I’ve been thinking lately about heroes – what makes a hero we want to root for, what characteristics does a hero need to have so that we will want to empathize him or her, and better yet, how do you create a hero that people not only want to watch or read about, but that they want to spend time imagining themselves as?
First off, I’ll be using the word hero to refer to both male and female characters. I’ve never understood the need to cling to male and female words for the same occupation, especially now that we are a decade into the 21st century. Why is a man an actor, but a woman an actress? Interestingly the words that are unisex for occupations tend to be ones that were restricted to men historically – like doctor and lawyer and soldier. No one would call their female phsycian a doctoress would they? Well, they would have a hundred year ago, but now?
This mild digression into semi-feminist gender politics is relevant because what provoked this thinking about heroes was a blog I read that was a reaction to another blog reacting to an opinion piece in the New York Times – the subject of which was the notion of “strong female characters.”
The author of the NYT article, Carina Chocano sums up her argument in the final paragraph:
“Strength,” in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of “virtue.” And what we think of as “virtuous,” or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. “Strong female characters,” in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren’t enough “strong” female characters in the movies — it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones. You know what’s better than a prostitute with a machine gun for a leg or a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot despite being gaslighted by the flight crew? A girl who reminds you of you.
The problem I have with this summation is that weak characters aren’t all that interesting. Complicated characters, yes. Flawed characters, yes. Characters with certain weaknesses that we can all relate to, like anger, fear, loss, and falling for the wrong person, yes. But genuinely weak characters are genuinely annoying.
Moreover, I’m not interested in watching or reading about characters who remind me of myself, I’m interested in characters that I would like to be – who possess traits that I would like to have, who respond to difficult situations the way I would hope to, who make me want to be a better version of myself.
I happened to be traveling for work last week and watched Transformers: Dark of the Moon in my hotel room. Travel for work is when I watch all those films I can never convince my wife to watch. My wife is wise about her film choices.
I wanted to enjoy the film, as I had found the first installment of the series to be perfectly mindless fun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into it. The biggest problem I had with the film was how weak the lead character Sam Witwicky is. He’s not a character with weaknesses that make him more human and relatable (like Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes or his impish over confidence), no I found Sam annoying because he was a weak as a whole. You would think that after saving the world twice (by his own admission) that he’d be a bit of a bad ass, rather than a whiner. He’s unemployed? Okay, I can buy that. He doesn’t fit in to the normal world anymore. But when the feces hits the fan, as it does once the plot gets moving, I assumed that Sam would come alive, realize that he is at his best when the world is going to hell and someone has to save it. But he doesn’t. He stays weak. He keeps whining. He tries to be proactive, but whenever he is faced with a confrontation, he survives more by luck and rather than skill or daring. You know something is wrong with the CGI robots display more nobility and emotional depth than the lead human character.
Which brings me to Mur Lafferty’s response on I Should Be Writing, to Chocano’s article. She defines a strong female character this sway:
To me, a strong female character is a woman who can take action, who isn’t passive. Taking action may be corralling a group of children during an airstrike. Taking action may be breaking up with someone when they treat her like crap. Taking action, yes, may be kicking some vampire butt.
That strikes me not as a definition of a strong female character, but a definition of a strong character, period. And one that writers should take to heart, especially, if like me, they write genre fiction. I think in literary fiction, you can get away with a character being more “realistic” in the sense that Chocano seems to mean – ie. passive and weak. Maybe folks who read a lot of literary fiction have a higher tolerance for weak characters. Or maybe some of them prefer to see characters that reflect themselves as they are rather than as they wish to be. Who knows?
As Charlie Jane Anders of io9 puts it in her response to Lafferty and Chocona: “Passive people are hard to watch.”
Passive people are hard to read about as well. Which doesn’t mean that they need to wielding swords or firing guns to hold our attention and gain our empathy. A few months ago my wife and I watched the BBC series Larkrise to Candleford and one of the main characters, Dorcas Lane, is the epitome of a strong character, who happens to be a women, and who never picks up an implement more dangerous than a butter knife. But she is passionate, she is determined, and regardless of her disappointments, she struggles to overcome them. She reminded me of another character I love, Dorothea Brooke, from Middlemarch, a woman who whose desire to be more than society will allow conflict with the actions she takes to define herself.
So, strong characters don’t have to take violent action to be heroes, but they do need to take action against the problems set against them. They need to be people who do things. Or at least they need to make you think that they might do something any moment, even if they never quite do (I’m talking to you Hamlet).
What are the qualities we are looking for in heroes? The qualities that we desire in ourselves. Strength of character, conviction, moral integrity, passion, resilience, and intelligence are a few. They do not need to have physical strength or martial prowess, although those things don’t hurt, but they do need inner strength and a prowess of personality.
But they also need to have weaknesses that we can relate to. An inner emotional life that reflects the complications of human life and relationships that the average reader or viewer can relate to. This makes me think of Aeryn Sun of Farscape. At first she seems to be exactly the kind of ‘strong female’ character that Chocona bemoans – emotionally unexpressive, militaristic, and prone to violence. But as the show develops, Aeryn’s emotional reticence becomes understandable (a consequence of her Peacekeeper upbringing) and she evolves into a more rounded person. That change, that character arc, is fascinating to watch. Sciencefiction.com has a list of 10 great female science fiction characters. For a more exhaustive list see Pink Ray Gun’s top 100 woman in film and TV.
So, what makes heroes interesting? The balance between strengths and weaknesses, their emotional inner life, and the way they change over time.
Speaking of how heroes change over time, and women heroes in particular, there is a very interesting documentary premiering this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival that looks into the history of Wonder Woman. It’s called “Wonder Woman: Untold Story of American Heroines”
The trailer above got me really excited when I saw a previous version about a year ago. I started reading up a bit on Wonder Woman. I’ve never read the comics, but as a kid I had watched the 70s TV series with Linda Carter. I’ve always found it odd that all the other major comic book heroes have had major films, but no one (ie. the men who run Hollywood) couldn’t figure out how to tell the story for modern audiences. The more I read about the attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the screen and watched clips from the failed David E. Kelley TV reboot. The more I read (one of the scripts can be found here) and the more I watched, it seemed that modern men just didn’t know what to do with the idea of a super powerful woman, much less the iconic character of Wonder Woman. The result of all that reading and thinking about Wonder Woman was the creatiion of a modern fantasy story I’m temporarily calling Redstone about a woman with godlike powers and how she changes over hundreds of years as she deals with romance, marriage, motherhood, and enemies that want dominate the world.
And all of the think thinking about woman heroes is relevant because I have recently decided that I need to start writing more adult centered novels even before I finish the YA series I’ve been writing. So, after I finish Wizard of Time #2, I’ll be writing Redtsone. Hopefully all this thinking will result in better writing when the time comes.
Update (3/17/2012): I came across this article today comparing the hero qualities of Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) to Hermione (Harry Potter) and Bella (Twilight) and to Ripley (Alien). Interesting complimentary reading.
Update (4/10/2012): There is a fun conversation between film critics about the nature of Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) as a hero.