Heroes Misjudged: On Public Perception and Your Heroic Character

People don't judge him as he really is....

People don’t judge him as he really is….

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.


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.

At the right, you can also sign up to follow my blog by email and enter a giveaway on Goodreads.com for a paperback copy of my writer’s handbook “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.” It releases July 31, so keep an eye out!


31 responses to “Heroes Misjudged: On Public Perception and Your Heroic Character

  1. I think this can also apply to villains as well. I loved an idea that i found on Joanna Penn’s website (The Creative Penn) that not all villains are bad for the sake of being bad, or for the sake of making the hero look good. All humans have a good and a bad side, and even though villains usually have a bit more bad on their side, there is still a part of them that is good, at least to someone like their own friends or loved ones. For my own novel i’m working on, there is one particular ‘bad guy’ that my heroine comes up against and even though through her eyes he is doing evil things, in the wider context of what is happening around them, his actions are actually done for the greater good of the kingdom. He is a good guy whose actions unfortunately hinder the heroines own quest, therfore he is seen by her as the villain.
    I think complexities like these make for great reading as the characters feel more realistic, relatable and interesting. (Although i do love a good old fashioned bad guy who is just born evil too! ha ha)

    • Great concept. I like looking at villains in this light. A friend of mine told me long ago: “Even bad guys believe they are on good quests.” I’ve stuck by that since he shared the wisdom.

      Great post, Victoria! 🙂
      I am curious, are we getting a discourse on the dastardly drop-outs from hero school? Keep up the great work. I look forward to checking out your new book.

      • thanks! I hadn’t considered whether to do a series on villains. I’ve written one post on villains before, but it last summer and definitely leaves a lot uncovered.

        I don’t really plan my blog posts out ahead of time, just go with the flow and write what strikes me as an interesting topic on that given day. Villains seem a fun and sensible follow-up topic to this series on heroes, though. For sure. I probably will take that up!

    • Love what you say here. Very true! A villain can also be misunderstood and might–in fact, probably should–have aims that aren’t 100% evil in and of themselves. Sometimes it’s all about perspective.

      Complexities like you mention make for great reader, for sure, and also some contemplation about the nature of good and evil. Never a bad thing!

  2. I often shudder st the word hero. It’s thrown around way too often and in the wrong way. The media, and people, tend to call anyonebwhpnisbthe victim of a crime, a hero. They aren’t though. They are people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can they then perform in a heroic manner? Yes, some do. Some don’t. We saw this with 9/11. Those were folks who just showed up for work. Right place, wrong time. They became victims of horrible tragedy, but showing up for work does not make you a hero just because something happened. Were heroic deeds done after the fact? Oh my, yes. Those were the heroes. I think the word is used to freely and takes away from the true heroes.

    • That’s a very good point. I agree with you: a hero is judged by what he or she does, not by where he or she happens to be. There is a difference between victims and heroes. Victims can turn heroic, like you say, but it’s not the fact of being a victim that qualifies them to be labeled a hero.

  3. This is interesting and gives me quite a lot to think about…
    I have, for some reason, problems to think of my protagonists as heroes, mostly because their deeds are largely determined by their struggle to survive. They WANT to do the right thing, but are so busy trying to survive that heroic things rather “happen” on the way (if they happen). The “hero point” comes rather late, and when the environment finally gets over initial mistrust and prejudice and acknowledges the heroic deeds, the protagonists themselves can only view themselves as survivors, and nothing else.
    Mh. I’m quite excited where my band of not-really-heroes will journey 😉

    And to the comments above: Yes, this is great, too! I think that villains need supporters who believe that the villain is fighting for something good, this makes the whole thing much more believable.

    • I think you are definitely on to something here. A real hero rarely thinks of himself as a hero. If ever. Like you say, he’s just struggling to survive or doing what he feels any decent person would do in a similar situation.

