I’ve written quite a lot about monsters and villains on this blog, and very little about heroes. The bad guys are interesting to explore – all dark corners and twisted motives, and different. They can be easily subverted or made more sympathetic. They can be way more than 50 shades of grey. Being the good guy – that’s the plain white of Black & White. A hero is a hero is a hero, yes?
Leaving aside all the obvious statements about flawed heroes, unlikely heroes, and bad people doing the right thing (even if accidentally – I’m looking at you, Jayne), being a straight-up good guy is hard. Particularly in the kinds of societies that often prevail in sci-fi/fantasy, where being a bit grimy is the norm and lets you fit in. During my roleplay career I once played a genuinely good, upright, moral person with a strong code of ethics that she would not compromise over. It was the most challenging piece of storytelling I’ve ever done. Say (for example) your character’s honour dictates they will never lie, nor suffer a witch to live. If saving the town/children/Womble Spoon requires hiding a witch from the police, who are conducting door-to-door enquiries, then you’ve got yourself a bit of a problem. Yes, of course you can rationalise it away through ‘greatest good’, but that rather misses the point. Either your squeaky-clean hero is no longer purest white (in which case, how do they cope with that themselves, and where will the slippery slope lead to?), or they have to go through some potentially interesting scenarios in order to retain that Persil freshness. Including, once the witch has done her civic duty in helping save said town/children/Womble Spoon, killing her.
Also, let me just inject a rare note of realism into the fantasy world. For ordinary people, killing is not the norm. Hell, I’m seriously unlikely to trespass unless I’m being chased by someone (which is also thankfully rare). Can you imagine how an ordinary, decent person would deal with the scenarios that are standard in fantasy stories? The Everyman Hero is an uncommon and interesting creature. Simon Pegg did a great job in Shaun of the Dead, but that’s a modern setting. Arthur Dent, of Hitchhiker fame, is probably the most well-known genre example but he comes from our world and time, and is thrown into a different one so the reader can react to it through him. I’m talking about the Everyman of your fantasy world, who isn’t related by some complicated and conveniently forgotten link to a royal or magical bloodline, and has to cope with whatever you throw at him in the way a normal, decent person would. Writing that so it’s both true to the character and interesting to read is quite a challenge.