One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.
Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.
When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.
In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.
Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.
Meaningful Character Death)
Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.
The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.
Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.
An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.
Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.
If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.
Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.
Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.
This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.
You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.
Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.
In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.
That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.
Opposition is a constant experience in our human lives. To make even the simplest of changes by necessity requires that we exist in one state, with our destination in another, and some form of resistance in between the two. If I wish to stand it must be that I am first in some more reclined state and then exert force against the pull of gravity. It is a simple logic that if these different states and the resistance between them did not exist, there would never any change for we would already be at our destinations.
Furthermore, it appears that this resistance which we encounter always flows more strongly in a particular direction. Specifically, it always flows against order and improvement. Tied into the very fabric of the universe seems to be a universal principle that it is always easier to make a mess than to clean one, to end a relationship than to build one, to ruin a reputation than to establish one, and to damn oneself than to find salvation.
To become the men and women we dream of demands, then, that we live a life of constant effort, always moving upstream and against the grain. Given the exhaustion we see at that end of the spectrum and our repulsion for the depravity at the other end, most of us settle on a more comfortable middle ground. In a word we choose “mediocrity,” days spent performing no great evil but also accomplishing no great good. An existence of forever living beneath our potential.
We might even try to convince ourselves that this is as good as life ever gets. Heroes are a fantasy, we say, and effort would only lead to broken dreams. The world is too big and too evil, and trying to stand against that storm will only get you snapped like a dry reed in the wind.
It is at times like these that stories, true stories, provide an all-important lesson on the power of endurance more than strength, of sacrifice more than fortification, of perseverance more than speed. Consider the situation under which Gandhi chose to defy the British rule in his homeland of India. Most of his fellow countrymen had accepted their dejected state because the British just seemed too great a force to stand against. As Gandhi swam against the current he raised no armies and fielded no battles, at least not in the military sense. But he did refuse to obey and he did refuse to be curtailed. His victory was achieved simply by being willing to face that tide of resistance longer than the British monarchy was, a feat all the more impressive given the principle I mentioned before: that the resistance is stronger against the good.
Stories of real world change shake us out of our cushy chairs and demand we face the reality that we could be more. We all have our demons, the forces that send us scurrying back under the bed whenever we consider improving ourselves. They might be ignorance, poverty, depression, or shame. “I would like to be a better person, but to do so would mean facing the guilt for past misdeeds.”
In this way our demons hold us back, and seem to wield greater power than we possess. Even so, they can be worn down if we are simply more persistent than they. More willing to pick ourselves up after a setback. More willing to endure, to sacrifice, and to give. If we learn anything from Gandhi’s example, let it be this: you can beat a man into submission simply by standing up more times than he is willing to knock you down.
As such, I care very little for stories where the hero wins the day just by being more skilled than the enemy. If he simply shoots faster, has bigger muscles, or hits harder until he wins, then there is no relatability to me and my situations. If I could simply punch my personal flaws into submission I would have done that a long time ago.
A far more meaningful narrative example is that of Disney’s animated feature: Hercules. Here we have a protagonist who literally is the strongest all around and does indeed try to punch all of his problems into submission. Eventually, though, he is frustrated to learn that life simply will not work that way, and ultimately he gives up his physical strength to instead learn endurance of the heart. It is by this path that finally he becomes the god he dreamt to be.
Like Hercules, our personal improvement often requires sacrificing that which gives us strength and comfort: our addiction, our complacency, our facade. Growth comes by taking off the armor that doesn’t fit and facing Goliath in our true form: small, vulnerable, and weak. This deliberately stacks the deck against us and puts us in the role of the underdog.
If you want a director who is master of the underdog tale, look no further than Steven Spielberg. From his early film-making titles like Duel, to his suspenseful thrillers like Jaws, to his gripping adventures like Indiana Jones, Spielberg consistently gives us an everyman who is entirely out of his depth. For each of them their path to success is a journey of setback after setback, failure after failure, one plan crumbling after another until finally their perseverance sees them through. I finish each of these films feeling exhausted for just having been witness to such constant struggle.
Another underdog tale I appreciate is King Henry V by Shakespeare. What I like most about this is that it leaves no question as to whether the uphill battle is worth the effort. The story certainly spends its time in the trenches, setting Henry and his small band against a series of losses and facing down innumerable foes. But then, at long last, there follows the triumph on St. Crispin’s Day, the charmingly bumbling courtship of Katharine, the King of France adopting Henry as heir, and the peaceful union of two great nations.
