One of the endearing elements of the typical literary protagonist is that they are usually unaware of their role as the hero of the story. Instead, when we first meet our main characters they are just ordinary people like all the rest of us, with no notion of the wonders they are soon to witness, nor the titans they are soon to become. Even as they are in the midst of accomplishing their tremendous feats they still may not realize their own legend, they’re simply trying to do what seems right for its own sake. This idea that someone just like us can achieve unexpected greatness through steady, good works is an optimistic and motivating message for all readers. One day when we look back at the accumulation of all our little efforts to do what is right we also hope to see a legacy worth being proud of. In other words, each of us needs our own story to be the hero of. That need is universal, it is not a career option that only a few of us must apply for. That need is the answer to the age-old question “what is the meaning of life?” In no uncertain terms, the purpose is for each of us to become our own hero. With that principle in mind, it becomes clear that if we wish to create meaningful heroes in our stories the key is to understand the human condition first. When we do that, the stages that define the hero become self-evident.
Those that have no purpose in their lives aspire to find their great calling. Those that feel insignificant trust that greatness can come from the smallest of places. Those who are slogging through adversity seek reassurance that doing their best will be enough when all is said and done. Those that are burdened with guilt hold faith that what a person is now does not decide who they must be tomorrow. As we consider each of these life situations where we seek to find the hero inside a common theme emerges: conflict.
It is in the face of opposition that we feel the need for our inner hero, and indeed it is that opposition which gives the word “hero” any meaning. Our ultimate purpose in life is to strive, to overcome, and to become something greater. Indeed, without strife you can have the mentor, the lover, the confidant, the bystander, and even a main character, but you will never have any hero. Before you can tell your story you must first know the relationship between the hero and their conflict. That source of conflict might originate in another villainous character, a life situation, or an inner flaw, but there must be something that the would-be hero stands morally opposed to. Just like us when we face our life trials, the hero has to fundamentally feel that the opposition is against their very nature.
Diametric opposition isn’t enough by itself, though. The fact is that many of us live compromised lives, finding that it is easier to turn a blind eye and quiet our conscience than to act. We are naturally averse to conflict, after all, and so we attempt to mitigate evil rather than eradicate it. We even reach the point of doing things that go against our very nature for their convenience, and in so doing sin against the heart within us. All too often, people will not lift themselves above this self-cheating lifestyle except when some terrible loss occurs to awaken their resolve.
And so, make no mistake, the villain of a successful story means serious business. They do not come merely as the irritator or the inconveniencer, they come as the destroyer and the ravager. If left unchecked, they will take all that the protagonist holds most dear, and they communicate this intention by destroying the first of that which the main character loves. Indeed they typically destroy the one person or thing which that character holds most precious of all.
In our modern vernacular we sometimes call this moment of loss “hitting rock bottom.” The evil we chose to not get involved with has invaded us directly, demanding our attention. We feel simultaneously burdened with animosity towards it, but also paralyzed with guilt and self-doubt. In this moment we perceive two great choices gaping wide for us.
The first is to despair, to be consumed by our shame and to give ourselves over to the adversary. We let this tragedy happen on our watch after all, so we deserve to be destroyed as that which we loved was destroyed. This is Simba in The Lion King feeling personally responsible for the loss of his father and running away from all that he was born to be, while his evil uncle reigns unchecked.
The other option is to throw down the challenge. Perhaps there have been mistakes made and prices paid for them, but the call of the hero is to refuse that this evil be allowed to go on any further. This isn’t about “joining” a fight against the villain either, it is a moment of claiming that fight for your own. Perhaps others may fill the ranks beside you, but they are ancillary. This is the hero’s own personal war.
The balance of power always seems to be in the hand of the opponent, though. They had a headstart on us after all and most often have seduced the masses into supporting them. There seems to be a fundamental rule of the universe that doing the right thing is always the more difficult path to follow. If it were the easier thing to do, we already would have done it after all. It was the notion of an uphill battle that gave us our pause in the first place.
And so it would feel dishonest to us if a story presented a hero that resolved themselves to the conflict, marched right into the thieves’ den, and by their greater brute force destroyed every enemy immediately. Again, if the hero already held the greater strength, they would have resolved the situation back at the very start. It is imperative, therefore, that the hero is to be the underdog here, and we should feel that they cannot win in a direct assault. If the hero is not stronger, then they must rely on something else. Often the hero is smarter, calculating, and more daring. They use their intelligence to leverage the enemy’s own power against them, letting the foes collapse under the weight of their own hubris.
Change inevitably involves sacrifice. It was loss that brought us into our life predicament, but it is sacrifice that will get us out. On the smaller end that may simply be a sacrifice of our time and energy in overcoming our life situation, and on the higher end it may be a sacrifice of our entire lifestyle in overcoming our inner demons. In order to make space for wine, you first must pour out the water that was already in the cup.
As we just said, the villain usually has more power than the hero, but the hero has the greater determination, the greater resolve to see things through to the end no matter the cost. And it certainly will come at a cost, in some cases even the cost of the hero’s life. Often I see stories being averse to take this step of the hero’s journey, too afraid of a bittersweet ending. Even worse, some stories flirt with the idea of sacrifice, suggesting it is about to happen, but then pull their punch at the very end. Perhaps I’ll discuss this matter at greater length in another post, but for now I’ll just say sacrifice is sacred, and ought not to be treated lightly for emotional manipulation.
More important than what is actually sacrificed by the hero for the victory is the fact that they are willing to sacrifice all. After all, when any of us attempt to change our own lifestyles, we will soon find that there is no winning from half-hearted measures, we have to be willing to sacrifice whatever is called over.
A week ago I pointed out that the classic archetype of heroes striving against villains is an obvious reenactment of the universal war between good and evil. That we tend to look for ourselves in the hero reveals our bias that we are each of us basically good. That is an optimistic notion and one that I personally agree with. There is something noble inside each of us, and it is that nobility which compels mankind to write these heroic tales; tales which serve the dual purpose of fanning the flames of those in the midst of their own great life adventure, as well as to stoke the embers of those who are waning in them.
Last Thursday I shared a story about a hero that followed through each of the steps I’ve mentioned above. In that story we met a character named Kael who was conflicted about his own dual nature, one part being good and the other being evil. Kael tried to compromise between the two parts until he was driven to decide between the two when he lost the trust of Ayla, the character he loved most. As he attempted to make things right, he found himself outmatched by his opponent, and only by being both cleverer and more willing to sacrifice he eventually found his triumph and became the hero at the story’s end.
At the opening of Kael’s story, he encountered a sage-life character, whose purpose was to provide Kael the core questions which led him to his great purpose. That role of the wise mentor is another essential role in literature and one that I will pursue in my next story entry on Thursday. I’ll see you then.