Think about any book you’ve ever read that featured a protagonist you might call “hero.” They may not be swept up in the dragon bothering, dungeon defiling antics of a high fantasy romp or heading up the clash between rival starfleets, but they’re the ones who give events their shape (or around whom the plot centers, as the case may be).
Now, what does this hero spend most of their time doing? Let me throw some tropes at the wall and we’ll see if any dig their worn little points in. Our heroicus genericus likely spends a lot of time socializing with people. This holds regardless of age. They’ll generally have a middling level of popularity, or if they don’t it’s because they’re surrounded by skulduggerous little scumbags. While other people are studying, they’re usually off having fun. They go on all sorts of adventures that pan out just fine and they see all the wonder in the world, et cetera, et cetera and ad nauseum.
Occasionally they’ll face some perfectly ordinary challenge like taking a test or overcoming the urge to cheat on said test. They’ll get to have astonishingly intimate conversations with very important people who see the greatness in them. This greatness is always depicted as some “innate” thing, most often purity of heart. I know I said we weren’t necessarily working in fantasy, but that’s where we’re headed for our specifics because it’s the genre I know best.
We return to my favorite lexical dissecting table, The Lord of the Rings. Note it’s the dissecting table, not the cadaver proper: this honor goes to the pieces which come after. First, the hero chats it up a lot: Frodo and Bilbo are fucking Hobbits. This is what Hobbits do. They yap at each other, eat enough food per sitting to stock a Gondorian battalion for a week, they farm, and then they repeat the cycle. Often parties will occur. Hobbits have the lives that many of us wish we could have.
The worst thing to befall one of the Shirefolk is a row with the neighbors over whose orchard starts at the rock and whose starts at the old Numenorian statue. Bilbo and Frodo don’t work particularly hard because Hobbits in general work no more than they must. Also, they’re rich. This part tends to be glossed over a good bit, but Bilbo is a hobbit of some means even before his adventure.
Now, Gandalf picks Bilbo to go on an adventure. He does not do this because Bilbo is pure of heart, but because he knows (in a way that may or may not involve wizardly foresight) that Bilbo has all the right traits for the job. Frodo inevitably gets sucked into the mess for the same reason when his turn’s up. Both of them, on numerous occasions, are bailed out by the tougher, more experienced, more skilled people they travel with. That’s the point. The point of both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings was never that skilled, powerful warriors aren’t incredibly useful on a quest.
The point was that every so often there are things that men like Aragorn and wizards like Gandalf cannot do because they’re so powerful. Tolkien openly states at several points that part of the great temptation the Ring offers to both is the knowledge that they can truly wield its power rather than just bearing it. Their force of will is strong enough to master the Ring, but they would inevitably be corrupted regardless and ultimately become Dark Lords in their own right. In both stories the Hobbits fill a role that only Hobbits can fill. Bilbo only finds the Ring because he’s incompetent and gets separated from the Dwarves. Frodo’s purity of heart and innocence make him the hero not because these things are intrinsic requirements for a hero but because they’re the only reliable counter to the Ring’s malevolence.
Later heroes do not have any of these excuses behind them. “Purity of heart” becomes an end unto itself, a quasi-divine force (also, hello Messiah Complex) that pretty well guarantees success no matter how long the odds or stupid the hero’s preceding actions. The hero’s victory is the expected outcome, but the truth is that we don’t know. Some authors are perfectly willing to pull the rug out and crack their toppling audience’s collective forehead on reality’s cold, hard kitchen counter.
A great deal of the suspense in a good high fantasy novel comes from selling doubt, from making us wonder if maybe this is one of those times the hero doesn’t win. The more heroic stereotypes an author invokes and the more the leading lad or lady gets off the hook without working for it, the harder it is to sustain that doubt.
There’s a more basic disconnect here, though: in general the person best suited to being the hero in reality never gets to be the hero in the book. In Harry Potter, were I some calculating selector told to guess the best rival for Voldemort, I’d pick Hermione over Harry without batting an eye. Harry gallivants around under-performing in classes, nettling his professors and peers, doing things he knows are stupid and so on. Hermione studies, except when Harry and Ron drag her into their crap or a rogue mountain troll gets inside Hogwarts with suspiciously little effort. We’re talking about magic. “Study” correlates directly with “do spells good” in the Potterverse. Don’t bring up the prophecy, Dumbledore was perfectly capable of finishing the job and that was demonstrated at several points.
Unlike Frodo and Bilbo, however, Harry’s purity of heart has little to do with the overarching goal of defeating Voldemort. Technically if that’s all we cared about Harry could just devise some long-range modification of the Killing Curse and be done with it. Or, you know, the Ministry of Magic could literally hire a Muggle with a Barrett M107 to sit on top Hogwarts and shoot the smug bastard at the earliest available opportunity. Harry lacks any of the “classical” prerequisite traits for being a hero: he is not exceptionally strong, skilled, disciplined, intelligent, perceptive, or otherwise abnormally good.
