Making good reluctant heroes
Why do they make me especially pissy? No little introduction this time, I think. The examples will be vivid enough in the list of points itself.
1) Give them a reason not to want to leave home. The “classic” reluctant hero in fantasy gets dragged away from his small village against his will by a band of strangers who insist that he’s the key to saving the world—and then refuse to tell him how for a certain amount of time. (See point 2). I hate this situation more than words can possibly express, and for many, many different reasons. But the one relevant to this point is: The hero doesn’t have a home-based reason not to want to leave home. It’s generic reluctance, or it’s modesty (see point 3), or it’s that stupid fucking stereotype that people who don’t want power are somehow born leaders (see point 4).
Few reluctant fantasy heroes miss their homes. Few miss their families. Many were abused at home. Others were “misunderstood,” which in the eyes of many teenage and amateur writers of this kind of story translates to “told to do chores.” Still others are orphans and have no especial ties to their villages. They’re still reluctant, because authors are freakin’ in love with the thought of their protagonist being forced against his will to do something, but they don’t have much reason to stay. They find their truest friends and their love interests on the road, they always end up wielding the mysterious magical powers of doom that they have to use to save the world, and they always come to believe in the cause they were kidnapped for. I can’t think of a single instance where a fantasy hero at the end of the book still resented that he’d been kidnapped. Many even thank their captors for doing so.
This is the easy way out. It doesn’t admit of complexity, of true conflicts between duties and responsibilities. And it doesn’t make much sense. If the character can sever ties with his home without thought, why is he so reluctant to leave home in the first place?
You know what I want to see? I want to see someone who has true responsibilities at home, such as a family, or a business, or guardianship of children not his own, or a position of power in a local village council or political office, or a commitment to a particular religious order. Then I want to see him being informed about the state of the world, that he’s the best one to save it, and making the heart-wrenching choice to save the world, even though the people he knows and loves will suffer in the short-term.
I hate the philosophy of sacrificing one person for the good of others. I hate that it’s sometimes necessary. But I hate even more how fantasy authors employ it, using it to con their heroes into shutting their mouths on any protests they might make that would seriously derail the plot—and how they use it to, paradoxically, focus even more attention on this one person, look how important he is, oh woe is him, he didn’t ask for the spotlight but it’s here now and he must face it, and just incidentally be showered with magical gifts and rulership and adoration and loyal friends and a love interest.
I think I could actually learn to like this philosophy, if authors made heroes reluctant for a good reason, and showed them wrestling with and regretting their choice.
2) Don’t make your hero reluctant to survive. Many fantasy heroes blubber about not being worthy of the destiny they’ve got and how the Wise Old Mentor & Co. should actually choose someone else, oh why come after them?, they are only poor little peasant boys/girls who incidentally turn out to be descended from the Last White King—
*Limyaael puts away the kitchen knives*
Ahem. Anyway. So these heroes want to put down their destinies and go back home, apparently, even if it is for a terribly generic reason. (See point 3 again). But there’s no indication that they have a death wish. If nothing else, the way that they adapt and survive later on in their journeys shows that.
So why do so many of them not take actions essential to insuring they’ll survive, either to return home or to go on once the Wise Old Mentor has convinced them they matter?
Seriously, they don’t. They don’t ask questions. Or they ask questions, and then accept the admonishment to hush up, they’ll understand later. (I hate those admonishments. I hate them IhatethemIhatethem— )
Yes. I’m all right, really.
They don’t attempt to understand what’s going on. Oh, the lectures wherein the Wise Old Mentor gives the Young Dunderhead a canned history of the world are quite common, but the only time that information matters is when the Young Dunderhead has to use it to solve a riddle or defeat an enemy later in the plot. I never see reluctant heroes trying to use that history to make connections, to really grasp what’s happening to them, if only for the cause of solving their problem more quickly and getting the hell out of Dodge—which you’d think they’d want to do, if they really desired to go home. They’re stripped of context, these lectures. They only matter to give the history of the world to the reader.
