Friday, June 20, 2014

BUILDING YOUR HERO

How bout with the gun.
Do I still look like a Girl Scout with the gun?
There was a film made in the 1991 called Out For Justice in which Steven Seagal moves about the neighborhoods of Brooklyn seeking his former childhood friend and killer of his partner.  He spends the film beating the tar out of a variety of different Italians and other locals with little to no combat training and finally catches his buddy and beats him up in short order as well.

Out For Justice has a simple appeal and Seagal is not without charisma, so his calm dispatching of a variety of thugs and mobsters with aikido with a somewhat annoyed look on his face is fun to watch.  As Seagal movies go, its not his best, but its far from his worst.  There's something about it that is flat and disappointing, though.

At no point in the film - or any of his films - does the viewer get the impression he's in any danger.  Seagal's character Gino Felino never seems to be concerned or challenged at all. There's never a moment of doubt, never a time when you are not sure he'll succeed.  From start to finish he strides around the neighborhoods dismantling everything and everyone he meets with the same calm slightly annoyed continuous momentum.

Now, in a way this works because Felino stops being a human being so much as an implacable force of justice; he can't be stopped, reasoned with, questioned, or intimidated.  Seagal is not portraying a human being, he's a sort of android of justice that moves through the world of humans Terminator-style until he finds his quarry.

But as heroes go, he's pretty disappointing.  Even in his best films (Above the Law, Marked for Death - all Seagal film titles can be preceded with "Steven Seagal is...") Seagal seems to be impassive, as if nothing can ever really challenge him.
FLAT HEROES
And that's something writers will at times do in their stories.  Loving their hero and wanting him or her to seem powerful and capable, their good guy steamrolls over the opposition, crushing everyone, seeing them driven before them and enjoying the lamentations of their women.  Its a tempting proposition because it makes your hero seem so much better than everyone else's.  If I wrote Harry Potter, you think, he would have cast x spell and not been such a whiny punk!

The problem with this approach is that the hero never grows or is very interesting.  Raw unstoppable power is impressive, certainly, but it has no character.  A freight train is nearly unstoppable but its not very interesting to write about.  The Hulk is only interesting if he faces some kind of challenge or difficulty to overcome.

And its how they overcome these difficulties, and what it does to them as a person, that makes a hero intriguing and worth reading about.  Consider the differences between Gino Felino and, say, Detective John McClane from Die Hard.
  • Felino is massively skilled, far more capable and impressive than every other person in the film combined.  McClane is just a talented cop out of his comfort zone, heavily outnumbered and often unarmed against men with machine guns and C4.
  • Felino barely is scratched through the entire movie and everyone he faces is completely outmatched by his consummate skill in martial arts.  McClane barely survives and is covered head to toe with bruises, cuts, and wounds.  
  • Felino never doubts his actions and is never concerned in any situation.  McClane is so depressed and feels so overwhelmed that he fears he has no chance and reaches out to his cop buddy.  
  • Felino's final confrontation with the evil Richie Madano is a foregone conclusion; you only wonder in what awful way he's going to dispatch the villain, not whether he'll be able to or not.  McClane is beat up, disarmed, and captured when he faces the final villain, with his wife held hostage and two men armed with guns against him.  You're not sure how he's going to even survive, let alone get his wife away.
His left elbow isn't bruised.

McClane triumphs in an impressive way, and never comes across as whiny or pathetic, but faces challenges to overcome all the way through the film.  He's good, but not superhuman, and he is up against enemies as good as him in many ways, and better in others.  And in the end, McClane is a more interesting hero who seems to have accomplished so much more.  Instead of being a presumed certainty of victory, you're genuinely concerned McClane may not make it.

If your hero is never challenged, they never show their true character or capabilities.  Its when the hero faces a difficulty that forces them to try harder, dig deeper, and find a solution that they show what they are made of and truly capable of.  The challenges and difficulties, even failures a hero experiences demonstrate they can get back up, deal with the problems and triumph anyway.

You want to throw things at your hero they barely can defeat.  One of the most interesting events in a story is when the hero is in a situation it seems impossible for them to escape or survive.  Consider the new run of Dr Who where he's continually faced with scenarios that seem impossible to overcome.  When he finds a way, that makes him that much more impressive and heroic.  If he never breaks a sweat and has no concerns whatsoever, that sense of heroism is diminished, if not eliminated.

FLATTENED HEROES
On the other hand, some writers pour on too much difficulty on their character.  Their hero is faced with continual difficulty and failure throughout the story, always triumphing by the slimmest of margins and at a terrible cost.  Some heroes are so weak and hapless they can barely do anything at all.

You don't see this too often in fantasy, but Frodo Baggins (and Bilbo, his uncle) is a prime example.  A short, weak fellow with no appreciable skills totally out of his element, Frodo is a likable enough character but he survives not by skill and heroism but luck, assistance, and hiding through most of the story.  Finally in the end he shows immense heroism and courage, fighting Shelob and going where no sane person would, carrying an almost unthinkable burden.

But at no point in the Lord of the Rings does Frodo ever have a chance to really seem like he's in his comfort zone.  This works mostly because Frodo is less the hero than the suffering servant, the ordinary guy forced into extraordinary circumstances and succeeding in some ways because of his weakness.  Other characters such as Aragorn and Gimli are given a chance to be the more standard hero.

Yet some writers seem to want to take the approach that their hero should be desperately surviving only through the greatest effort throughout their entire story.  They write in such a way that every single confrontation must be a life or death struggle, filled with doubt and difficulty.

Are you crying?  There's no crying in fantasy!
The problem with this approach is twofold.  First, such a hero never gets a chance to seem capable.  Everyone can insist that Bob the Barbarian is the best swordsman in the land, but if he barely can defeat every single other swordsman he encounters, that claim is doubtful.  You may introduce Jane the Sorceress as the most powerful spellcaster in the world, but if they are almost killed every fight and their spells are never up to the challenge, forcing them to find a clever other way to defeat their foes, then nobody is going to buy that introduction.

A writer has to give their hero a chance to triumph, and demonstrate just how capable they really are.  If they never seem powerful or impressive, then they never will be in the mind of the readers.  So if you're writing about a capable combatant, your hero should have at least one scene - and I suggest it be early in the story - where they mop up on the opposition, where they demonstrate that they are really, really good at what they do.

Because if you don't you also face the second problem: all the foes seem the same.  When its time for a big confrontation with the arch villain, the worst bad guy of the story, it doesn't work.  See, if every single fight up to that point is a desperate struggle to survive against a foe that outmatches our hero, then that final "boss" won't stand out.  Whatever the climactic challenge of your story is, if its the same level of difficulty as the previous challenges, its not climactic at all.  Its just one more in a series of near-failures.

Now, again, this can work.  Your hero might be an anti-hero forced to face these problems despite being clearly not qualified for the work.  Your book might not be about a hero at all, instead a series of incidents that helps make a point about life or humanity.  Its not impossible to write a story about a pathetic loser hero who never can quite stand out.

But if you're trying to write heroic fiction or you have a good guy in mind you want to triumph, then you'll want to avoid the extremes of making them omnipotent and totally pathetic.  Because neither one is much fun to read.