The play speaks a great truth, one that all of us would do well to remember when facing our own uphill battles.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of anyone laying on their deathbed and saying “I just wish that I had tried less.” In the end we never do regret our efforts, only what we were. I cannot name all of the rewards we may find by our betterment, but the first of them, the heart that has its reclaimed itself, is already more than enough for me.
At this time I would normally do a little plug for my short stories, instead I would like to take a moment to dedicate this post to a dear friend of mine who passed away unexpectedly on Saturday.
Corey Holmgren was a military chaplain, therapist, youth teacher, father, husband, and friend. He was also the mentor who initiated me into the ranks of those that fight for their best selves. He did so much to show me the complacency I had accepted, and the potential that was waiting for me. It was he, and others like him, who inspired me to wake up and improve myself, making a number of changes, including writing these regular blog posts. Corey was a part of me that I was not ready to lose.
His family was not ready to lose him either and I’m including a link to the GoFundMe that has been set up for them. As it says over there: “If you are unable to donate, please keep them all in your thoughts and prayers.”
A grave somberness lay heavy on the air, and time itself seemed to freeze until the slaves were drawn out of their reverie by the sound of Lenny riding back to their perch. Rather than dismounting he steered the horse towards the line of slaves, all the more to intimidate them as he spat out his obligatory threats.
“All of you take heed!” he snarled down to their still-bowed heads, the bloodlust lingering in his eyes. “There are never any second chances for escapees here. I will rather ride into town with an empty rope than be made a fool of!” He reached the end of the line and found the only slave daring to look him in the eye. “You, however,” he pointed his finger to Jules and nodded approvingly. “You will be rewarded when we arrive at town. Not with money, your next master would just take that, but I’ll buy you a proper meal before the auction.”
Jules nodded appreciatively, then lay back down on the ground, determinedly turning his back to the other slaves so as to not meet their gazes. With a final curse Lenny circled his horse round and went back to the fire where Bartholomew and Harry were waiting. The three sat around the low blaze, muttering in dark voices until at last they were calmed enough to return to their sleep.
The next morning, when Lenny roused the slaves to their feet, he had the good sense to not ask about the fresh corpse at the end of the line. He simply cut Jules’s body free, and stomped back to his horse, anxious to move the party away from that place. Bartholomew came with the key to unlock the prisoner’s fetters but Lenny barked at him not to.
“No more kindnesses for this lot!” he ordered, spinning around in his saddle to face the slaves. “You may thank your friend William for that.”
There came the tug on the rope and they all lurched into their march. Though they moved onward, that spirit of death followed with them as they went. Things would have already been grim no matter which of their own had been killed, but it was all the more so when that one was William Gray.
It was only now with his loss that they fully realized how deeply they had let him penetrate their broken natures. There had been a sense of hope in their lives again, though in what, exactly, they could not say. Something better, and strangely enough something internal. Something long dormant within them all had been awakened by William’s fire, and now that he was gone they were afraid to lose that part of them again.
The guards felt a weight, too, but for them it was a far more damning sensation. Though William had been only a slave, somehow he had been more elevated than they, and so it felt out of place to have claimed his life. Perhaps they had possessed his body, but they had never had power over his spirit. Now that free spirit seemed to stalk them, judging and condemning them for his spilled blood. His memory brought to the surface all that they despised within themselves, and they became, if possible, more harsh and cold to the world. Almost frantically they drove the team onward, anxious to reach their destination and see if the local tavern couldn’t craft a brew strong enough to lift the spell they were under.
Over one hill and then another they marched, and as they went Robert did not lift his eyes once. Quite possibly he felt the weight of William’s absence most of all. He alone knew that William had intended for him to stand as defender for these poor souls and, foolish as it sounded, he really wished that he could. Robert was discovering that a far worse fate than living as nothing was to believe that it could be otherwise. He was drawn out of these thoughts, though, as the line slowed to a stop and a few gasps of shock echoed from their party.
Looking up William saw that the hill they had been climbing was crowned by a small fortress. The layout of the walls and the five towers above them answered exactly to the form William had described of his regal home. There was even the red and yellow banner fluttering above the structure. Robert was so shocked by the manifestation of William’s dreams that it took him a moment to register that something was wrong about the image though.
Then, slowly, he perceived it. This place was obviously deserted and uncared for, and clearly had been so for decades. Twenty, maybe thirty years judging by the way the vines had grown across the rock walls and even pulled patches of them down to the earth. Indeed, if William had not planted the idea of a lion holding a flower into Robert’s mind, he doubted he would have been able to make out its faint form on the frayed and weathered banner overhead.