Young Dunderheads also accept almost everything they’re told on faith. Subtle rebellions are rare. Tests to see if what the Wise Old Mentor said is actually true are rare. Asking if there isn’t a better way to settle things with the Dark Lord than all-out total war is rare. And yet, these are supposedly “intelligent” and “perceptive” and sometimes even “hot-tempered” people. Ha. Right.
And then there’s the final thing. The Wise Old Mentor & Co. have come along and kidnapped the reluctant hero/ine.
That’s right. Kidnapped.
Where is the fucking resentment about this? Where is the regarding of the Wise Old Mentor as a captor, rather than the bearer of a wonderful opportunity? Why do so many reluctant heroes cower in awe, or immediately say, “Yay, I’m a dragon mage! That’s just what I’ve always wanted!” when they’re, y’know, reluctant to have that power? (Point 4 should be cut into some people’s backs with a carving knife).
The reluctant hero has just been snatched away from everything he’s ever known, if not loved. I would expect some attempts to get his feet on the ground and his mind wrapped around the things that these new people are telling him, at the very least, if not outright escape attempts.
Show that your reluctant hero values his life. It might make me more inspired to care about whether he lives or dies in turn.
3) A touch of pride is okay, you know. This is where authors bring the heroes’ martyr complexes in. The Wise Old Mentor tells Fizzy Firestone that she’s the Heir of the Winter Queen and can therefore fight the Summer King, and she promptly says, “Oh, no! I’m just a peasant girl! I’m sure I can’t do it! Find someone else!” Even when her power comes to her, even when people have expressed trust and faith in her (though invisible tree gods know why they’re doing it; see point 5), even when the whole rest of the cast is cheering her on in a confrontation with the Summer King, she continues to cast her eyes down and flush and dither. And that’s the source of her reluctance, her believing that she doesn’t have the right or the strength to handle such power.
And I should cheer for this spineless martyr why?
Someone who overcomes inner psychological problems of this kind—that is, true low self-esteem—could make a fascinating hero/ine. But, you see, most authors don’t want to deal with that, because it’s too much work. Instead, the hero/ine has confidence in her skills when it’s plot-appropriate and doubt in them when that, in turn, is plot-appropriate. And the author can rationalize away endless conversations in which it is proven that even people who’ve barely talked to the hero/ine know everything about her psychological state and just can’t wait to comfort her.
First of all, your hero/ine is not the center of everybody else’s life. Even in a time of desperate war, there will be people to whom certain things matter more than whether Fizzy Firestone got enough sleep last night. (You know the rant on things that irritate me coming up? This, or rather part of it, is number fucking one). So drop those pep talks from every random kitchen maid and her dog.
Second, I think people with a touch of pride and confidence are much more interesting. Maybe not competence, no; she might still be learning to control her magic. But does she never feel wonder about it? Does she never, in fact, make mistakes because she’s too eager and going too fast? Does she never hug compliments to herself, even if she overhears them and so can’t tell the people who speak them how much they mean to her?
If you want to show reluctance morphing into acceptance of a destiny to save the world, this is a good start. It can’t be the whole of the journey. A hero/ine who never doubts, even in the face of repeated setbacks, is just as unrealistic as one who swings wildly back and forth as the needle on the author’s Plot-o-Meter. But your readers will not kill you if you make her less than perfectly modest. I, for one, would cheer if you made her self-knowing and pragmatic, able to assess her own progress and critique herself—and stand up to critique—in a way that a lot of spineless reluctant heroes just aren’t.
4) “The best leaders don’t want power” is a fucking stereotype. So consider what happens if someone has the power and the chance to stop a war that would kill thousands of people…and doesn’t take it, because he doesn’t think he would make a good leader/doesn’t want power.
He is to blame when the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Yes, he is. Someone who does evil is also to blame, of course. But someone who could have prevented evil, and refuses out of loathing of power, or the certainty that power corrupts, or because he doesn’t think that he’s the rightful king even when six million signs have shown him that he is, or whatever stupid shitty excuse we’re using this week, is just as much to blame. He may even be more. What do you expect a Dark Lord villain to do but evil? But we don’t expect that from someone we’ve been told to cheer for.
