Heroes are NOT Bland–A passionate defense of the Hero

E3 is happening this week.  I’m a huge video game player and I will be highlighting things that I”m interested in and talking about them periodically over the coming weeks.

Below you will find the trailer for a game I’m interested in called, Tom Clancy’s The Division.  The trailer is at once both depressing and stirring.  Have a look for yourself:

GameTrailers, has a show called “Let’s All Go To The Trailers,” that showcases effective and evocative game trailers.  You can find their website here:  http://www.gametrailers.com/shows/lets-all-go-to-the-trailers

In the latest episode, “United Division,” one of the trailers that they discuss is Tom Clancy’s The Division.  What concerns me is that they decide that EVERYONE (from the villains–both sets–all the way down to the victim that is being protected) are MORE interesting than the bland heroes.  The heroes, it is argued, are the LEAST interesting part of the trailer.

I cannot DISAGREE more.  It’s probably not fair for me to pick on them because I have seen this sentiment expressed over and over again for the past six to seven years, but the way they expressed this idea just made me shake my head and fixed firmly in my mind WHY I WRITE.

Too often in the past few years, I’ve heard the term “Shades of Gray,” to reference characters who are flawed and who are complex and who have both good and evil inside them.  It is commonly argued that these are the current “models” that we should base our heroes on, but I couldn’t disagree more.  In many instances, these characters are not heroes.  Heck, they’re not even anti-heroes.  They are straight up thugs and villains, given one or two “heroic” traits and then paraded as people who we should feel sympathy for and who we should root for in stories (Walter White from Breaking Bad, I’m looking directly at you).

These are people whose actions most of us would abhor should we encounter them in real life, but critics adore them and cite them as “complex characters.”  They kill, they lie, they cheat, they skirt rules, or simply break them, and yet, they are the pillars around which we hang our stories.  I first noticed this villain as hero in the genre world after watching Pitch Black several years ago.  I won’t spoil the movie, but it definitely falls into this category.

Yet, the hero is SUPPOSED to be the one who struggles.  To do what is right even though you are under intense pressure is FAR MORE interesting TO ME than to do what is wrong because it is quicker and easier and watch the results of those actions.

At any time, a character can give up, take the easy way out, but once that character does, then the character gives up any sense of agency. They become a pawn of their addictions, afflictions, abuses, and the critics adore them for it.  However, a character that is a pawn is a character without agency.  A character without agency is one that is manipulated by the plot.  We call those stories Deus Ex Machina–God from a Machine.  The writer intervenes to save his characters.  When we have villains that masquerade as heroes, the heroes lose their agency–their ability to struggle.  They suffer–and that is where the sense of drama comes from as we watch them go from excess to excess–but do they actually struggle?   How can they when they’ve all ready given in to their baser natures?

As much as I like Jason Bourne and Matt Damon’s portrayal of him, I dislike the lack of portrayal of him earning his abilities.  In the first movie, he was a superman with INNATE abilities.  We never saw him earn them, we never saw him STRUGGLE to get them.  We learned later who he was and that caused him to suffer.  However, I felt (and will always feel) MORE for Luke Skywalker than Jason Bourne.  I SAW Luke sweat as Yoda trained him.  I SAW him fail as Yoda tried to inculcate a sense of “faith” into him and watched as he failed even as Yoda succeeded in raising the X-Wing fighter.

And yet, it was Luke who had to make the HARD choice to face Darth Vader again, knowing what he knew about Vader.  It was Luke who, having lost his own hand, realized just how close he was to following Vader down the same path, it was Luke, who understood that faith that Yoda had taught him could be applied not just to Luke’s abilities, but also to a person, Vader.  The whole story hinged on Luke surviving and making HARD CHOICES.  Yes, those chose are HARD, but necessary.  I don’t remember once Vin Diesel’s character in Pitch Black having to make a HARD CHOICE.  Everything was given to his character, everything was easy.  Life isn’t easy–everything is a struggle–and I thought that critics wanted COMPLEXITY.  It seems to me, that a truly complex character is one that must struggle and fail and struggle and fail until they finally “get it” and struggle and succeed.  How complex a character can one truly be if they never struggle and all we see is the suffering of a character that is in a spiral?

I see the allure of the villain as character.  Everything is easy.  Just follow your heart’s desire and everything will either be given to you and you’ll be awesome (Bourne) or everything will spiral out of control and we’ll enjoy watching the fall (Walter White).  Yet, to me, this type of character and (by extension) this type of fiction doesn’t appeal to me because nothing in my life has EVER been easy.  This then is the most unrealistic type of fiction (even more so than genre work) because it is a lie that I can see through, and how can a fiction that one can see through tell me anything about the world I live in?  Isn’t that why we, as writers, work so hard to hide the fictions that we write–so that we can then reveal the TRUTHS about the world we live in?