Robert did not dwell long on this mystery, though, for he now noticed the anxious way that their three cruel masters were leaning into one another and conversing in hushed whispers. That riddle he understood in a moment: they were afraid whether they had, in fact, slain a lord the night before and whether it might become known. The three mercenaries finished their contemplation, and Harry and Bartholomew spurred their horses down opposite walls of the fortress, no doubt circling the place and making sure that it truly was as deserted as it appeared. Meanwhile Lenny swung his leg out of the saddle and dropped to the ground, advancing on the slaves with a grim determination in his face.
“See here, now,” he menaced as he strode down the line, looking each of them in the eyes in turn. “I know that you’re wondering if this structure isn’t the very fulfillment of that fool William’s prophecies.” He spat. “Not a chance. Our dearly departed merely saw this place while traveling with his prior master, and in his delusions made up that he belonged here. His mind was as broken and empty as the walls of this place, so it felt a true home to him. Do you understand?
Lenny had made his way to the end of the line, turned behind their backs and strode up the line the other way. He prodded each one of them firmly between the shoulder blades as he continued his speech, his voice becoming more strained with passion.
“I said it before. I am not going to be made a fool of by the likes of you. If any of you so much as breathe the name ‘William’ when we get to town I will haul you out in the public square and murder you with my bare hands!” His voice was screeching now, and rather than prodding he had taken to gripping them from behind and shaking. He reached the end of the line and turned back around, coming along their faces again, his own contorted in pure rage.
“Do you understand me?! I will kill every mongrel one of you if I have to. Inch. By. INCH!”
Lenny had reached Maggie who squirmed under his glare. He gripped her in his rough hands and slid his fingers around her throat, slowly choking the life out of her. “DO YOU DOUBT ME?!” he frothed, and Robert knew Lenny was debating whether he should kill her to make an example to the rest of them or not. All the other slaves were numb with horror, but Robert’s own heart was racing. He didn’t feel the hopelessness the rest of them did, he had the terrifying and electrifying realization that he could resist this.
William would not have waited this long. The thought, unbidden, flashed across Robert’s mind, and without another pause he turned and bolted towards Lenny and Maggie, bursting his iron fetters off with a sharp snap of the wrists. He wrapped his freed arms around Lenny and tackled him to the ground, all of the other slaves staring in amazement at the miracle he had seemingly just performed.
Lenny roared like an animal, and began pummeling Robert’s sides with his fists. He got his foot up between the two of them and kicked out, sending Robert crashing to the ground a few feet away. Lenny curled up to a crouch, reaching down to his side for the hilt of his sword.
During their struggle one of the other slaves, Bert, had been looking back and forth from Robert’s open shackles to the ones around his own wrists. A question was in his face, and with a hopeful grin he thrust his arms apart, bursting his iron lock open as well! In a moment he leaped to Lenny’s side and pinned his arm so that he could not draw his sword.
Robert was as amazed by this development as everyone else, but he ran forward to help Bert wrestle with Lenny as the other nine prisoners tried to burst their bands as well. They all broke free. With a laugh Robert realized William had stuffed all of their locks!
Four more of the slaves rushed forward to help secure Lenny, but an angry voice called out, and they turned to see Bartholomew and Harry rushing in the distance with drawn swords! Casting his eyes around for an escape, Robert spotted a break in the fortress’s wall near to them. He called to his comrades to follow him as he dashed towards it. They thrust Lenny to the ground and rushed across the grass. As they reached the toppled rubble they scrambled into the courtyard on the other side and Robert continued casting his eyes around for their next avenue of escape.
He wasn’t searching for just anything, though, he knew what he was looking for, and at last he found it. “Just keep following me,” he assured the others as he took off towards the door at the base of the tallest tower. The rest of the crew followed him across the courtyard, and as they reached the door they heard the sounds of their pursuers scrambling through the same hole in the wall that they had come through.
Robert wrenched the heavy door open and waited for his companions to clear the threshold. “Up those stairs!” he commanded, pointing to the steps spiraling upwards. “All the way to the top! Do not stop!” As the last of the slaves cleared the space he slammed the door shut. There were brackets on either side of the door to hold a restraining beam, and looking to the ground he saw the corresponding length of wood. He quickly slid it into place, just as a thump on the other side of the door signaled the arrival of Lenny’s shoulder. The rotting wood cracked slightly, it would not hold them for long.
Robert bounded up the steps with an incredible energy, and as he reached the other slaves he quickened his pace still, moving to their front. After all, he alone knew what it was he hoped to find at the top of this tower. Beneath them they heard the wrenching sound of the tower door finally breaking inwards.
