We Need a Hero! We Don’t Need Another Hero.

There was an interesting convo in the comments of the last post about how a writer’s background impacts writing — specifically re epic fantasy, but by extension pretty much everything. Foz Meadows summed it up best, I think:

Prior to doing this, I might never have stopped to consider whether a white author’s race were impacting their storytelling, but the more I read, the more relevant a question it becomes: not because there’s some obvious stylistic contrast between white and POC authors or anything like that, but because there’s something meaningful in asking why we authors choose to tell the stories we do – at the very least, we’ve cared enough to write them, and some of the reason why must necessarily be connected to who *we* are – and the more widely I read in terms of authors, the more diffuse and interesting those whys start to seem.

Emphasis mine. Anyway, I thought about this again thanks to playlist coincidence. For various reasons yesterday I was briefly stuck listening to a Totally Eighties! radio station — yes, I know, thanks for your concern, I’m okay really — and by chance this song came on, immediately followed by this song. OK, it probably wasn’t chance; either some playlist-assembler somewhere was having fun, or the playlist was put together by keyword. Anyway, then it hit me: A white woman yearns for heroes; a black woman says no thanks. (With the added nuance of the black woman saying it to Mel Gibson, figuratively, who’s since let his bigot flag fly.) I couldn’t help applying Foz’s analysis here, and wondering what each woman’s background — not just racial; consider Turner’s history as an abuse survivor, and also Tyler’s childhood as the daughter of a Welsh coal miner — contributed to these songs. More specifically, I wondered what those backgrounds contrib’d to why they chose these songs. It makes perfect sense to me that a black woman, given the usual patterns of racism and sexism in this country, would sing about the unreliability of heroes and the need to look elsewhere for rescue… but then, it also makes seems to me that another woman who grew up literally dirt-poor in a society with its own history of oppression would sing that same song. Instead Tyler chose the opposite.

‘Course, that’s the problem with trying to understand an individual choice in the context of broad cultural assumptions: you can’t. Backgrounds matter, but people are not their backgrounds. Gonna paraphrase Nahadoth here: we are certainly what our pasts and societies have made us, but the future is ours to create.

Anyway, then I thought about fantasy, and binaries — but not the Christian good/evil binary of Tolkienesque fantasy, which we discussed in the last post. I started thinking in terms of “we need a hero” fantasy versus “we don’t need another hero” fantasy. The pro-heroic stuff is easy to find; it calls itself heroic, for one thing, and it’s been around for quite some time (note that HFQ hopes to “hearken an older age of storytelling”). But there’s been a lot of attention paid lately to a newer, “gritty” sort of fantasy, a la Joe Abercrombie and Brent Weeks, both of whose works seem to start with the presumption that there are no heroes and roll from there. There’s been some discussion already about what all this gritty stuff means, and whether it’s just the latest iteration of sword and sorcery or something actually new. But I haven’t seen much discussion about why it’s so popular, and why so many readers seem to love it. I suspect a generational difference at work. The gritty writers I’ve met all tend to be my age or so — Gen X, supposedly a generation of ex-latchkey-kids who view the future with a distinct cynicism. I also suspect the biggest fans of gritty fantasy are in this age range or younger, too, though I have no empirical proof to support this belief. If it’s true, though, I wonder whether attitudes like this are the “why” behind gritty fans’ embrace of the “we don’t need another hero” theme. (Again, let’s try not to apply the broad brush too thickly: I’ve met two of the guys behind Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and they’re my age or younger too.)

So anyway, here’s your question for the day. “We need a hero” fantasy vs. “We don’t need another hero” fantasy — which is your preference? Or do you like both — and if so, are there times/situations in which you prefer one over the other? And why do you like one or the other, if you do?

23 Responses »

  1. Are you so certain Abercrombie’s Men-Doing-Violence aren’t heroes to his readers? With the exception of the occasional Gandhi, there’s nothing unreal about the veneration of killers and the denigration of more pacific beings.

