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Are Heroes Passé?

Have our tastes in fiction moved past the good guy? Is there no interest in a character who wants to be heroic and works to be heroic and succeeds at being heroic? Must all our heroes be reluctant or all our protagonists be “bad guys”? Have we come to an end of good guy heroes?
| Aug 31, 2015 | 12 comments |

cover_sixofcrowsPublishers Weekly sent out a typical mailing last week, this one with the subject line “The Fall’s Most Anticipated Novel is Almost Here . . .” As it turns out, this “most anticipated novel” is speculative. The promotion is for Six Of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, due to release late in September.

The PW’s starred review said this story “has all the right elements to keep readers enthralled: a cunning leader with a plan for every occasion, nigh-impossible odds, an entertainingly combative team of skilled misfits, a twisty plot, and a nerve-wracking cliffhanger.”

And yet, it’s apparent it doesn’t have a hero. One librarian said this in her review: “Bardugo will have you rooting for the ‘bad’ guys and staying up reading way past your bedtime.” These “bad guys, descirbed as “six dangerous outcasts,” are

    * A convict with a thirst for revenge
    * A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager
    * A runaway with a privileged past
    * A spy known as the Wraith
    * A Hartrender using her magic to survive the slums
    * A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

I’m reminded of other stories with “outlaw” heroes: Robin Hood, for example, or more recently a TV program called Leverage in which a group of con artists worked cons to bring justice for needy clients. Or what about White Collar, a TV program in which the main character is a criminal serving the remainder of his sentence by using his felonious talents to help the FBI.

Clearly there is some history in which flawed characters, as opposed to characters with flaws, surface as the individuals readers cheer for. We want to see justice win, even if those dispensing it are disreputable and use unsavory, even illegal, tactics.

In fact, we accept great flaws in our heroes, too. We don’t want our phones bugged, but if Jim Rockford or Thomas Magnum bugs the bad guy, illegal though it may be, we are happy if the tactic works. We don’t believe in torture, but when Jack Bauer tortures a terrorist to find out where the bomb is, we’re glad he’s on the side of right, doing what needs to be done to save the country.

Since there’s some history in fiction for such flawed heroes and even antiheroes, are we seeing a new trend or simply more of the same in books like Six Of Crows? In other words, are our choices now between bad guys and really bad guys?

I guess what I’m asking is this: have our tastes in fiction moved past the good guy? Is there no interest in a character who wants to be heroic and works to be heroic and succeeds at being heroic? Must all our heroes be reluctant or all our protagonists be “bad guys”? Have we come to an end of good guy heroes?

Connecticut_ComiCONN_Superhero_Mascot.Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. We have placed such an emphasis on realism in fiction, and when we look around or look inside, we only see flawed people who don’t consider themselves heroes even when they do something heroic. They aren’t actually out to save the world. There are no actual Superman and Spiderman. The heroes of real life found themselves thrust into the role because of their circumstances, not because of their own choosing. And when the circumstances change, they are happy to return to regular life without the demand of saving other people from evil.

Given that our stories, even our speculative stories, are required to contain a measure of realism, is the truly good hero of old, passé? Will readers care for a hero who isn’t dark or who doesn’t have a “bad guy” tag, who isn’t fighting his inner vampire, who might just as well destroy the earth as save it?

Or is this merely a current trend that will one day soon fade away in light of a newer and “fresher” approach?

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12 Comments on "Are Heroes Passé?"

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Sherwood Smith

This debate has been going on since the 1700s, when the novel was the Hot New Thing. Samuel Johnson had much to say against the reality of so-called realism, and Richardson was so disgusted with the fan mail praising his charming rapist villain Lovelace, from Clarissa, that he wrote Sir Charles Grandson in response–and herein lies one of the problems of today. Sir Charles was so very perfect that there was no real story, so Richardson had to load in abductions and secrets and other folderol, yet there is a curiously flat affect to the novel (in spite of Jane Austen loving it) that never made it the favorite of Richardson’s earlier work.

Superman was such an incredibly good guy that he never really had a character arc, so he was forced to fight bigger and badder villains with more gigantic stakes. I think people do want good guys, but in this age of high anxiety, there is also a (sometimes directly conflicting, otherwise orthogonal) desire for characters who gain agency.

One of the problems with anxiety is the sense that we can’t do anything about the bad stuff: global warming, terrorist attacks, super viruses, etc etc. Characters who gain agency to fight off threats are a huge draw, but the “fighting off” part usually means violence. We do have successful books and movies about using one’s wits to fight threat, but those are far harder to write. Man a mano slug fests are so much easier, and please a younger audience.

I have noticed that while twenty-somethings and others at the height of their physical powers go for grimdark and nihilism, thinking themselves so cool and tough for liking it, younger readers for the most part unconsciously gravitate toward morality and honor, generosity and safety.

Parker J. Cole

I think it’s a question that reflects the current trend of our culture as it increasingly states there isn’t a truly a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ aspect of reality.  It further shows the lines of right and wrong have become muddied (to some).

However, this is a double-edged sword. You made the comment earlier in your post about the bad guys, and the really bad guys. How would anyone know which was which unless there was SOME distinction between good or evil, right or wrong? Often, when someone says there isn’t such a thing as right or wrong, it generally has to do with personal choices we make based on our desires. Yet, in order to distinguish, we still need an objective, absolute concept of good and evil.

