Tag: Harry Potter

Anatomy of a Hero

Courtesy Warner Bros

Last week we talked about the Chosen One. Specifically, we talked about how the Chosen One’s starting to look a little creaky and doesn’t hold up in modern storytelling. In all honesty, the divergence of heroes from the idea of them being the Chosen One is nothing new. Nobody would call Jay Gatsby, a ‘self-made’ man, or Holden Caufield, a disenfranchised youth on the cusp of adulthood, anything resembling ‘the Chosen One.’ But rather than diving into these great American novels (which you can do here and here, respectively), let’s stick with Harry Potter. Since we dissected the young wizard last week, let’s examine the anatomy of this would-be hero.

Also, while I refer to the main character as a ‘hero’, you can easily swap in ‘heroine’. These attributes have nothing to do with gender. Or species. But let’s get into it before I get bogged down in semantics.

First and foremost, as mentioned last week, Harry remains a human being throughout his arc. I don’t mean that he doesn’t evolve into a centaur or something; his emotions and thoughts and growth stay very grounded. This is essential for a would-be hero. Say what you want about Luke Skywalker’s whining or Steve Roger’s aw-shucks approach to others, they are part and parcel of the characters’ core and growth. Luke has to lose his innocense, Steve is faced with a world that cares nothing for his ideals, and Harry must overcome his initial adoration for the wizarding world to deal with the challenges to come.

What makes a hero a hero, in addition to being human, is a willingness, reluctant or otherwise, to put that humanity and their personal needs and wants aside for something greater than themselves. This is a conscious choice they make, a decision based on their situations and the abilities and resources at their disposal. Instead of it just being part of their destiny, the hero weighs the options in front of him and chooses the harder path, the one towards danger, the one that does not guarantee a happy ending.

And given that the hero is human, and that they made this hard choice, you can be certain things are going to go wrong. The machinations of the villains may not even need to become involved, either. Part of what makes a hero heroic is how they deal with adversity, and that includes their own fuck-ups. And the thing about human beings is, sooner or later, they are going to fuck up. The mistake can cause the hero harm, force the loss of progress, or even cost them the life of someone dear to them. But tragic or unfortunate as the moment itself can be, it’s the moments after that show us what a hero is really made of. Beyond any yammering about destiny or curses or fate or intervention, it is in these darkest moments that the heroes we remember, that we adore, that we idolize, shine the brightest.

These are what I consider to be the essential parts of a hero. Feel free to leave anything I might have missed in the comments!

Dissecting the Chosen One

Courtesy Warner Bros

I’ll go on record as being a fan of the Harry Potter series. There’s something that bothers me about it, though. A lot of people in the Wizarding world refer to Harry as ‘the Chosen One’, ‘the Boy Who Lived’, and so on. It’s a phrase that’s been used quite a bit, and not just in the arenas of young adult or fantasy fiction. It’s an old chestnut, going all the way back to the earliest myths, and it’s about time someone cut this geezer open to pull out what works and discards the rest. Our stories still need their heroes, that’s not in question, but as things stand, “the Chosen One” is definitely showing its age.

There are a lot of traditional views of heroism in fiction. Many times, the hero is “chosen”, set aside by some greater power or the magic of destiny or something like that. This simplistic explanation allows the focus to remain on the hero’s journey, and in these cases the Campbellian archetype applies more often than not. Throughout their growth, doubts, victories, failures, and apotheosis, the hero is a very present figure, unmired by a past that usually has little or nothing to do with the task at hand. They’ve been chosen to be the hero, and that is that.

In case it isn’t obvious, there are more than a couple problems with The Chosen One. Firstly, it robs the hero of a great deal of their agency. Being ‘chosen’, their decision-making happens on a very micro level, simply overcoming challenges as they are presented, rather than working towards a larger, self-defined go. ‘Fulfill your destiny’ is, somewhat ironically, not all that fulfilling as a motivation. On top of that, the Chosen One often does little to earn their power and influence. Their abilities are tested, to be sure, but much like the hero’s decision-making, these successes more often than not fail to grow the hero in any meaningful way, and even the loss of magical weapons or fond companions are only temporary difficulties, since ‘the power was inside all along’. This brings me to a third (and, for the moment, final) flaw in The Chosen One as a hero: other characters around the hero suffer as a result of the hero’s ‘chosen’ nature. They are often reduced to cannon fodder or, usually worse, comic relief, rather than forcing the hero to work harder, do better, grow and change. Because the hero has no agency, neither does anybody around them.

