‘inner hero’ that fights to emerge from within every reader will find strength and support elsewhere. And, somehow, as writers, we have to be able to tap into that deep vein of human ambition and aspiration to develop our own craft.
But, does this ability to inspire our readers make our heroes heroic?
I would argue that the defining characteristic of a hero is the struggle against – someone or something – that opposes them. This may be the classic evil ‘nemesis’ who stands against our favourite heroes; the Lex Luthors, the Jokers, the Moriartys, the Lord Voldemorts or the Blofelds of the literary world. Alternatively, this opposition may come from within the hero. There may be some form of disability that the hero battle against. It may be a poor education, a run of bad luck, adverse circumstances or an irrational fear that the hero must surmount.
Whether the hero wins out against this adversary is not relevant. For the hero to constantly win often diminishes the value of their gallant struggle in the reader’s mind. Sometimes losing can inspire the reader to gain further respect and admiration for the defeated hero. How the hero copes with adversity can be as inspirational to people as a heroic triumph. The brave knight on the Grail Quest may not find the sacred artifact, but the courage, strength, skill, piety, compassion, tenacity and integrity that they displayed on the journey can be described as ‘heroic’.
So, just as our fictional heroes strive against their adversaries, our readers seek their own inspiration from the pages that we create. That doesn’t mean that every reader wants to be James Bond, Superman, Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander. But, to be able to feel that they have a tiny fragment of what makes those fictional creations so special is something well worth having.
And, for as long as people strive to better themselves in this life, that means there will always be a need for heroes!
Article by William J. Benning