If we didn’t have that objective, absolute standard, then our bad guys wouldn’t be ‘bad’. Our really bad guys wouldn’t be ‘really bad guys’. Their missions, or search for justice, wouldn’t matter because there wouldn’t be any reason to do anything.

The reluctant hero remains a popular choice because a lot of things we should do because they are right, are reluctantly done. From the mundane to the major.

My two cents.
When that happens, you have conflicted people such as the con-artists, the criminals, who are not working to mete our justice

Gloria Clover

You asked a lot of questions, but I’ll answer the one “Does anyone still want a hero?” with a resounding yes. I like white hats.  I like men who know right from wrong and don’t waffle about doing right, even at personal cost. I like movies and fiction where good triumphs.  Gray fiction that should have been black and white frustrates me.

If I’m remembering correctly, and it was some time ago,  the first movie that I distinctly remember thinking, “Geez, I’m expected to root for the bad guy” because he was against badder guys, was “Broken Arrow.” (If that isn’t the right name of the movie I’m thinking of, sorry.) And I didn’t like being put in that position.

That being said, I enjoy the tv program “Leverage.” But I think part of what makes that show fun (besides the witty dialogue and great chemistry between all the characters) is that they rarely force someone to their downfall.  The scheme is almost always to appeal to the target’s baser nature (usually greed) to bring about the con and the win. And maybe it is what you said about Rockford and Magnum, and how we justify the win.

And this only slightly pertains to your topic, but I don’t like the trend where good guys kill body guards and henchmen and all manner of employees on the way to get to the bad guy, and then can’t kill the bad guy because that would somehow be revenge and wrong. Please, just shoot him, too, without a heart-to-heart chat and it won’t be any more “cold blooded” than the 50 other people killed over the course of two hours that sometimes don’t even know they are on the wrong side.


Walter Cantrell

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Hollywood and society in general is trying to send a message regarding moral relativism.  If the characters we’re watching and reading about don’t represent or follow moral absolutes then it’s ok for everyone else to do the same.  The very simple message is that there is no true right and wrong, and each person must make up their own mind based on the situation.

I remember watching the first couple of Fast and Furious movies.  That was probably the first time that I saw this trend so blatantly being displayed.  It was as if the producers were going out of their way to portray those who were committing crime as the good guys.  I didn’t continue to watch the series, but at least in the those first couple of movies there didn’t appear to be even the slightest attempt to justify why we should be cheering for criminals and crime other than the fact that they were just “cool.”  So apparently if you look cool while you’re doing something wrong then it isn’t all that bad after all.

I understand that its unrealistic to have perfect characters who don’t make mistakes, but in our Christian Fiction I think we should at least have characters who are trying to follow Christ and his teachings.  They may not be perfect, but they’re trying to head in the right direction.


R. J. Anderson

Having read Leigh Bardugo’s previous series, the Grisha books (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising), I suspect that while the heroes of Six of Crows may be deeply flawed and wrestle with issues of morality vs. expedience, and some of the Six may indeed choose to descend into utter darkness, the overall message is likely to be more on the side of right than not. She doesn’t strike me as the kind of writer who thinks it’s cool to watch the world burn, even if it does get more than a little singed along the way…

All that being said, though, your main points are well taken. One of the reasons I so disliked Peter Jackson’s LotR and Hobbit films is the insistence on muddying up the characters and actions of people like Aragorn and (especially, to my everlasting anguish) Faramir, who stand unflinchingly for honour and goodness in the books. As though it’s too much to ask the audience to believe in heroes who are more noble than ourselves.

On the plus side, I found Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, which made it onto this year’s Hugo Best Novel slate, wonderfully refreshing for just that reason — the young hero is uncertain and often fearful, but he earnestly wants to do the right thing and his kindness and trust in others is rewarded more often than not (unlike in, say, George Martin’s universe where it would assuredly get his head chopped off before the end of the book). Maia is not a Superhero by any means, but he is certainly a hero worth cheering for.

Timothy Stone

I think such can be interesting as a story. Look at Paradise Lost. The problem is when the culture looks at the villains and insists they are heroes.

Julie D

I can’t think of any specific examples of this trend, but it’s definitely tied to the ‘grimdark’ aesthetic and  some of the things discussed in the ‘Badfan vs Superman’ series.


I think one issue with heroes is that often enough they are seen as rather stereotypical, or too ‘perfect’, without depth and not making a realistic amount of mistakes.

Other people complain that heroes aren’t as cool as the villains or that the heroes don’t act very smart sometimes.  If there were enough people making stories with heroes that defied those stereotypes, part of the villain loving trend in our culture would probably go away.  Even if a character is almost perfectly good, realistic ones are still going to make fatal mistakes or have to face the way others react to their goodness.  Arthur from Fate Zero would be an example of a well written hero, I think.

Alex Mellen

Our culture does seem to love the “bad boy” or “tortured anti-hero,” or someone who’s not always that heroic. They do things we could never have the guts to do–though we may want to.

I still have some hope though, when I watch characters like Captain America. What came to mind as I read this article was the scene in “The Avengers” when Agent Coulson tells Steve he’ll still be wearing his super-suit. Steve asks if that’s too old-fashioned, and Coulson says, “People might just need a little old fashioned.”