Wednesday, November 17, 2010

...on the hero

I've given this just enough thought to interest me.  That alone should worry you. 

What is a hero and why do we want them?  Why do we need them?

I look through countless stories out there these days and the one thing that strikes me about them the most is the hero. The protagonist.  This creation is normally considered the good guy but not always.  I'm going to avoid the whole when is a good guy the best hero and when should you use a bad guy instead? question altogether.  That's not what's stuck in my craw right now.  The thinig I can't shake from my head is the question of wether you need a hero at all in a story.  Sure you can write a short story with no central character, but at SOME point, a hero will emerge.  The one character the reader can relate to and cheer for.    But is such a creation necessary for a story?

As a writer, one learns fast that plot drives story.  And we also learn that Plot is derived from one of the seven basic conflicts (Borrowed from wikipedia). Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself, Man against God, Man against Society, Man caught in the Middle, Man & Woman.  In each of these conflicts, someone (or something) is at odds with someone (or something) else.  You can't have a decent story without one of these, we are told.  I've always been a person whose initial reaction on being told I cannot do something is to go out and do it.

I'm not saying it's possible...or even practical.  What kind of a story can you have without a hero?  How can you establish conflict without a protagonist? 

I'm not as well read as I would like to be.  There are holes in my literary index you could drive a truck through.  I never read Faulkner.  I never read Frost.  In fact, if you name 10 of the top writers of the last 100 years, it would be a safe bet that I have probably read one or two of them at most.  That said, a person with a 20% coverage of today's writers is hardly the best person to sy "It ain't never been done."  I'm sure that some experimental type got this identical bug in his britches and his effort was widely appreciated.  SO I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel or even remotely claim this quest as my creation.  I am claiming it as my own that I want to know what a story without a hero looks like.  I want to know what it is about the reader that demands his presence.  What is it within the working dynamics of any story that implicitly states "Thou Shalt Have a Hero!!" 

I'm probably chasing a red herring here, but I don't care.  There are no heroes in your daily life.  None that are worth noting that is.  The ones that rise above it on a daily basis never have their story told.  And that's not even my main concern here.  There is limited conflict in your day to day life.  You struggle against unseen foes, you triumph 30% of the time and fail 60% of the time.  The last 10% is a tie.  But no one wants to hear about your sandwich story...even though you did something quite heroic in achieving it.  That's still a story, though.  And You are the hero of it.  But what's the story about that homeless guy on the corner with the sign?  Is he a hero?  In the literrary basis of the term, if I write a story about his struggles, he becomes the hero.    But what has he done?  He got $2.50 today and was able to eat.  That's his big triumph.  You ought to be impressed.

What is it that attracts us to read about great deeds done by others?  You put yourself in the shoes of the first audience, gathered around the campfire as Ugluuk tells the others of Aghaak's battle with the fearsome lion.  He tells of masterful feints and powerful strokes that slay the beast in heroic fashion.  You are impressed with this story and it inspires you to duplicate Aghaak's actions.  Yet when you meet a lion in the woods later, he eats you.  End of story.  But that first tale about Aghaak and the lion has done it's work and convinced you to fight a lion.  It doesn't matter that the lion is now chewing on your bones.  We look to the stories as targets.  We look at them as entertainment when they instill in us the desire to get better and achieve more.  We look at them as preachy when they tell us what we ought to do rather than what we want to do.  We look at them as wise when they show us that through the right mindset, any obstacle can be overcome.  But they are all boring when there is no hero.

We need his act as a mirror held against our own actions.  Were WE on Odysseus' ship, would we have ordered ourselves lashed to the mast as we passed the sirens?  Would We have been crafty enough to tell the cyclops our name was No Man?   Odds are we would have jumped overboard at the first note of their song...or else had our femurs serve as Polyphemus' toothpick.  That Odysseus succeeded where we would have failed gives us a target.  We want to be that courageous.  We need to be that wise.   That is the role of the hero, I suppose.

In the greater scheme of things, a hero is simply one literary device.  Like the plot, like the introduction.  You think of it in terms like that and it is not long before you try to work a story that leaves one of those devices out.  Much like a jet airplane.  At it's core, all a plane is, the thing that makes it go, is an jet engine.  Were it not for that, it would cease to me a plane and become a plain old trailer.  You think to yourself 'that engine needs to be attached to something, so you need a fuselage.  Ok.  Now you think 'well...I need wings or it won't fly'.  Then you add landing gear so it can land.  Next you give it a pilot.  He's going to need a cockpit, naturally.  When that's said and done...there is still a laundry list of things it still needs.  Seats, seatbelts, windows, rudders, drinks, bathrooms.....passengers.  The thing of it is.  The main part may very well be the engine.  But without those other components, it's worthless.  It's not a plane.  The hero is the engine of the story.  His actions are necessary to draw our interest.  His struggle is necessary to boost our own ego.

Thinking of it in terms like that...I can see why we need heroes in our stories.  I may not like it..but I understand their necessity.

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