  2. I prefer the “we need a hero fantasy” for a few reasons, but primarily because it is simply a more enjoyable read. I appreciate the grittier style of writing, the stories which simply assume everyone is out for their own good, and no-one acts from truly pure motives – but I just cannot enjoy it as much. To me, it is like the difference for the average person reading an autobiography – the story of a blue-collar worker’s life may be interesting, but it doesn’t compare to the story of Bill Gates, Mother Theresa, Gandhi or Hitler. Say what you will about them, they are exceptional, and the exceptional draws the interest of the reader.

    Now, obviously not every reader shares my interest in the exceptional, but I do believe that in most fantasy stories that characteristic is sought after – and to be morally exceptional is a (relatively) simple, straightforward way of making a character stand out without providing them with ‘game-breaking’ capabilities. I suspect that it is much tougher to write and hold the reader’s attention with someone who is morally grey and without exceptional skill in some or other area – so perhaps the technical challenges should be considered?

    For me personally, I expect that the concept of morally pure heroes and evil antagonists gels with my Christian worldview, along with the widespread idea that a hero should be capable of self-sacrifice for the good of others. On the flip side, I find the ‘gritty’ or morally grey stories more unrealistic, not less, for the simple fact that my beliefs lead me to act in ways that are counter to my (as Ayn Rand would have it) rational self-interest – and the presentation of a world as having no-one who is similar to me (or at least to the image I have of myself) naturally breaks immersion at some level, and makes reading the story more difficult.

  3. Firstly: thanks for the mention! :)

    Secondly: My enjoyment of heroes (or the lack thereof) in any story is contingent on two things: how heroism is defined by the narrative, and how plausible the relationship between that definition and the behaviour/personalities of the protagonists is. So in Firefly, for instance, the crew’s constant sarcastic riffing about being ‘big damn heroes’ plays perfectly off the show’s idea of antiheroes as the real, unlauded heroes. In that instance, what we might see as traditional heroism is defined as sheer stupidity, where as the valiant, mercenary-with-principles antiheroism of Mal, Zoe and Jayne ends up looking simultaneously like a combination of the noblest and most realistic form of honour. Contrast this with Abercrombie’s crapsack universe, where everyone is a new and exotically introspective species of bastard, and where the whole definition of heroism is essentially a hollow myth. In that instance, there are no pure kings, good wizards or noble barbarians – only selfish dupes, power-hungry immortals and lucky berserkers.

    Which is another way of saying, I can take heroism or leave it, provided the story makes me believe its version of events. At the same time, though, my own ambivalence towards heroes and heroism says something about me – specifically, that while I’m open to being convinced either way, my own innate scepticism means that a writer will have to work much harder to convince me of a Galahad than a Vorkosigan, and triply so to convince me that Galahad’s world functions in such a way as to make him realistic, compared to describing a world of political machinations, backstabbing and treachery.

    The thing about defining heroism is that we all tailor it to suit our own needs, whether consciously or not. Even in order to disdain it, we must have a reason why, which effectively describes what we think of it, and that definition will inevitably be radically different to what other people might say on the matter – even if they, too, dislike it. What we think a hero is depends, in large part, on who we are. At the most fairytale level, you could ask: is a hero someone who rescues others, or who never needs to be rescued? The two states aren’t incompatible, and yet they potentially say a lot about how we view heroism. In V for Vendetta, is Evie or V the hero? People would argue for either, or neither, or both, the same as they might argue whether there are any heroes in Watchmen. When and how a hero either breaks or follows the rules tells us a lot about them; but depending on which rules we see as being most important – or whether we like rules at all – we’ll argue differently for which combination leads to antiheroism, heroism, amorality or villainy.

    For me, I like antiheroes – not because they aren’t heroic, but because for me, they are. I suspect I’m not alone in that. Which means I can like a lot that’s gritty, and a lot that isn’t, because ‘antihero’ is a pretty broad church. Or, to define it backwards: I don’t do zealotry and self-righteousness, which is the archetypal (negative) definition of how I see classic heroes. Which says quite a lot about me, really.

