The Devolution of Heroes: from perfect to damaged

GilgameshPossibly the very first tale we could class as speculative fiction is the Sumerian poem, the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, dating from 1800 BCE. It tells of Gilgamesh, a king and valiant hero, who defied the gods to seek eternal life. So perfect, brave and skilful was he that he should have been a god himself yet immortality is a prize the gods awarded him only after death. And it wasn’t for his heroic prowess but rather three lessons learnt in life: how to be both a fair ruler and a good person, how to honour the gods in life and why all human beings must die.

After Gilgamesh, heroes like Heracles and Achilles tended to spring fully formed from the mould, perfect except for a single flaw which would inevitably cause their downfall. That fatal flaw came to be what defined the tragic hero, like the grain of sand that spurs the oyster to produce its pearl, engendering such heroes as Oedipus, doomed from birth.

In yesteryear, fantasy writers from Tolkien to Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) tended to imbue their heroes with a godlike perfection. But the gods have never been perfect and therein lies their attraction: Zeus was a womaniser; Hera a jealous wife; Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaestus all made silly mistakes and got ensnared in childish squabbles. It was their very humanity and flaws which made them such attractive role models for the Greeks. The most interesting characters in early speculative fiction echo this, for example the selfish Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Bilbo’s and Frodo’s growing covetousness in The Lord of the Rings. As they overcome their faults, they provide a moral path to follow.

The original book covers, which Tolkien designed himself.

The original book covers for The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien designed himself.

Yet through their ‘damaged’ nature, they also become more attractive, somehow closer to us. Why does club-foot Hephaestus seem more human than the perfectly formed Ares? Is it because we can imagine saving them, the saviour saved? Whatever the reason, it is a growing trend in most genre writing – one almost obligatory in the detective genre – to offer up a ‘damaged’ hero. Ideal modern heroes must now be thoroughly battle-scarred by life: a good detective should be divorced and alcoholic; a dragon slayer requires a coterie of internal demons to be truly effective. The more wallowing in one’s failings the better, as Stephan Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant shows so admirably. Most modern genre writing has now adopted this rule of thumb.

Lord Foul’s Bane, first book of ‘The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’

Unfortunately this has led to some shoddy characterisation, with heroes baring their flaws quite unashamedly at the drop of a sabre. What used to be depicted as ironically tragic too often becomes prosaic and predictable, devoid of even the slightest pinch of storytelling suspense. How to avoid this?

Speculative fiction follows a fairly closed set of genre rules: writers break them at their peril. Modern-day heroes still require that primal flaw if we are to embrace them. Yet now more than ever, genres are interbreeding with rabbit-like velocity, so steam-punk dystopian dinosaur romance might still hold a few surprises up its sleeve when defining its heroes. Does the answer lie in more complex characterisation? Probably not. Genre fiction must be fast-paced and plot-based to succeed. Complex characters simply hold up the action.

The key is to define that fatal flaw when outlining the central conflict, prior even to defining the story. The Oedipus myth is a masterful example: in order to thwart a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, baby Oedipus is exiled; he is adopted and grows to manhood; on learning of the prophecy, he leaves his home to avoid this fate, which brings him into contact with his real father and mother, with whom he fulfils the prophecy. So he is fatally flawed at birth and this flaw directly defines the plot and seals his fate.

It is a massive challenge to interweave plot and characterisation so simply and effectively, yet the writer who can do so is on to a winner.