Looking up, Robert saw the trapdoor that served as the entry into the crowning room. He heaved his shoulder against the barrier, expecting it to be locked. It wasn’t, though, and so he tumbled into a large, open room. He scrambled back to his feet as the other slaves filed into the room behind him, looking around at the majestic bedroom they had just entered.
A few decades ago it would have been lavish, but now the colors were faded and the perfumes were spoiled. Against the back wall there still stood a massive portrait, and on its faded canvas could still be made out the memory of a noble family. Both the lord and lady were beautiful and dark-haired, a deep contemplation etched into their eyes. In contrast to them was the young lad that sat on his father’s knee. His golden curls wreathed a face shining with pure joy and innocence. He could not have been any older than four or five.
Robert could not dwell on the image, though, he was already dashing to the corner of the room where his hopes were being answered in the form of a suit of armor, standing to attention on its wooden frame. Though it was coated in dust and grime, its fine craftsmanship could not be concealed. Ornate carvings stood sprawled across its perimeters, and its steel was overlaid now and again with golden figures. The greatest of these figures was that of the lion with a flower in its mouth, emblazoned across the whole of the breast.
“Help me with this,” Robert ordered, lifting the helmet off and tossing it to one slave. He pulled up the cuirass and handed it to another two. There remained a coat of chainmail on the frame, and Robert nodded to another two of the slaves as he held his arms out to receive the armor.
Understanding set in and soon all hands were at work, pulling the chain over his head and around his arms, buckling the cuirass over it, locking the helmet over his head, clasping the greaves around his legs, and last of all placing the magnificent sword reverentially into his open palm. The slaves stood back, marveling at the specter that stood before them now, a living embodiment of hope.
Robert took his first awkward steps, getting a feel for the great weight. He had no experience and no training, but the burden truly rested on his shoulders now, and there was no time for second thoughts. Even now they could hear the footfalls of the slavers nearing their perch. Robert turned towards the trapdoor and raised his sword.
“All of you behind me,” his voice echoed from within his helmet, and the slaves did not hesitate to obey. Though there was none to coach him, instinctively knew that he needed to calm his racing heart. He settled his frantic breaths into something long and controlled. He tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt and closed his eyes, listening to the footfalls growing louder. He discerned that there were three sets of them, and in his mind’s eye he measured the time before they would be spilling into their room. He counted. One. Two. Three. Four.
Robert’s eyes flashed open and he charged. He barreled to the lip of the trapdoor and down the steps just as Bartholomew appeared at the top of them. Bartholomew’s wide expression of shock was visible for only a moment before Robert had collided into him and sent him flailing backwards down the stairs. Behind Bartholomew, Harry and Lenny awkwardly leaped over the body, leaving it to bounce violently down the stone until it came to a permanent rest some two dozen steps below.
Harry was next, and in desperation he swung his sword at Robert, but the blade clattered uselessly off the armor as Robert cut him down with a single, controlled motion. Lenny took a step backwards to assess the situation, and Robert could see that Lenny’s eyes roved over every gap in Robert’s metal. Beneath the helmet Robert ground his teeth together in determination, raising his sword to chest height as Lenny did the same.
At the same moment Lenny charged up the steps and Robert bounded down them. Lenny turned the point of his sword forward and jabbed it up, while Robert swung his in a wide arc. The two blades collided and Lenny’s brittle metal shattered into a hundred pieces. Unopposed, Robert’s sword continued in its swing, passing into Lenny and cutting the cord of his life in a flash.
Robert stood panting, watching Lenny’s lifeless form fall away. His chest heaved and he reached his hand to the wall for support. He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you.” He let a few more moments pass, then turned and stepped back up into the bedroom, all the other slaves encircling him in awe.
Maggie came forward with a old rag she had found and reverently cleaned the bloodied blade. His hands free, Robert unclasped the helmet and viewed his fellow slaves. No, his fellow freemen and freewomen.
“We are The House of Gray” he declared.
“The House of Gray” ten voices echoed.
As I said in my previous post, my intention with this story was to give an examination of a character discovering his true self. Specifically I wished to examine the notion of a person discovering their true calling within another, such as Robert being given his duty and example from William. While William calls Robert to the work, though, it is Robert who actually does that work and therefore earns the noble identity he possesses by the end of the story.
Personally I am glad that I took the time to do this piece in two halves, and as I said on Monday I feel that that truly does a greater justice to the work than if I had to rushed it in half the time. In either case we have now concluded this series of stories, and next week we’ll return with an entirely new category. Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then.
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.