  4. I am most definitely in the “we need a hero” camp, although I am trying to read Game of Thrones. I know for me it is my philosophy that affects what I read. I believe that humanity has a capacity for good, and also that there is God or Absolute Truth that we can strive for. It only makes sense to me that to get there I need heroes. Teachers, friends, loved ones. I think the word hero awaits redefinition in a modern sense, so that it better describes a person who might be considered one. We adapt and appropriate other words, but hero seems firmly stuck in a definition that could work for characters in ancient stories like Beowulf. I wonder what that says about the word and the society that has left it untouched.

  5. Ben, I’m not at all certain; that’s why I’m asking. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the “gritty” stuff, for the most part; I like Brent Weeks’ Night Angel, but not for its protagonist. And I haven’t read Abercrombie, beyond the first few pages anyway. But if you’re suggesting that these books don’t fall into the “we don’t need another hero” camp — that they represent just another kind of hero, or anti-hero — that makes sense to me. Or am I paraphrasing you wrong? Sorry if so.

  6. I have to confess I love a good hero moment; I love when a character I’ve grown attached to (or better yet, had nearly given up on), who has been beaten bloody by the trials they’ve slogged through, and who has made their share of mistakes and selfish or even cruel decisions, finally rises to the challenge and proves themselves in a big showy climax. I like heroes who really earn the title: flawed human beings who face the ugliest sides of the world and transcend them, not because they’re born special Chosen Ones or whatever, but simply because they try to do good, and they manage it.

    I feel like my love of these stories has only grown as I get older; the more I understand just how hard it can be to be a hero in real life (and the more I question my own capacity for heroism), the more triumphant it seems when characters on the page manage it. I suppose there’s an escapist element to that. But I also think that presenting the world as utterly UNheroic and irredeemable feels a bit defeatist.

    I don’t want every story I read to be happy, but I want them to at least be satisfying, and for me that means even the darkest and grittiest story should allow for some hopeful elements. That was why I enjoyed, say, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places but not No Country for Old Men (not fantasy examples, but I feel the same concepts apply).

  7. I like heroic stories as long as the hero is not destined — I like heroes who are heroic because they are people who step up, in a way that anyone could step up, in a way that encourages other people to step up. I do not like stories where designated heroes have unique qualifications that no one else can match, and which relieve the rest of us of making the hard choices.

    I also like heroic stories where the hero has to rescue themselves first, and does not always succeed at rescuing other people, or not enough, or not in time.

    Heroes — particularly the kind of heroes that work outside the system without successfully changing it — are not a substitute for justice, they are a palliative. And like any palliative, they can help enough to be the first step toward making things better, or they can help just enough to keep people from making more systemic change.

    I also find that the kind of heroes who work successfully outside the system are not always very good at becoming the new better system — the kind of corner-cutting that is necessary as the underdog is ethically troubling at best in the hands of duly constituted authority. Buffy in season 7 and Angel in season 5 were both great examples of this, but I never could tell if they were doing it on purpose or shared the heroic blind spot.

  8. I understand where your notion came from, but to be fair neither Bonnie Tyler nor Tina Turner wrote either of those songs – they only performed them. In both cases the songs were written by men. I wouldn’t hold the singers’ backgrounds up against the lyrics in any meaningful way :)

    That said, I agree with Foz in that regardless of the hero/non-hero state of the story, it’s how the state is presented in the narrative that makes me enjoy (or not enjoy) it.

  9. Katchan,

    I knew that, actually, which is why I said “why they chose those songs”. Singers don’t sing whatever gets sent to them, and there’s a reason these women chose those songs in particular. There’s also a reason, IMO, that they were able to perform them well enough that they became iconic. (And played, over and over again, on Eighties stations -_-)

  10. I am firmly in the “no heroes” camp. I remember vividly a conversation I had in high school in which someone asked me who my heroes were and I said I had none, really, in the traditional sense of the word. She was so sad for me, and that just pissed me off more ‘cuz, hi, I was not a sad and broken person for not elevating people to pedestals but instead engaging with them critically as human beings.

    I dunno if I like “gritty,” though. Sounds too much like Game of Thrones to me, and, um, no.