It’s possible to make the story of The Chosen One charming, and flesh out the characters to a degree that these flaws are minimized, but they’re not going away. Even tales I love have these flaws, at times glaringly. And one of your jobs as a writer is to work on doing better at telling stories than your favorite author can or would do. While we can’t all be JK Rowling or George RR Martin or Terry Pratchett or JRR Tolkien or Isaac Asimov or Chuck Wendig, we still can and should do a better job with the central figures of our stories than we’ve seen or read or heard about in the past.

Back to Harry. How JK avoids the pitfalls above is that Harry remains a very human character, in every measure a boy growing into a man. After the initial rush of breaking free of his mundane and abusive life, he doesn’t much care for the hoopla and labels that surround him. His ‘destiny’, if we want to call it that, was not gifted to him, but rather the side-effect of one of the most horrific events of his life. Rather than things coming easily to him, he struggles in his studies and in his interactions, often coming close to failing if not completely screwing the pooch. He wouldn’t have gotten as far as he does without his friends, who like him are realistic and well-rounded characters in their own right, never feeling disposable unless a film director isn’t sure what to do with Ron Weasley (but that’s hardly Ron’s fault, or Ms Rowling’s). And his refusal of his destiny’s call never feels like a token moment meant to check off a box on the Campbellian list.

So how does one make a hero work? What makes for a good hero? If there’s bad points for the Chosen One, what are the good ones for a hero?

Tune in next week, and find out.

Troublemakers

George RR Martin
He’s smiling because he just killed someone you love.

Writers are essential to modern entertainment. Without them there are no movies, no TV shows, no plays and no novels. Just about anybody can tell you who their favorite writer is and why. Look up those writers and they can tell you what inspires them, how they got started and what’s coming next. Some writers will even lay some ground rules for good writing, from creating good characters to avoiding contrivance in plotlines.

What people don’t tell you about being a writer is that it means bucking the system.

I should clarify my meaning. To write fiction is to buck the system. A lot of writers who struggle their way to success – and it is a struggle, don’t let anyone tell you different – are not what many in the common populace associate with ‘successful’ in their minds. They tend to think of CEOs in suits that cost more than some cars, movie stars with legendary good looks and politicians who decide the course our world takes.

Large men that look like Santa Claus’ evil twin brother? Housewives from Arizona? Unemployed British ladies?

Naaaah.

Writers are iconoclasts. They’re troublemakers. They stir things up because they ignite people’s imaginations. They encourage their audience to think, to interact, to take joy out of something that can become more than a mere distraction. Even the people who rise up in arms against a work or a franchise are engaged in an activity that excites them even if that excitement takes the form of indignant fury.

This is a good thing.

The CEO worries about the bottom line. The movie star worries about paparazzi. The world leaders worry about any one of the Four Horsemen riding up to his or her door.

The writer of fiction should worry about doing something new that wakes somebody up from their miasma of daily living.

Something worth noting about the writerly minds behind many of the thriving stories in our Kindles, TV screens, bookstores and theaters is that all of them are causing trouble in one form or another. They’re setting their work apart. They’re trying something new. They may not get it right and they might even piss some people off, but they’re making the attempt. And even if they don’t realize it, the people they’re making angry are engaging them in the creative process. There’s a lot of energy to be had in the debates, arguments, praise, criticism and fanatical gushing that comes in the wake of a new work that has the chops to make it through the slaughterhouse of rejection that stands between the new writer and the public eye. And the people that are talented, dedicated and lucky enough to make it through got there by not giving up on what they waned. They pushed back against the pressures of modern life. They crammed their passion into whatever cracks they could find. They made messes. They broke shit.

And in the end it paid off.

I want to be one of those troublemakers. Looking at the people who’ve made it, and how they’ve done it and what they’ve done it with, how could I not?

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