In the great wealth of literature we find the hero, broad of shoulder, narrow of hip, keen-eyed, long flowing blonde hair, he rides faster, shoots straighter, is an expert at anything that that needs to be done. How boring is that? First of all, these faultless paragons are neutered as a character, they have to spend all their time being noble so they need a sidekick to round out the one-sided nature of their character, and thus Batman needed Robin, the Green Hornet needed Cato, the Lone Ranger had Tonto, but Roy Rogers may have had Smiley Burdette as a sidekick, but he also had Dale Evans.
But why is Dale a sidekick? Think about it for a second, the traditional hero is all of those Dudley Do-Right traits… where are the scroungy-looking heroes that couldn’t be be stuffed into the traditional hero mould if you greased them down with a can of lard. What about Rooster Cogburn spin-cocking a Winchester rifle in one hand and blazing away with a Colt Navy six-shooter in his other gnarled paw. None of this “I’ll save you!” stuff, nope, ol’ Rooster Bellowed across a field “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!” They sprayed enough lead to sink a ship and a few people were hit, and Rooster’s horse Beau was killed.
What? Silver never died, neither did Trigger or Scout, for that matter. And Rooster didn’t look like a hero, his hair was shaggy and he had an eye-patch and a gut and he swore and drank a lot and shot rats in the house. He doesn’t fit the mold. There are others that don’t fit the mold though, Ellen Ripley, Kathryn Janeway, Emma Peel and I hate myself for saying this, Buffy Summers.
Yes, women can be heroes too. Joan of Arc ring a bell? Or a Belle? And there is Boudica (or Boadicea). More examples you say? Sure!
WWII Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko with 309 confirmed kills. US Army Captain Linda Bray who led 30 MPs during the invasion of Panama, they captured a police facility including K-9 facilities. Women technically can’t serve in combat, but the lines seem to be a little blurred, female pilots and aircrew have flown bombers over Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq. They’ve been in firefights, they’ve proven their mettle. Female heroes in print? Jalav, Anita Blake, Kinsey Milhone, Sarah Connor, Alice (Resident Evil), River Tam, Princess Leah. So when you see the word hero, toss gender from the equation.
With villains writers have to fight the urge to be uber-evil, similarly with heroes there is a temptation to make the hero the shining knight on the gleaming white charger. Now seems as good of a time as any for example, so lets look at Sparhawk, a character in two separate series by David Eddings. In The Hidden city we find our hero in the fight of his life…
“…but Sparhawk fought as a man superbly trained, a little out of condition and really too old for this kind of thing – but with an absolute confidence that if the fate of the world rested in his hands, he was good for at least one more fight.”
Sparhawk feels human, he has a bad temper, is covered in scars, the classic good looks of the hero replaced with shaggy black hair and a broken nose that never set right. In the same way that we pile negative traits on our villains, and we pile virtues on our heroes. I mean sure, Galahad could kick butt but he was a tea totaling virgin that spent all of his spare time in church or hanging around reminding people he’s more pure than they are. Where’s the fun in that? Ok, you could have him running from wanton women that are trying to dirty him up a little but unless you’re righting a porn script that’ll get old fast.
A hero can’t be polished too much, people all have rough spots, but then there’s the swing in the other direction. Harry Callahan, John McClane, Jack Cates, and Frank Castle. Dirty Harry feeds the anti-authoritarian in all of us, and the fact he’ll stretch the law to get the bad guy feeds that sense people have that justice is tilted to favor the criminal. In Diehard McClane also bucks authority and by the 3rd movie winds up the stereotypical whiskey-fuming copthat spends as much time fighting with his chain of command as he does fighting crime. The same can be said of Jack Cates from 48 Hours, but heavier on the whiskey fumes. But Frank Castle, the Punisher, takes the vigilante ex-cop with a penchant for drinking Wild Turkey straight out of the bottle and wholesale mayhem.
Middle ground, Galahad is too clean and the Punisher is way too dirty to be a character that people would read about and believe that this could be a guy they know. If you need a baby face or an anti-hero then by all means, but I’m looking more for the person next door that anyone can relate to. A hero can be more than a great person doing impossible things, a hero is a normal person placed in extraordinary circumstances and managing to come out on top.
Like undersized and very young Audie Murphy, he stood 5’5” tall barefoot and weighed 112 pounds and was turned down for enlistment at 17 then finally made it into the army after being turned down by the Marines for being too short and too skinny, reasons he was rejected for when he applied to be a paratrooper. He’d already won a chest full of medals and a battlefield commission when he ordered the 19 men still fit for action out of a company of 128 and made a lone stand in snow two feet deep. He first used a rifle and scrounged ammunition to cover the withdrawal of his men then, already wounded, he climbed onto a burning tank destroyer and continued to fight and call in artillery, he is credited with destroying six tanks, killing 240 enemy soldiers and wounding many more. When the comm wire was cut and communication with the rear lost his men came back forward to find them and with this small group he counterattacked and cleared the field and won the Medal of Honor, when the war was over he had every decoration the US had, except the Good Conduct Medal, and several foreign awards as well, he was the most highly decorated soldier of WWII, he returned to the army for a short time during the Korean War, but was kept stateside leaving the Army again at the rank of major. He suffered terribly from PTSD and worked tirelessly to make the government recognize and treat this condition, he was prescribed sleeping pills to try and help ease the nightmares he suffered and when he recognized that he was addictive he locked himself up in a hotel room and suffered cold turkey through the withdrawal privately until the need for the drug had passed. He was a modest man that gave away his medals to his friends, and when they were replaced he did it again. He was 46 when he was killed in a aircraft accident, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, his headstone is plain, like all those around it as he declined a special marker that he was qualified for as a Medal of Honor recipient, modest to the end.
That is my definition of a compelling hero, I’ve looked through a lot of biographies over the years, because I want to see what people that did amazing things were actually like as people. Common people in uncommon situations and they rose to meet the challenges. Heroism isn’t being fearless, its being afraid but doing what needed to be done in spite of that fear. Sometimes its doing many brave things and enduring the physical and mental pain for the rest of their lives. Sometimes its testifying before Congress about a condition like “shell shock” that had negative connotations about the mental strength and state of a person regardless of any stigma that might attach itself because of it.
I’m thinking of the Horatio Hornblower sort of hero. A shy man with a lot of self doubts, a sailor plagued by sea sickness, a leader that strives to set the proper example to those in his command, an officer that is at his best when the storms blow wild about him, when red hot shot tears through the rigging and the decks are awash in blood. Hornblower is a common man in all regards until danger focuses all that he is into what we have come to know as a literary hero.
A real hero that bullets can kill, that dire can disfigure, and water can drown and a hero that will brave all of these things when fate comes calling, or by the same token a hero is the person that acts when someone is choking and everyone else freezes. Its a word with wide meaning and wide applications.
Heroes don’t have to be soldiers, they are normal people that see an airliner go down in the middle of the river and brave the cracking ice to reach those that miraculously survived. Its Johnny Cash forbidding any painkillers after open heart surgery to make sure he didn’t become addicted again. Its firemen and policemen running into the burning towers when everyone else was trying to get out. Its those that run toward danger to help others. Its so many things and the one thing in common with them all is that that person could live right next door to you, that person could sip iced tea with you while burgers burn on the grill. You could be looking in the mirror at that person while brushing your teeth.
© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.