Now, just as with so many of the reluctant hero plotlines, this could be a good, if painful, story if authors actually dealt with the issues—made someone look out over the battlefield afterwards, say, “My god, what have I done?” and wade into the chaos, grimly attempting to do what he could to atone for his mistakes, including take an active part in preventing evil from that time forward. But authors don’t do that. Instead, they tweak the plotlines so that nothing like this even comes close to happening. The hero refuses power, and gets conned and cajoled into it anyway before the battle happens, and then blasts away all the enemies with a hurricane of fire. (What is it with fantasy and hurricanes of fire?) Then everything is fine. The families of anyone who might have died while he was dithering around don’t blame him, or blame him and then fall to their knees weeping and saying they were wrong, or are just not represented because, after all, who cares what dispensable sidekicks died? The protagonist’s psychological comfort is what is important.
And then, incredibly, he’s represented as a good leader because of his fears, because of course if you put a crown on the head that doesn’t actually want to wear it, all the problems of the country magically disappear.
I cannot express in words how stupid I find this.
“The best leaders are reluctant ones,” “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and all the other clichés of leadership are that—clichés. You can’t just announce that they are the theme of your story and not expect to have to do all the work of characterization and plotting to show why they’re actually true. It doesn’t work any better than forcing two incompatible characters into a romance together because, “Oh, opposites attract! Everyone knows that!”
Show me a situation in which a leader reluctant to take power will work. I think it will have to first of all start with him changing his mind, but maybe not. Maybe you can do the impossibly difficult, and show me how someone who hates what he’s doing with every fiber of his being still does just fine.
I doubt it. But it would be a start. Consider this a flung gauntlet if you like.
5) Think about the impact of the hero/ine’s reluctance on her traveling companions, if no one else. Here is point one of the next rant again. Many, many fantasy characters are not characterized at all convincingly, because their emotions and concerns and relationships don’t matter to the author. They’re secondary characters. Who cares if they worry in private whether the hero is actually ready to take the crown? We must get back to agonizing with the hero over whether the young lady with freckles and a fiery temper will fall in love with him. Except I’m not agonizing, because I’ve never seen a book containing a freckled, fiery-tempered young lady where that didn’t happen.
But consider what happens when someone is traveling with a heroine who:
-needs to be constantly reassured that she really is worthy of her newfound destiny.
-shows fear and reluctance to confront/use the magic or skills on which the entire world hangs.
-crumbles at the first sign of critique or a harsh word.
-shows no interest in making friends with her traveling companions unless they first show themselves to be endlessly patient and ready to lend a willing ear.
-takes up the attention of most members of the party when they need to be doing other things like hunting food, scouting for danger, finding shelter, tending injured horses, watching the weather, and on and bloody on.
-constantly regresses to whining about her bloodline/character/lack of readiness after each success.
-and tries to lecture other people on morals and compassion when she hasn’t even tried to find out why they’re devoted to this particular cause, because she doesn’t ask questions. (Reluctant heroes are usually presented as the most compassionate and perceptive people in the party, of course).
I think tempers would get boiling. Just a bit.
Once again, you can make this a good, if painful, story. Someone who learns patience and compassion because she constantly needs to rein her sarcastic tongue in and tend to someone indispensable with very deep psychological wounds could be a wonderful character. So could someone who just snaps at one point, has a huge screaming fight with the heroine, and after that is friends with her, having cleared the air. And so could someone who maintains a stoic front while carrying on internal spiteful commentary, or counting the days until he can leave the heroine’s presence.
If you’re going to make people support a reluctant hero/ine, show why they’re interested in doing so. Explain their presence. Give them human reactions to what’s happening with the reluctant person, and explain those, too. (I would believe that someone might not ever be frustrated with the hero/ine if that person is the equivalent of a Buddhist monk, but I’m not just going to assume that he is). And show them having their own problems and relationships outside the hero/ine’s purview. If they get wounded, for example, that should not just be an excuse for the heroine to demonstrate her compassion, her healing magic, or her dark past in which she was wounded even more severely because her abusive father beat her.
I sometimes think reluctant heroes would be only three-fourths as annoying if the authors left the cheerleaders at home.
That served as a fair preview of the “things that mightily irritate Limyaael” rant, too, I think, which is coming up next.