Think about what defines a literary hero in speculative fiction—science fiction or fantasy. The hero must possess courage. Given. He or she must be virtuous and good. They would not be a hero if they were the opposite. The list can go on, long enough maybe to fill all the shelves in a brick and mortar bookstore. What about a hero’s background… Where does he or she come from? Not the physical place on a map, though that might matter. Rather, what type of environment does the hero grow up in before setting off for adventure, to save the world?
There was a discussion on one of Goodreads’ group boards last year. Members were discussing the backgrounds writers give to their protagonists. They were specifically asking this question: do our heroes always need to be orphans? Why cannot the hero come from a family with three brothers, two sisters, loving parents, and a modest, happy homestead? The complaint some members had was that many fantasy novels/series rarely have a protagonist who comes from a well-rounded, well-adjusted, loving family home. They said too many heroes in speculative fiction are orphans with broken homes, that this type of character has become overused.
Consider this. A boy lives with his aunt and uncle, farmers tilling a meager existence in a desert wasteland. The boy doesn’t remember his parents, they’re out of the picture before his adolescent mind can capture a memory of their faces. He longs for adventure. One day the boy comes home to find his aunt and uncle dead, murdered. His home is ravaged. A grizzled wizard sweeps the boy away to start a new life filled with adventures but with obstacles that will test his mettle and shape him into the savior for a galaxy far, far away. Oh yeah, along this hero’s journey the boy also figures out his father is the most dastardly villain in that galaxy far, far away.
Talk about a broken home. If you didn’t already guess, the aforementioned “origin” is Luke Skywalker’s beginning. He’s the quintessential hero model. Is he a tragic hero? No. Luke is good and just, a virtuous character. He does not befall a misfortune based on his own frailty, his character flaw. The tragic hero is Luke’s father, the scourge of the galaxy, Dark Vader, a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker. Alternatively, Luke is an example of a hero born of tragedy. The same type of hero a number of GoodReads members were decrying. An orphan, society’s castaway.
I maintain that the hero born of tragedy needs a catalyst to propel him or her from mediocrity to something beyond what he or she believes themselves capable of achieving. Desire is not enough. For a character to say, “I want to be a knight” or “I want to be a sorcerer” is all well and good. These are noble aspirations in a normal world, except speculative fiction is not a reflection of the normal world. Magic wielding baddies, twisted and malformed entities of evil, gods with chips on their shoulders and too much power, aliens with technology capable of blowing up a planet, all of these antagonists threaten life in any given fantasy world. To stand toe-to-toe against these threats, to prevail against these oppositions, the protagonist needs to aspire to greatness. Luke Skywalker was never going to leave Tatooine. He wanted to become a Rebel Alliance pilot but he could not escape the farm. It’s unfortunate that stormtroopers killed his aunt and uncle and destroyed the family farm but the event propelled Luke toward his destiny. Before this event Obi-wan Kenobi offered Luke a chance to leave with him and save Leia from the evil Empire. Luke turned down Kenobi. Remember? It was his surrogate parents dying, his way of life destroyed, that left Luke with no options.
Aspirations are noble. However, aspirations are not that push. Oh yeah, it’s a component of the continual flame in the belly that pulls out all the stops, but I believe it’s the source of that flame, the striking of the match that is most important. That flame is hottest, brightest, when it’s lit and fueled by a terrible event or set of circumstances. A character who stand in the ashes of his or her family, a past, has an even greater motivator underneath their feet to press them into taking not just steps forward toward a goal but leaps. Heroes take leaps. And when they think they cannot go any further, that flame guides them the rest of the way.
In history, there are stories of army commanders sailing their troops across the sea to concur lands. After landing, those commanders would burn the boats. Nowhere to go but forward, the soldiers fought harder and longer because they had no escape route. Die or succeed. If the former, they would die in the pursuit of success. Heroes with tragedy in their pasts also have no other place to go but forward.
Don’t get me wrong. Our heroes need fundamental building blocks for their moral foundations. Family units, fathers and mothers, friends, all provide those initial life lessons that first shape the hero. Potential heroes from horrible backgrounds, like a street urchin or the harlot, need positive influences in their lives in order to strive toward heroics. Instead of families these characters might have friends who sacrifice for them, save them from dangers, give them a loaf of bread despite their own bellies rumbling. Thus, positive influences, the family or segregate family (i.e. friends), are important to shaping the hero born of tragedy. I dare say it’s a necessary component.
There are also examples of hero characters that come from stable, mundane backgrounds with good homes, as opposed to the hero orphans in my initial argument. I’m referring to the shepherds, the Rand al’Thors of fantasy. But even these heroes are thrust into adventures based on tragedies. For example, in the Wheel of Time series protagonist Rand and his friends from the Two Rivers don’t necessarily want to become heroes or fight evil. An attack on their village by hideous monsters called Trolics and the intervention of a female wizard known as an Aes Sedai force Rand and his friends into their later roles as heroes and saviors. Again, the heroes are born of tragedy. In this case their families are whole (except Rand, technically, his backstory is more complex and I won’t delve into the particulars), which lends more to my point that heroes need a stable foundation of values and morals rooted by family and friends in order to make their future choices.
Some readers will disagree with me but I stand by my belief that heroes need a flame to light their path, to show them where to plant their feet along the path of destiny and fate. That flame originates from somewhere and not always from happy beginnings. Striking a match can be violent; sometimes a house catches fire and burns down. In many instances these characters are the orphans, the beggars, the harlots… the lowliest of the low. They possess hearts of gold yet are defined by family or personal misfortunes or society’s rejection. Strength and courage are their greatest weapons, sharper than any sword and mightier than a thrown fireball.
Who are your favorite heroes born of personal tragedy? Sound off and debate. Maybe you believe a hero needs only a good home and a strong foundation of morals to fight the evils of the world. Again, sound off and give examples.
About the Author
Clinton grew up in Southern California, where the sun shines all day and where most kids spend their days outdoors skinning knees and browning their flesh. He spent those same days inside, reading comics, books, and dreaming of fantasy worlds. These days he not only dreams but he creates and writes about those same worlds. In college Clinton found himself in the dregs of a business school, studying accounting. Sneaking English and philosophy courses into his schedule were the only things that kept him sane! As a result, he spent way more than four years getting a well-rounded degree. Adult books and books for kids, Clinton reads it all these days. He still enjoys traditional American comics and manga/anime from Asia, but when not writing he can also be found immersing himself in video games.
Clinton today still resides in Southern California with his wife, Kathy and their two Scottish terriers, Mac and Bonni (wheaten and black).
Want to know more? Check out the links!
http://clintondharding.com (official site)