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Black, White, Gray, Rainbow: What is Heroism Now?

In fairy tales, characters are extreme.  Heroes are very, very good.  Villains are very, very bad.  This suits the sensibilities of the audience for fairy tales: children.  Black and white works for them.  It’s simple.  As adults, we know that people aren’t so simple.

That is not to say that we adults sometimes do not cheer for—or, for that matter, write—black and white heroes and villains.  Think of superheroes.  Think of Conan.  Alex Cross.  Jo March.  Nancy Drew.  Arya Stark.  Clarice Starling.  Solid gold heroes and heroines are strong, noble, moral, smart and plucky.  Their appeal is enduring.  We aspire to be like them.  They are perfect.  They are pure.

Still, as grownups, we know better.  People aren’t like that.  People aren’t pure and to the extent that we try to perfect we will be unhappy and probably fail.  For characters in fiction to resonate with us, they can’t be simplistic.  For that human reason, perhaps, as well as historical ones, the tide of 20th Century fiction ran in the direction of anti-heroes: flawed, suffering, alienated, cynical.  They are still written today.

If characters like that become heroes or heroines, those roles are often accidental or unwilling.  They may also be characters to whom things simply happen, making such heroism a matter of endurance.  Phillip Marlow.  Holden Caulfield.  Yossarian.  Thomas Covenant.  Roland the Gunslinger.  Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar).  Carrie.  Lisbeth Salander.  Katniss Everdeen.  The list of protagonists who are in some way disaffected is very long.

Beyond that we have post-modern heroes and heroines: morally neutral, self-mocking, ironic, utterly contemporary.  Slothrop (Gravity’s Rainbow).  Jack Gladney (White Noise).  Odilo Unverdorben (Time’s Arrow).

More recently we have, ask me, entered an era of multi-cultural or rainbow protagonists.  Such characters challenge us to dwell in different contexts and gain a different understanding of what is heroic.  Sethe (Beloved).  Oscar Wao.   Sue Trinder and Maul Lilly (Fingersmith).  Kimberly Chang (Girl in Translation).  Binti.  When such heroes or heroines shine it is not just because they are different but because in their different worlds they stand out.  They are extraordinary.

Thus, heroes and heroines can be good, gray, enduring, different…really, anything at all.  They can be pure or imperfect.  They can be proactive or set-upon.   They can be hopeful, cynical or indifferent.  They can be admirably virtuous or abdominally the opposite.  There is nothing in the makeup of a characters that automatically qualifies or disqualifies them as heroes or heroines.

What, then, is at the core of heroism?  Are there universal defining qualities which cause us to feel that characters are heroic, regardless of their natures?  When strength, goodness, smarts, esteem, good looks, great purpose or any other qualities commonly called heroic are not required for heroism, then what is required?

Is there a secret formula? 

Obviously, there are no formulas for fiction.  (Or, at any rate, anything that becomes a formula will eventually lose its effectiveness through overuse.)  There are, however, qualities in characters that transcend time, fashion, and our ordinary ideas of what causes us to think of characters as heroic.  I’d like to suggest a few.

First is self-awareness.  I am.  It takes a lot to look at oneself honestly.  Self-regard might seem self-centered, but in fiction we admire characters who observe themselves.  They are courageous.  This effect explains why a strong narrative voice alone can capture us when there are few overt reasons to care.  Characters who explain themselves to us do something we often cannot: Explain ourselves to ourselves.

Self-awareness, BTW, is the secret appeal of dark characters.  Characters who are flawed but know it and say so, disarm our dislike.  Because they’re aware of their flaws, we know they can change.  Because they struggle with misbeliefs, we anticipate that they will discover the truth.  We forgive them their sins.  We hope they will grow.

Self-awareness also has a corollary, too: self-doubt.  It’s as simple as this question: Can I?  To be daunted is to be human.  Just as we cheer on losing teams, readers cheer on doubting characters.  Can you?  Yes, you can!  It’s related to the Refusal of the Call: The character who shrinks from a challenge is the one whom we hope will save the day.

A second dimension of heroism is hidden goodness.  We want good people to win.  We hope for them.  We encourage them.  Make them too angelic, of course, and a reverse psychology may take hold.  We may wish a too-perfect person to fail, be humbled, and learn a lesson.  For the most part, though, good people win our hearts.

If goodness is so important, then, what about protagonists who are bad?  How are we to explain the appeal of those nasty characters whom we love to hate?

Here’s where the word “hidden” comes in.  When we do cheer for bad characters it always—always—because the author has planted signs of hidden goodness.  Hateful people have one person whom they love.  Bad actors do good turns.  Anti-heroes on the surface are dark, detached, cynical, mean…I mean, really, what’s to like about them?  Whatever it is, though, it’s there.  Somehow.  Goodness can be hard to see, yet nevertheless felt.

A third factor that causes us to feel that characters are heroic is that they rise.  They rise to the challenge.  They exceed their own expectations, and ours.  They do the impossible—or at least what feels impossible for them.  They persist.  They get through the dark moments and keep going.  You do not have to construct characters out of pulp or fill them with fairy tale stuffing to make them appealing in that way.  Anyone can endure.

So, what is heroism?  Self-awareness.  Healthy self-doubt.  Hidden goodness.  Rising to do what needs to be done and having the endurance to see it through.

Looked at that way, any human in any circumstance can be heroic.  Heroism in novels isn’t reserved for fantasy, thrillers or other romantic tales.  Heroism can empower any literary form.  Heroism is an omnipresent human potential.  It’s possible in life and in fiction.  It’s possible for each of us.  It’s possible in your current WIP.

Here are a couple of ways to make that power practical:

We think of heroism as archaic.  We dismiss it as impossible actions.  In our world of self-serving leaders, cynical subjects, zero sum discourse, moral relativity and overwhelming despair, heroism feels futile if not impossible, doesn’t it?

When everyone is shades of gray, how can anyone wear a white hat?  When the world we knew feels like a long-ago fairy tale, how can we hope for heroes?  It’s easy to feel discouraged and easier still to believe that if fiction is to reflect our true experience, then heroism has no place.

But I don’t believe that.  Heroes and heroines are all around us.  They take their own measure and are kind to others.  They are flawed but go forward anyway.  They are fallible but refuse to quit.  They shout when others stay silent.  They dance when others stay still.  They know that to try is to be alive and to be true to oneself is to win.  They are the best of us and have never gone out of fashion.

Those people are heroes and they are here.  Why not allow them into your fiction?  Does it cheapen anything to portray self-awareness, hidden goodness, faith or endurance?  Does the absence of heroism in our times make it less vital in our novels?  It may look different today, but heroism is eternal and it is a power you can use in your fiction.

I say, use it.

In what way is your protagonist not just a character, but a hero or heroine?  How can he or she become more so?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].