No More Hesitations)
Last week I considered the resistance that a main character must press through to achieve their greater story. Most protagonists are written so that they dearly want to follow that epic path, but they usually refuse to take the journey until they have no other choice.
Think of Luke Skywalker who dreams of leaving his farm to fly across the galaxy. He begs his Uncle Owen to let him follow that calling, but Uncle Owen just keeps telling him “next year.” Interestingly, when Obi-Wan Kenobi urges Luke to do the very things he has been yearning for, Luke draws back, repeating the same arguments that Uncle Owen has used to keep Luke grounded. Luke isn’t able to break free until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle and leaves his home a waste. Every other path in Luke’s life has been literally burned to the ground, so at last he moves forward with his greater story.
And this is true of many epics. The hero wants to step into their proper role, but for some reason holds back until their hand is forced.
Does a story have to be this way? No. There are plenty where it isn’t the case at all. Consider Forrest Gump, who blithely charges ahead with whatever occurs to him that he wants to do. Think of Pollyanna, who is never deterred by any problem, and always encourages those around her to just see the good in the world. There is also Ulysses, who though he is waylaid at every league of his journey never falters from start to finish in his quest to get back home.
But today I want to take a closer look at the archetype of the reluctant hero, and why it is such a widely use form.
My Own Delay)
Why do stories frequently make use of a reluctant hero? Because that’s exactly what most of us are in our own lives. We all have dreams of the greater story we’d like to live, but very few of us are actually chasing it. We watch it longingly from a distance, but feel too weighed down by work and duty to really get our hands into it.
That was certainly the case with me. I longed to be a writer for a long while, but it remained a wistful daydream for years. I just couldn’t see any way to fit it into my busy schedule. Though let’s be honest, the excuse that we just don’t have enough time is usually a cover-up for something deeper. And in my case that was also true. I had been rejected in my creative endeavors before, I had been told that my work wasn’t very good or wasn’t very important. I didn’t like that feeling, so I made myself too busy to have time for writing anymore. The desire was still there, but I wasn’t able to break out of my reluctance by myself. In fact, it took a literal act of God to finally get me back into my writing!
I previously mentioned the example of Luke Skywalker being reluctant to leave the farm with Obi-Wan Kenobi. And honestly, he isn’t given a very good reason for why he’s being so hesitant. In fact there are many stories which tack a reluctance onto their hero without any good explanation. Stories like this feel like me saying “oh, I don’t have time,” and I just don’t buy it. If an author decides to write a reluctant hero, they ought to give a clear reason for why that hero is being so hesitant.
A Reason to Not)
A better example is that of Peter Parker. In the original Spider-man comic strip, Peter is a bright and intelligent High Schooler, whose aunt and uncle and teachers dote on him. But he is scrawny, nerdy, and unpopular with all of his peers. He is the subject of bullying and mockery, which disillusions his view of the world.
When Peter Parker finds himself imbued with heroic powers he immediately thinks of how he can use them for profit. He enters into the ring and fights a mountain of a man, easily coming off the victor. This lands him a TV deal, and at long last it seems like his life is falling into place.
One day a thief is at the television studio and he makes off with some loot, running right past Peter Parker in his costume. An officer that is giving chase calls for Peter Parker to intervene, but Peter staunchly refuses. As he says “I’m thru being pushed around–by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one–that means–me!”
In other words, the bullies got to Peter. He hates the world and he doesn’t care about the people in it. The optimistic world view of his loving aunt and uncle has been overridden by cynicism and callousness. And now that he doesn’t need other people he’s perfectly content to watch out for himself and that’s it. He might be dressed up like a hero, but he has a solid reason in his heart to not actually play the role.
This is a much stronger depiction of the reluctant hero. It is relatable, it is believable, and it is tragic. At this point I am just as convinced as Peter Parker that he is never going to enter a more heroic story…unless fate intervenes.
Which, of course, it does. That same petty thief later corners Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben and guns him down. Because Peter had chosen not to be the hero, the man he loved and admired most was killed. Peter’s very good reasons for not sticking his neck out for anyone come crashing down, and in an instant and starts to care about what goes on in this crazy world around him. He steps into his role in the greater story.
In my own story I gave Cace a very simple reason for not continuing into the Ether: it seems like it is going to kill him! He is afraid for his life, and so the only thing that could possibly convince him to go back would be if his life was forfeit anyway. And as you will see on Wednesday, that’s exactly where the story is going. Cace is going to have to choose between death by the Ether or death by a monster. And given that, he will finally be motivated to dive back into the Ether, as it is the death-option that still has even a ray of hope. It also just so happens to be the one that his greater story lays within!