Defining a Sci-fi/Fantasy Hero
Since the very first protagonists clung to life in the pages of ancient literature, we have sought to understand what exactly is it that makes a fictional hero. By its very definition it is a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities, but in the realms of science-fiction and fantasy, it might not always be so black and white. What are the traits that certain heroic characters have that others do not? Why do we love one character more than another? Why is Han Solo consistently more popular and considered more heroic than Luke Skywalker? Just as defining a hero in real life isn’t easy, so too is defining one in the pages of our comic books and novels, playable characters in our video games, and badass girls and guys on our TV and silver screens. But let’s give it a go, shall we?
Finding the Balance
There’s a fine line to tread when it comes to creating a heroic character that we can all get behind, someone who we will champion for the length of his or her journey. But if in the process of creating this character you fail to toe that fine line and he or she becomes too incredible, too strong or too impossibly good – you’ll have lost your audience. One character (certainly in the last 20 years) who has become a casualty of such easy mistakes is Superman – a classical hero.
When Superman first flew back in 1938, he didn’t actually fly. He could only leap one-eighth of a mile. Sure, he had superhuman strength and could run faster than a train, but he wasn’t completely impervious to harm and had enough flaws to keep people interested. Fast forward to today and the red and blue boy scout has alienated many fans because of just how ‘roided out’ he’s been made. As a result, he’s fallen down the pecking order in comparison to other sci-fi and fantasy heroes. He’s still one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time, but maybe they need to dial it back a bit to recapture what made him popular in the first place.
We Love Us Some Flaws
A stark contrast to Supes is everybody’s lovable scoundrel, Han Solo. Lack of superhuman powers aside, Han regularly features in the top spot of the best sci-fi characters ever created, a title he wouldn’t really care for. He fits perfectly into the anti-hero mold, begrudgingly and ofttimes reluctantly coming to save the day when all he really wants to be doing is looking after himself and counting his credits. He’s cocky, arrogant and selfish, with an astounding level of hubris that could have potentially got everyone killed. Yet we know that deep down inside, Han is unflinchingly altruistic, with undeniable courage and a heart of gold, a man who cares deeply for his friends, in spite of his bitter, worldly-weary exterior.
Han is joined by a long line of cracking sci-fi and fantasy anti-hero characters, a trend that has seen a resurgence in recent years. Tyrion Lannister, Severus Snape, and Captain Jack Sparrow are just three examples of heroes who don’t want to be heroes, and we love them for it. Perhaps it is the fact that these characters are so deeply full of holes we can’t help but feel akin to them, whether it be Tyrion’s boozing, Snape’s miserable demeanor stemming from heartbreak or Sparrow’s web of lies and deceit. Hardly the qualities of great heroes, yet great heroes they are.
Dealing with All the Crap
As a literary foil, not just in science fiction and fantasy, the hero is nearly always the person or persons undertaking some kind of dangerous quest, facing an almost insurmountable task while, for some reason, being the only ones that can do it. A prime example of such a character is Frodo Baggins, who fits neatly into his role as the reluctant hero. A challenge is set to an ordinary character who isn’t particularly blessed with any useful skills, yet they still roll their sleeves up, put on their best shit-eating grin and get on with it. There’s a feast of reluctant heroes in the sci-fi and fantasy genre, including Neo in the Matrix, Theo Faron in Children of Men and Dante from the Devil May Cry series of video games.
In each instance, the character grows with ability, skill, and experience, eventually being able to wear the mantle of hero far more comfortably than when they first set out on their particular quest. It is the self-depreciating nature of such creations that adhere them to the reader, player or watcher, the very fact that they don’t want to be a hero, but still manage to pull off the impossible against all odds. That and that they are all riddled with self-doubt (like many of us are with our seemingly eternal struggle to stop comparing ourselves to everyone on our Facebook feed). And if there is one quality that all reluctant heroes share, it’s the ability to endure. Frodo literally goes to hell and back in one almighty slog, and rarely – if ever – complains about it. That, to us mere mortals, is rather admirable indeed.
So, just why is Luke Skywalker regarded as not as cool as the scruffy looking nerf herder? It boils down to the fact that Skywalker is a classic example of the willing hero. Desperate to get off his planet and seek out adventure, Luke throws himself at every available opportunity to spice up his otherwise boring life. It’s his eagerness to instigate a daring rescue that is the catalyst for much of the action in A New Hope, but if there’s one undeniable hero quality that the kid has in abundance – it’s courage. Other examples of willing heroes in sci-fi and fantasy worlds include James T Kirk, Captain America and Buck Rogers.
You can’t help but admire the willing hero’s careless abandon for their own lives – actively running towards the danger when everyone else is running away from it. Having said that, in recent years, willing heroes have been a bit thin on the ground. They’re certainly not as interesting as other heroic variants, often striving to overcome a two-dimensional visage, limited flaws, and perfect teeth. Luke Skywalker might have been the impeccable, archetypal hero, but everyone wanted to be Han Solo in the school playground.
Holding up a Mirror
The long, the short and the tall of it is, and maybe even without us realizing it, we are drawn to those heroes whose character is closest to our own, or whose struggle mimics that of our day to day trials and tribulations. Sure, you might not be battling aliens with a flamethrower or taking mushrooms to increase in size (although, maybe some of you are), but how we depict our heroes in popular culture is a direct reference to the struggles we face in the real world. It’s our way of coping with the demons we face from the moment we wake, and reflects our fears and insecurities in a medium we can understand.
We’re desperate for our heroes to succeed because in doing so it gives us the hope that we too, will also overcome. Taking a ring to Mordor, for example, is the metaphorical equivalent of our journey through life, and to make that quest every single day for the best part of 80 years is nothing short of heroic.