  11. I consider a hero to be someone who does what needs to be done when the problem arises. I don’t think the chosen one who has been given the smitey sword of ages is the only person to count as a hero, or that smiting things is the only way to be heroic. So the question doesn’t really work for me. As far as I’m concerned, the majority of books I read have heroes, because the majority of books published are about heroes.

    In general, I prefer heroes who are everyday people thrown into unexpected situations. My version of Tyler would become the hero herself, rather than waiting for a mythical hero who might never exist.

  12. Tina Turner sang that song because it was the theme for “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” movie in which she played an antagonist :} But the character was a hero in her own eyes, and Max was her antagonist. For what that’s worth…

  13. I’m with Meredith. I like a hero who ends up one out of chance or choice, not because he or she is Destined to be the Chosen One. Bah! Heroes to me are made out of reactions (ie, choices) to situations. Where one person might run away screaming, another person might stand up and fight.

    However, I’m definitely not a gritty lover, although I thoroughly enjoy books like Shipbreaker, so I’m not wholly a non-fan of gritty.

  14. N.K.: You’ve got it. The ones I know best and can reference confidently are the heroes of Abercrombie and Sam Sykes; Michael Sullivan (“The Crown Conspiracy”), also. Another example would be the “Swords and Dark Magic” anthology (ed. Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders), which claimed to be “the new sword and sorcery.” Rather, it’s “new sword and sorcery,” without the definite article. The characters in all these stories are still heroes, they’re just not Saviours and Anointeds (but we don’t hate them, as I grew to hate the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces [not to mention Rand al’Thor… ugh]).

    I actually like all these works because the characters feel more emotionally complex to me; but they also thrive on the same depressing and unvisionary premise of too much fantasy, which is something like “violence will solve everything and demonstrate who is the Most Awesome.” And, depending on the skill of the writer, sometimes I might start believing this. Yikes…

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a good, uh, representative sample? of women’s fantasy writing in my critique. Maybe you could fill me in. :)

  15. I’m in that younger age range of Gen-X-or-less. I happen to like both, but I lean toward something more heroic, howbeit that I define Heroic in terms of the qualities of the character. I need something positive in my protagonists onto which I can latch if I’m going to empathize with the protagonist. Usually those positive qualities (I’m thinking about things like compassion and friendship and struggling to be a better person or overcome inner demons and stuff like that) are found in “heroic” characters, but it needn’t be so.

    Where I turn away from “gritty” fantasy is where some authors of such fantasy lose sight of the importance of those humanizing qualities, and automatically default to everyone being repugnant, amoral jack asses. By the same token, some Heroic fantasy authors think that their heroes can be repugnant amoral jackasses, but that’s okay because they are “heroic” (i.e. they are preternaturally gifted and do big, heroic things). That’s equally unpalatable.

    Which is why I can swing both ways, as long as the protagonists have some shred of humanity to them.

  16. I think that the definition of “hero” is tremendously important in how we are going to answer that question. Not just in the Chosen One/Hero By Accident part of the definition that a couple of people have mentioned, though that’s important. But we also don’t necessarily agree on whether a hero must be (or become) a leader.* I mean, you can have someone chosen to lead an army or a political movement, say, or someone who ends up at the head of an army by a series of accidental circumstances — but you can also have someone who acts bravely and decently in difficult or frightening or dangerous circumstances, but whose actions don’t affect a lot of people. That latter person may be a hero to the few who know about it all (and could be the protagonist of an interesting book), without being accepted as a hero by people who demand the first definition. Is Oree Shoth a hero? Is her daughter a hero? What’s the difference?

    *It’s like the question of whether an ordinary person can be the central figure in a tragedy: Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman to show that one could, but lots of critics don’t agree.

