What Makes a Hero?

I attended Midsouthcon this past weekend as an author guest and had a great time.  The conference center was packed full of people.  Some of the panels were standing room only.  I sold and signed a few books and had the honor of sitting on several panels to discuss before and with some very participatory audiences various questions about literature and the business of writing.  The last panel of the weekend was titled: All-Time Greatest Anti-Heroes.  The accompanying description was: What defines and anti-hero? Why do they capture the imagination so much, and which ones are the greatest?

It’s important when defining an idea to differentiate and distinguish it from that which it is not.  So I began with making sure we all had the same idea, for working purposes, of what a hero is so as to distinguish the anti-hero.

In fiction, every story has a protagonist.  However, not every story has a hero.  We may often use the words interchangeably, but there are important distinctions.  The protagonist is simply the character from whose perspective the story is told.  According to Webster’s  Dictionary: The leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work.  A hero is, according to Webster’s Dictionary: A man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.  Clearly not all leading characters are brave and endowed with noble qualities.

You may think then, “Aha, so every story has a protagonists that is either or hero or an anti-hero!”  Alas, no.  An anti-hero, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose and the like.  This definition may seem to confirm, at first glance, that all protagonists who are not heroes or heroines are in fact the anti-versions of the same, but not so.  Such dichotomies are attractive for their simplicity, but there are areas in between or not covered by the clauses above.

What of the protagonist who has some of the qualities, but not all?  What of the protagonist whose courage and nobility are not tested?  Are there not lives and stories that simply do not include the occasion for heroics?  I ask you, if there is no great risk, is there still a hero?  I think the answer is no?  On the flipside, if there is no great risk, is there still an anti-hero?  Here too, I think the answer is no.  I think both hero and anti-hero must be tested by occasions calling for courage.  If there are no brave deeds, there are no heroes.  An anti-hero may, of course, be cowardly, and driven not by courage, but by desperation.  One may fight without being brave.

You may say, “But Robert, are we not all the heroes of our own stories?”  No, we are not.  Such qualities as self-deprecation, low self esteem, honesty, actual humility, and hero-worship belie this supposition.  We are all the leading characters or perhaps the protagonists of our own stories, but we are not all the heroes.  A self-loathing person is not his own hero, nor is one who clearly sees someone else as his hero.  One might, of course, see one’s self as a hero and yet still see someone else as a greater hero, but one could also loathe one’s self, or frankly admit that one is not brave, and admire another who is heroic.  One may also aspire to heroism and never reach that state.

What about noble qualities?  The protagonist may indeed have noble qualities and still be only a protagonist.  It takes both.  An anti-hero may be brave but ignoble, may he not?  He may save the day and be treated by others in the story as a hero, even worshipped as a hero by the protagonist, and yet be self-serving and/or deceitful.

This is the rub, our best idea of a hero or heroine is of a person who saves the day, someone who goes into danger for the sake of others.  Heroism is a combination of bravery and nobility, courage and altruism.

Two acquaintances of mine, fellow authors Jimmy Gillentine and Frank Tuttle, arrived in the panel room before I did and voted me to be moderator.  I’ll get them for that.  They’re a pair of dirty rascals.  However, it went well despite me.  We discussed and agreed on a working definition of an anti-hero.  According to Webster’s Dictionary, an anti-hero is a leading character who lacks the usual qualities of a hero.  That’s it.  But, in the popular imagination, an anti-hero is someone who still saves the day, but does so while lacking those aforementioned qualities.  We listed a few.  Jimmy Gillentine mentioned Godzilla.  I cannot recall for the life of me who Frank Tuttle took as his example, but I’m sure it was interesting, as Frank’s contributions usually are.  I mentioned Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever from the Chronicles of the same by Stephen R. Donaldson.  It was generally agreed by those discussing that Thomas Covenant is a worm, and Frank pointed out that those around Covenant would not have paid such a heavy price had he been more heroic.

The audience, as I mentioned was very participatory.  They were great.  I especially appreciated the contributions of two large gentlemen in the back who came in during the general influx a few minutes into the panel.  I wish I could remember and list all of their contributions, but I cannot.  I do remember the one point at which, after we panelists had discussed our own writing of anti-heroes, and I had admitted that I haven’t written any clear examples, that one of these gentlemen put me on the spot, stabbing a finger at me, and asking, “COULD YOU write an anti-hero?”  Yes, yes I could, I answered.  Sometimes we need object lessons rather than positive examples of people to admire and emulate.

I asked the audience which they liked to read about more, heroes or anti-heroes.  The overwhelming response was that they liked anti-heroes more.  Among the examples listed were Superman as hero and Batman as anti-hero.  I asked who they’d rather have a beer with.  Superman came out on top.  Batman was considered too morose.  I asked who they’d rather be saved by.  They all said they’d rather be saved by the hero.  One cogent fellow in the audience agreed with me (I don’t think he was cogent merely because he agreed with me, folks.) and reiterated that we like anti-heroes in fiction but wouldn’t want to pay the consequences of their actions in real life.

One of the large gentlemen in the back got to the heart of the panel and asked, “Why do we love anti-heroes?”  The general answer was that they do things we wish we could do in our weaker moments.  We’d like not to just get the bad guys but hurt them too.  Also, it was the general consensus that anti-heroes are more relatable for their flaws.  I pointed out that the stereotype of flawless heroes was only a stereotype.  There are numerous examples of realistic and complicated heroes with flaws to overcome.  We agreed that we needed heroes to look up to and that such examples could be compelling characters.  Aragorn, from the Lord of the Rings, was an exampled.  Aragorn was also someone they’d have liked to have a beer with. Still, they liked the anti-heroes who would kick butt and go to town on the bad guys without compunction.

It was a fun and interesting hour.  Thanks so much, Midsouthcon, Jimmy Gillentine, Frank Tuttle, and our great audience.  See you next year.

Robert J. Krog

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