Nine Worlds: Heroism & Morality in Genre Fiction

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Genre units around a simple, classic concept – the journey of the hero/ine. But what does it take to be a solidly good hero, or a dark and dangerous anti-hero, and how has it changed in fiction over time?

Chris Wooding, Lisa Tuttle, Peter Newman, Anne Lyle, Jen Williams

Moral quandaries can arise from the most unexpected places and some of the very best speculative fiction is driven by them. How do you do right or wrong when the world around you has shifted the goalposts? Hero or villain?

Lisa Tuttle, Al Robertson, Matt Blakstad, Stark Holborn, Jen Williams, Mark de Jager

This blog post is a combination of two panel sessions, because both of them essentially devolved into a discussion about relative morality. There’s also a whole bunch of my own ideas mixed in because it’s a huge subject that I’ve given a reasonable amount of thought to, and the panel sessions weren’t long enough to do more than scrape the surface. Hopefully I’ve written it all well enough that you can’t see the joins!

Defining A Hero

The panel on heroism opened by asking whether the nature of a hero was dependent on the readership. Does your hero have to change for different audiences? This is actually something I’ve covered before – Vogler gives several examples of the different interpretations of the heroic figure from different cultures. One man’s hero is another man’s idiot. Of course your hero has to be appropriate for your audience.

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“Someone who gets other people killed.”

Okay, so next question: what is the role of a hero? That’s way more interesting. It’s important to note that the hero is not necessarily the same thing as the protagonist – something else I’ve covered in the past. The hero is the figure that gets stuff done. They are the agent of change, the restorer of order, the person who takes a stand against something.

Applying the label of ‘hero’ is a risky business, though, both in fiction and more seriously in real life. The word has connotations and expectations attached. If or when the character then fails to live up to those expectations, society has a tendency to tear them down with extreme prejudice. When our heroes fail our perceived ideal, we feel a personal sense of betrayal.

The style of the heroic figure has changed with the times, both as speculative fiction became more sophisticated and in response to social pressures in the real world. Shiny white heroes gave way to flawed heroes, who in turn made room for antiheroes. There is a couple of things they all have in common, though: anyone can become a hero, and they all have some kind of moral code. Or do they?

The Morality of Heroes & Villains

If the nature of a hero changes, that means the definition – the code, if you like – of heroism is a malleable thing. Flawed heroes and antiheroes are not always nice, moral people. Does this stop them being heroes? Does the making of immoral choices degrade them from heroic status into vigilantes? It’s a question that Marvel’s actually had a couple of cracks at recently, with both Avengers: Civil War and Deadpool:

Okay, so your character can be a hero without being moral 24/7. That brings us to a rather delicate question, which is the negotiation of where moral and legal lines are. Many of our popular superheroes cause massive property damage and multiple counts of murder, yet we continue to accord them heroic status. What laws can our heroes break in a story whilst remaining sympathetic characters? Even more awkwardly, who is it okay to murder? At what point do they devolve into antiheroes, or even villains?

Remember that the best villains believe they are the heroes – think Loki from Marvel, or Ozymandias from Watchmen. The difference is that they don’t have the sympathy of the audience, because the story is being told in such a way as to present them in an unsympathetic light. It’s important to give villains that depth, almost the benefit of the doubt, both when creating the character and when reading history. In all our ‘true’ accounts of historical events, the role of the victor, or the aggressor, or the morally justified, is defined purely by who is narrating and for which audience.

Heroism, then, is fundamentally tied to presentation: by whom, for whom, and in what light. Different cultures and time periods have different moral and legal approaches. It doesn’t make any of them intrinsically wrong. And this brings us back to the notion of flawed heroes, particularly the ones who are also the narrators or protagonists and therefore let the reader further into the details of their lives. Because no one’s perfect. Perfect characters are boring. But if we see everything – all the doubts, rage, instincts for violence – can they remain a hero in our eyes? Or does heroic status depend on only seeing the outward presentation?

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Shout out to DC for this one. I can’t let Marvel have all the airtime!

Must heroism have a cost? Or is easy morality, victory without sacrifice, equally heroic? The panel didn’t really answer that one and I’m not certain myself. In real life, possibly. On the page, well… a character without a struggle isn’t much of a story.

Writing A Convincing Hero

“Speculative fiction helps us understand there are other ways we can construct humanity and society.” – Lisa Tuttle

As mentioned above, morality is relative to the society or person experiencing it. The panel said that the key to writing an interesting and complex villain is to attribute them with a series of choices that you personally disagree with, and then make them understandable. I completely agree with this, but I think you can take it further. Do the same for the hero. Why should they be a representation of your own morals? If they’re from a non-Western culture that isn’t even logical. Writing alien morals, not all of which you agree with, and then convincing your readers to buy into that morality, is an awful lot of fun.

There’s a follow up to that, which is the question of learned behaviour versus personal responsibility. If a social structure is evil (in the eyes of outsiders), and conditions or forces people within it to do evil things, that does make those people evil themselves? I think David Hume had quite a lot to say on the subject, but I’ll leave you to do your own philosophical studies if you want to follow down that rabbit hole.

Put your characters in difficult or painful situations, forcing them to make morally difficult choices. It makes it easier for the reader to sympathise with them when they make the hard call, thus retaining their heroic status despite their actions. How deep can you take the hero, using this technique? How deep can you take the reader? This is something I personally find fascinating. In speculative fiction – particularly high fantasy – the so-called heroes regularly do things that the reader would find abhorrent in real life. So how did we reach the stage where such behaviour is accepted without question in fiction? Can we push the boundaries of what we make our readers accept? Should we?

“In dark worlds, look for light in the smaller actions… That changes the contrast, makes everything else highlight how bad it is, but there’s a seed of hope. Find the humanity in people. Even heroes have other things in their lives. It’s not all about the terrible, immediate situation,” – Lisa Tuttle

That quote is probably the best piece of advice I took away from both panels. Remember to make your heroes more than just the situation they find themselves in. Anyone can be a hero. That means even heroes are people.

Next week: non-binary gender in literature

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