Meet the Cool)
One of the most popular characters in pop culture is Han Solo from the Star Wars series. This character was the very definition of a lovable rogue, a grownup version of the too-cool-for-anything teenager, but who would still come through when it counted. From this one character innumerable imitations have sprung forth, such as Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy or Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. Each of these other characters have had their own individual quirks, but they all begin with that same streetwise swagger that Harrison Ford embodied so well.
But really, what it is about these characters that attracts us most to them? I would say it is none of the attributes I have mentioned so far. At the heart of the matter, and in a single word, what we like about these characters is that they are “confident.” Nothing ruffles them. They are always sure of themselves, no matter what comes their way. Even if the big baddie is breathing down their necks they will still come up with a wry insult. It is that confidence which makes them so cool.
Yet in many of these characters that confidence is a false confidence, a face that they may bravely show to the world, but which they do not actually have the power to back up. In fact, virtually all of these characters start their stories by actively running away from the central conflict. They do not have what it takes to make wrong things right, and they know that getting involved cannot end well for them. Eventually, though, they get sucked into the hero’s quest even so, and then the hollowness of their confident smirks gets exposed. Han Solo is captured and frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back. Jack Sparrow is fed to the Kraken at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Peter Quill is powerless to prevent Thanos from taking the love of his life, Gamora, and killing her.
For all of the traits in these characters that we wish we held ourselves, they are not the hero of their stories. Ironically, the heroes who actually come through and save the day tend to be a good deal less confident.
Meet the Persistent)
We may wish to be confident, but we personally identify with being unsure. Each of us have our doubts and hesitations, but also a desire to persevere even so. And that is why these tend to be the exact traits that we see in the actual heroes of a story. We admire the cool confidence of Aragorn, but we find relatable the simple naïveté of Frodo. We wish we had the street smarts of Han Solo, but we identify more with the ignorance of Luke Skywalker
The most famous of stories give us a main character who starts the narrative at the same place that we are, but who then becomes what we want to be. And so, the hero is the inverse of the overconfident rogue. They start without knowledge, but they are determined, and gradually they come into a power that is deep and genuine. Where eventually the rogue’s house of cards will come crashing down, the hero will prevail.
Consider in the Star Wars films where we initially see Han Solo pretend to enormous confidence in front of Jabba the Hutt, but then he becomes nothing more than a wall decoration in the thug’s den. Also, early on Han Solo saves Luke’s skin on multiple occasions, even keeping a tally of how many times Luke “owes him,” but in the trilogy’s final chapter it is Luke who now comes to the recuse of Han. Luke begins that rescue by making a similar display of confidence to Jabba, extending a bold ultimatum to the gangster if he won’t surrender Luke’s friends. Unlike Han Solo, Luke’s confidence is rooted in actual power though, and he follows through with his promise to destroy the crime lord’s little empire and saves his companions.
In a strange twist, I feel like society more often tries to imitate the cocky, roguish demeanor of Han Solo, rather than embrace the natural and simple earnestness of Luke Skywalker. We were supposed to see ourselves in the farm boy, instead we want to pretend to be the smuggler, and that includes weaving in all of Han Solo’s character flaws, such as cynicism and unwillingness to accept help from others.
Yes, characters like Han Solo are supposed to be initially attractive to us, but we’re also supposed to grow past that in the course of the story. His later ineptitude is meant to show us the folly of relying on one’s own power instead of some higher one. We are meant to mature our tastes by the story’s end, reject the cynical worldview, and return to one of humble faith.
And this is true even of capable rogues as well. Aragon of the Lord of the Rings series is far less self-obsessed than Han Solo, but he still fits that bill of street-smart, confident rogue. And for his part he actually is quite capable. He successfully saves Merry and Pippin, unites the forces of men, and saves the country of Gondor.
But he is still not the character we are meant to identify with, nor the one with the greatest contribution to humanity. That honor belongs to Frodo, a little Hobbit who seems much too small and simple for his complicated and violent world, but who follows his heart to save the whole of it.
Aragon may be capable and confident, but his weakness is that he is also jaded and disbelieving, which is why he is not fit to carry the story’s greatest burden. Frodo, on the other hand, is worthy to do so because he still sees beauty in the world and has faith in the good of others. Those are the qualities that we readers are meant to identify with, and if we cannot, we are invited to start opening our eyes to the wonder of true faith. In fact, the rediscovery of faith is the arc that Aragon follows as well.
The Proud Fool)
A confident character might be like Han Solo, with a proud face that conceals his inability to meet evil. Or he might be too jaded to walk a path that requires purity of faith, like Aragon. Or he might just be a pompous fool, as in the case of my latest story.
In the last chapter I introduced Godfrey, a proud knight who volunteers for a task he is woefully unprepared for. I emphasized his foolishness in order to make it clear to the reader that this is not the man that is meant to be a model for them to idolize. Even before his great failure I don’t think anyone thought he was the person they wanted to be this story. And now that we have witnessed his demise, in the next chapter we will meet a new face, that of true confidence.