  17. Ben,

    Can’t help you there; not a big fan of gritty or sword & sorcery, regardless of what gender writes it. :)

  18. Actually, I meant fantasies of non-violence; the other stuff is all too easy to find…

  19. I don’t know. On the one hand, I believe I would enjoy reading more fantasy with heroes whose heroism isn’t just about restoring the rightful king to the throne (or proving one’s valor in order to claim the throne as rightful king). As an example I think of Wati, the shabti in China Miéville’s Kraken who organizes a general strike of sorcerer’s familiars. On the other hand, I believe that fantasy is lacking a certein discourse about heroes that is present in the best spaghetti westerns: It’s not about heroes being selfish, violent and individualistic (heroic fantasy has that kind of hero since long before Abercrombie), it rather is about how the violence, the arrogance and lone wolf attitude of heroes is a vain effort and ultimately bound to fail. I think the only fantasy I’ve read so far that really comes close to this discourse is Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher.

  20. I like heroes/heroines in fantasy, but does that reflect my real life belief in one person who is going to save the world….not sure. I actually think that I find hero/heroine characetrs easier to buy into in fantasy the genre and ‘fanasty media’ (stuff that is suppousedly real life, no magic/paranormal things but is actually pretty different from any kind of real life we know). In these kinds of stories the existance of one person who can save the whole world is just another thing that requires my suspension of disbelief/a great author convincing me that just as imps are real, so are heroes.

    If I found such a character in contemporary fiction I’d have a hard time believing in them, which probably has a bit to do with the fact that to have the power to save the whole world they’d have to be a government figure and that stretches my 20 something belief too far. However, I could be brought to believe in alternative hero/heroine characters whose heroism is more specific I expect (saves a town, protects others from a gun man).

    But even saying that I like heroes I also like narratives which contains more chance like ‘The Wind up Girl’. No heroes, not even an anti-hero really, just people scrambling trying to fix their bit of the world and mostly failing. That was interesting to watch, but also quite satisfying, as in I didn’t miss there being a hero/heroine who was out to save everything…

    This question is quite revealing!

  21. I enjoy a good hero story, I have to admit. Even more when the hero is reluctant or flawed, I think that just speaks to how we would like to construct our identity. We can overcome our limitations,ect..
    I have a hard time with books where there are only unlikeable characters (China Mievelle comes to mind). I think the bottom line is really “is it a good story worth telling?” And additionally, is the writing so good that I forget that I am reading, or I pause to savor a phrase like chocolate?

  22. I feel that characters we can relate to are – well, not required, but it’s kind of like writing a story where literally nothing happens but someone staring out a window. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that it could be a good story. If heroic is likeable, then I like heroic, but I don’t actually believe that is what it means.

    In Joe Abercrombie’s books we’re constantly made to feel sympathy for the characters. Jezal is a rich, elitist prick, but he is really and honestly head over heels in love. Ninefingers is by turns civilized, morose, intelligent and brutal. Monza was in love with her brother and bent on revenge, but she is both secretly kind-hearted and immensely competent.

    Their not being heroes does not necessarily mean that they are villains; it means that half the battle in the books are what makes them good wrestling with what makes them assholes. Kind of like real life. We want Ninefingers to escape the brutality of his life before. We want Jezal to get over himself. We don’t want the desire for revenge to swallow Monza whole. Those are the conflicts that matter, moreso than the danger to the empire or man or anything else. That’s what I like about them.

    Often it seems the place where people draw the line seems to depend on how much of the struggle is internal. Are they fighting to save the world? Are they fighting to be halfway decent people? Our genre is very fuzzy on that element, since we tend to do both at once, but I figure that has a lot to do with that distinction.

    If I just can’t relate to the characters then I don’t care.

  23. You know, I really had to think about that one for a bit.

    The part of me who was raised by super-liberal 70s punks wants to think that she doesn’t believe in heroes anymore, and that she only likes the gritty stuff.

    But then, the rest of me, who’s out of the house and making a life for herself, realizes that if she wants gritty, there’s plenty of that in real life. I can go to chinadaily.com.cn and see a dozen people drive by a child left bleeding in the road, or go into a courtroom where I bailiff and see a woman with her third hit-and-run (failure to render aid), who only stopped when after hitting three people waiting with their disabled car on the interstate, she also hit a bus, which left her car un-driveable.

    Seeing both those stories for the first time in the same day, I’d rather stick with my DC Comics and heroic fantasy. The heroes still have to be believable, and preferably not Chosen Ones, but I’ve got enough grit in my life already.