I like my heroes a little bit gray. Mouse gray, elephant gray, charcoal gray, a mottled chiaroscuro soul… that’s the hero I’ll cheer.
Why am I drawn to shadowy heroes? People are complex! And I enjoy it when fiction reflects that. It can be to the benefit of the story, too– human complexity
naturally gives rise to tension and all sorts of goodies.
Nobody in this world is 100% good or 100% evil. Sure, some folks are better than others, but we all have great days and terrible days. Days when we hope nobody’s watching too closely. We all have mottled souls (some more mottled than others). I’m not saying we’re all on the verge of kicking puppies and eating kittens, but sometimes I wonder about people. I really do.
So I’m won over by people with a sense of honor, even (or especially) if it’s a tarnished kind of honor. My favorite fictional detective, Philip Marlowe, fits this category. I like Marlowe not because he always solves the case, and not even because of his wry wit. He’s great because he is, in the words of Raymond Chandler himself, a “shop-soiled Galahad.”
Cheering for a saint is too easy. Isn’t it more fun to cheer for people who have to overcome their own faults, their own pettiness and weakness, in order to achieve good things? Unless they’re mightily entertaining in their own right (I’m looking at you, sorely missed Middleman) saints are pretty boring. But somebody struggling to overcome a personal demon or two? That’s interesting. Struggling with the basest part of one’s human nature? That’s entertainment.
On the other hand…
In The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett (one of my favorite authors), Lord Vetinari — the incisive Patrician of Ankh-Morpork — has this to say on the subject of heroes:
“The feeling stealing over me is that all these terms are defined by the hero. [...] You could say that a hero, in short, is someone who indulges every whim that, within the rule of law, would have him behind bars or swiftly dancing what I believe is known as the hemp fandango. The words we might use are murder, pillage, theft[...]“
[Terry Pratchett, The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable. HarperCollins, 2001. P20]
Obviously, Vetinari is referring to a particular kind of hero. The kind who wears a fur-lined Speedo and might accessorize a metal hat with a pair of bloody horns. The kind that has a great tan, well-defined abs, and might feature in a Frank Frazetta painting. The kind that rhymes with “Hungarian”.
Nevertheless, the man has a point. Maybe there is such a thing as too gray when it comes to heroism. (Especially when you’re on the receiving end of it.)
That’s why I try to keep an open mind. I’ll overlook a heroine’s spotless soul and pure heart IF she has some redeeming qualities to go along with them. (Magnanimous of me, I know.) Which is why I also enjoy smart heroes. Or clever ones, anyway. (For particular values of “clever.”) The heroes of many of Pratchett’s Discworld novels often save the day (or at least their own skins) by being clever. They don’t hack or punch their way through the thicket of problems to find a solution; they think their way to a solution. (Although, this being Discworld, a large dose of luck and improbable comedy often helps.) But these protagonists really aren’t all that gray. Even Lord Vetinari, the supposed tyrant, is basically the kind of politician that could only exist in a fantasy novel.
Then again, you can get away with anything as long as you’re hilarious while you do it. (See above re: The Middleman.)
By the way, I did something sneaky up there. When talking about fiction, I’m often guilty of using the terms “hero” and “protagonist” interchangeably. But maybe I shouldn’t. After all, they’re definitely not the same thing in the real world. What’s a hero? What defines a hero? Beats me. But protagonists are easy to identify, because we’re all protagonists. Every one of us.
With relatively rare exceptions* everybody is the protagonist of their own life story. I am the main character of my life, just as you are the main character of yours. Even Sauron was the main character of the Lord of the Rings as seen from Sauron’s point of view. (And that gets to another hobby horse of mine. Nobody gets up in the morning and decides to become a villain. We’re all just living our lives and doing our own things. As I’ve heard it said by other writers, even Sauron’s mother probably thought he was a pretty good kid. I stand by the statement that we’re all a little bit gray in greater or lesser amounts. But that doesn’t mean certain people just up and decide to be evil because the story of somebody else’s life demands it. )
But being a protagonist is not the same as being heroic. Sure I’m the protagonist of my life, but it feels very weird and downright icky to say that I’m the hero of my own story. I don’t do heroic things; I’m not imbued with a surfeit of heroic attributes. Few indeed are the lives I’ve saved, the dark lords I’ve overthrown, the megalomaniac billionaires I’ve foiled, the mysterious foreign spies I’ve seduced. I haven’t freed slaves, I haven’t brought fresh water to millions of people, I’ve never rushed into a burning house, I haven’t saved a small family-owned ranch from the predations of a ruthless cattle baron.
Like the Tick’s sidekick, Arthur, I run from danger while screaming, “Not in the face! Not in the face!”
Heck, it’s even possible to have a protagonist who is an antihero. And now that I think about it, perhaps it makes more sense to say that I’m the antihero of my own life story. Any tiny amount of success I’ve had in life probably came about in spite of my participation.
Which suggests my life needs a new point of view character.
*Often, but not always, involving time-travel, demonic possession, and/or mind-control rays.