I’ve been focusing on heroes these last few days, and a comment on one of my recent posts got me thinking about the perception of a hero in his or her world. What happens when a hero isn’t viewed according to the person he really is, what actually motivates him, and what his final intents and goals are?
As readers, we can get in the head of a hero if the narrator allows us. We can see private interactions between the hero and other characters. Other people in the hero’s world don’t have that advantage: and that can lead to misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
This post was inspired by fellow author and blogger Misha Murnett. Misha commented:
I think the contrast between the public perception of a hero and the hero’s own perceptions of her- or himself is an important thing to keep in mind. Often what is perceived as heroic behavior is actually quite self-serving.
My favorite example of this is the episode “Jaynestown” of the series Firefly. Jayne Cobb is an amoral thug, but something he does more or less by accident makes him a hero to an isolated community.
I’ve tried to keep that dynamic in mind writing James in my own work–at one point he tells the female lead, “I didn’t save you–I saved myself. Saving you was just collateral damage.”
I thought this reflection was really insightful. It definitely got me thinking.
Such heroes are, in their way, clandestine antiheroes. This means, like all antiheroes, they can develop to become a bit more unselfish (often, such a character will be unselfish in clandestine way, so as not to appear too giving or too soft.)
They can also become victims of poetic justice (also known as karma).
Still, reflecting on my fiction, my heroes tend to have the opposite problem in terms of public perception.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR HEROES AREN’T CONSIDERED HEROES?
One of the reasons “The Dark Knight” is so profound as a movie (apart from the Joker as a villain, all he philosophically represents, and Heath Ledger’s beyond brilliant portrayal of him) is its ending.
(SPOILER ALERT for the following paragraph, if you haven’t seen the movie)
The movie ends with Batman wrongfully perceived by all of Gotham as viciously murdering the town’s hero DA, Harvey Dent. In truth Batman prevented Dent from murdering a child.
In my Herezoth trilogy, my heroes are often mistrusted and hated simply because they have strong magic powers. Throughout Herezoth’s history, tension between sorcerers and the rest of the population has erupted into violence and war, so there is a legacy of hatred that people simply aren’t capable of overlooking.
I love when genuinely good people in fiction–“heroes” or no–have to deal with libel, misrepresentation, and hatred from the population. It’s not a requirement for fantasy/sci-fi literature by any means, but it’s one option you can take. Here’s why I chose to put my heroes in such a situation:
- UNFORTUNATELY, IT RINGS TRUE TO THE WORLD WE LIVE IN. Sexism, racism, and many other forms of prejudice and hate are living monsters that good and kind people have to struggle with on a daily basis. I like to think that my fantasy, that the parallels between real world prejudice and the stigma against magic in Herezoth, might cause personal reflection on the part of my readers. I know it’s caused me to do a LOT of thinking about myself and the world.
- WHO WE ARE IS DEFINED BY HOW WE TREAT OUR ENEMIES. THOSE WHO HATE US. It’s easy to sacrifice for family and friends. For those you deem worthy. There is a reason why, in the Gospels, Christ says to “Love you enemies” and “Pray for those who persecute you.” That’s the next step, and it’s a hard one to take. Watching heroes struggle with that is real and raw.
- A MALIGNED HERO CAN COMPLICATE AND DEEPEN YOUR PLOT (IN A GOOD WAY). When the populace isn’t on your hero’s side, you have new barriers and new problems arising. Your world becomes more developed and your plot more multidimensional. Your heroes have to become more clever and perhaps more daring. Tension increases. Your readers are more invested.
What do you think about this? Do you have a favorite hero whose motives are misunderstood (either for public acclaim or scorn?) Have you written such a hero? How did you go about it?
I’ve had a blast with this short series on heroes…. I got a lot more out of it than I thought I would. If you enjoyed this post, you can read my posts about reluctant heroes, willing heroes, and antiheroes.
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