  4. Hero-worshipers have existed for as long as we have been able to record events. After a certain amount of time these turn to legend and fables. I believe it is the over romanticized depictions of the characters we see, such as the characters you wish to deem important an posses an unnatural abilities, which have somehow become aligned to serve some greater purpose. We see in the world the things we lack, the things we seek, and the things we are searching for, I am also on a similar path of unveiling the heroes at our current disposition, your inputs are valuable because you’ve really dug into the negative aspects of a hero, fictional or not, what constitutes a hero is very valuable in a world where they are few and far between.

    • I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the discussion going on! You’re right: there are negative aspects to being a hero, and we don’t have enough in the world today.

      Thanks for bringing up the evolution of the classical hero, on which all literary heroes are based. That’s very valuable to consider and to be aware of, because it’s a type that can be altered or adjusted to fit our writing today.

  5. Spider-Man comes to mind. Does heroic things, but there are times he’s seen as a menace. The Daily Bugle being against him at most times definitely shows how people in power can turn a populace against a hero. It isn’t played up as much as it once was.

    I’ve never written a hero that is seen as less heroic than he or she really is. I kind of went the opposite with the populace seeing a hero as legendary before he actually does anything. I’m working on a heroic thief that saves the world a few times, but nobody really knows, so he’s still seen as a wandering thief.

    • That’s cool: my heroes are exactly the opposite. Hated because they’re sorcerers. Your premise is very interesting. That’s a big psychological weight to carry around: undeserved/unearned fame and all those expectations.

      • I like the idea of heroes being hated because of the abilities they use to be a hero. It can bring up the questions: ‘should I give up my powers?’ or ‘why should I before protecting these people?’ A hated hero has a lot of paths to take depending on the personality they are given.

        • I’m glad you mention this! One of my characters in book 2 of my trilogy does consider giving up his powers.

        • I always enjoy that type of conflict. It makes one wonder if it’s the powers or the character that makes them a hero. I have my heroes trying to figure that out in their series. So far, they’re not sure.

        • That’s a very real and very deep contemplation. I like to think what Dumbledore once tells Harry clears this us: “It is what we are born, but what we choose to be that matters.”

          It’s our choices, and not our talents, that define use. Powers and special talents come into play because they open the door to different and interesting kinds of choices.

        • Very true. Some of my characters are going to learn that a lot easier than others. Nyx the super sorceress? Not for a while. She keeps having ‘I’m only a living weapon’ moments.

  6. One of my favorite series – The Hallows – has a misunderstood heroine. Sometimes its a little much, but I do love how she uses perception to her advantage.

    My hero is misunderstood by the people he’s attempting to protect for about 2/3rds of the book. He never intended for them to try to follow him, but because they did, he feels compelled to ‘rescue’ them (or rather, help them save themselves). One of the main characters resents him for it for much of the book. He’s a bit of an accidental/reluctant hero, but when it really gets going, then he’s all in it, and the other characters are right behind him.

  7. Great article Victoria and great series on Heroes. It’s inspired me to write my own article on the Hero/Villain concept with a bit of a different angle.

  8. I, also, would like to see a series on antagonists.

  9. Misunderstandings happen all the time in real life, so they ought to in fiction. When they occur in fiction, they can be a good way to reveal things about your setting and your characters that could otherwise be difficult to reveal without being heavy-handed about it. I think that’s one reason why I like reading about characters who are not perceived by the general public in the same way the characters perceive themselves. A misunderstood character will often react to others in ways that reveal more about them than will a character who everyone “gets.”

    It’s the whole idea that story is about conflict. The more realistic and meaningful conflict you can introduce, the more engaged the reader can become.

    • Love how you connect misunderstandings to characterization and world-development. That’s brilliant and I had never connected those things that way, but you’re perfectly right. The more I think of it, the more I think of my sorcerer heroes and how much characterization comes from them struggling to accept that aspect of themselves.

  10. Pingback: Does Your Hero Laugh in the Face of a Three Act Structure? | Lara S. Chase

  11. Really enjoyed reading this blog and the comments underneath also gave me lots to think about. Thank you 🙂

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