His parents were apparently pretty awesome (look, if it was really just about a mother’s love, I’m pretty sure Harry wasn’t the only newborn Voldy went after), but Harry’s just workable. He exists primarily as part of the ongoing backlash against the mold of highly competent but morally unsound heroes popular with the ancient Greeks. Problem: the ancient Greeks have been dead a long time. If you’re not widely read in history, you may not have been aware of this. Also, just because we hate how much their heroes sucked as people doesn’t mean that our heroes should have no idea what they’re doing. “Just be the good guy” is not sound tactical advice.
Allow me to use maximum banality for a moment: your company needs you to hire or promote a new manager for your Springfield location. Do you pick the candidate with a proven history of dedication, hard work and responsibility (even if he’s a bit boring), or Homer Simpson whose only qualification is that a rather sketchy, unconfirmed prophecy said he’d do it best? Yes, I know that’s unfair on multiple levels. No, I don’t care.
Allowing the hero to succeed because he’s fated breaks down to a circular argument. Why is he the right person for the job? Well, he’s fated to be! Why is he fated? He’s the right person for the job! We’re not that lazy. Or if we are, we should damn well stop it.
Now, there is a more pragmatic real-world reason for not picking the obvious candidate as the hero. Picking the person who trains and studies constantly would be pretty damn boring, wouldn’t it? Any chapter not involving the actual plot would just be a series of textual training montages. Then again, mulling it over I think there’s potential in that idea. Decent authors make considerably less interesting stuff worthwhile on a regular basis. That’s part of being an author: you’re supposed to have the eye for detail and word-savvy to make watching paint dry a fresh, enlightening activity. Or at any rate, reading about someone watching paint dry.
Even if that can’t work, though, you can still have the signs of strength tensed to the breaking point. When someone’s been pushing themselves to their limits frequently it tends to show: The apprentice swordsman’s palms are blistered and his forearms shaky. The young mage is missing her right eyebrow and has burns in odd places. The new Captain’s eyes don’t focus right and he keeps motioning at tactical maps that aren’t there. The Private’s sporting a black eye and busted shoulder from too much time at the range.
Allow me to recontextualize one more time: to be a human in our day and age is hard work. Even if you’re just doing okay, you’re probably spending the bulk of your waking hours wearing yourself down. You don’t really relax on your weekends, you just get to recharge. Around the time you start to feel like you again, it’s back to work. Why are you letting your heroes off so easily? Why do they get to spend a page or two kind of practicing and then run straight off to have an adventure in which they topple some “insurmountable” threat in four seconds? I understand that people read books to escape, and that’s fine. If you don’t want to write a story in which the struggle against adversity is a primary form of character development, that’s okay. It’s totally alright for the main focus to be on the wonders of a magical or highly-advanced world, to leave conflict out of things. If that’s the kind of story you’re writing then go ahead.
Otherwise, I want you to think about what it really means to have a protagonist succeed because of “fate” or “because he’s a good person”. Think about the message you’re sending. I’ve never seen an author put emphasis on the struggle to become a good person, it’s just treated as intrinsic. Fate expresses itself as an accidental thing over which we have no control. These fated heroes then get to breeze past dozens or hundreds or thousands of people who bust their asses day after day just to be good enough.
I’m not going to tell you reality’s an absolute meritocracy, but what makes many of the real world’s legendary people so impressive is that they bled to be what they are. They may have been born to some advantage, either genetically or economically, but most of them weren’t just born successful. Why is it supposed to be a good thing that our heroes don’t study, don’t train hard, don’t put in the effort? Since when is being nice to people supposed to qualify some sort of achievement?
I have two rules in my life which I break only in my worst moments: be kind to everyone unless they do something to deserve otherwise, and push my limits. The first rule isn’t and has never been the hard one to follow.
Everyone I’ve talked to feels like they’re not working hard enough. Some of the most driven, dedicated people I know feel like slackers, failures even. Why? Because they haven’t succeeded. These people don’t draw any comfort from all the characters who just achieve things in spite of skipping the run self into ground phase. The heroes they look up to are the ones who triumph after putting themselves through the wringer, then finding it’s not enough when they’re put through the gauntlet. That’s how it is for all of us every day, and we’re not even trying to save the world. All most of us want is to make ourselves a place in it.
There’s a subtlety to this, though: you can’t have the hero’s beatings-down seem contrived. If they do, your readers will take notice and scoff in your face. The message that struggle is worthwhile only works if you strike a fine balance. Life is unfair, yes, but it’s not deliberately unfair. I can’t offer you specific pointers for this one because this has to shift with the character you’re writing. A natural hardship for a beggar in a feudal city might be absurd in a chrome-gleaming colony. “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer,” as Emerson put it: outlandish punishment isn’t what defines the hero. What defines them is how they respond to the same slow-burning disappointments which dry our own blood.
If you’ll excuse me, it’s 28 degrees Fahrenheit outside and snowing, so I’ve a training montage to begin. That more likely makes me an idiot than anything else, but anything worth doing is worth doing to the point of insanity.