1. 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.

    • I’ve noticed the “grimdark and nihilism” as cool aspect in young people, as well. When I taught 7th and 8th graders, nothing caught their imagination more than Edgar Allen Poe.

      But you’re right about the middle graders, Sherwood. They still like stories that are fun and light and have characters like them. They want the story to be adventuresome more than they want it to be frightening or depressing. But I wonder, with all the dark TV programs, if that will change.

      But that makes me realize, TV probably isn’t as big an influence in our culture as it once was, what with the Internet and music and video games.

      I think the perfect hero is probably not possible. (Which makes sense since we all sin and come short of the glory of God!) Later stories of Superman gave him a character arc, more along the line of accepting that he had to keep his identity secret in order to protect those he loved.  He also had to swallow his pride to take the lowly position as photographer at the planet and to be disdained by Lois Lane when he was Clark Kent.

      But with regular people, we all do struggle, so it’s right to make a flawed hero. But I don’t see many any more.


  2. 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

    • Parker, you brought up precisely what I was thinking—is this current trend a result of our relativistic attitudes? Have we moved toward despising what is good?

      But you’re so right about the moralistic sense we still retain, so we still know which “bad guys” are the ones to cheer for. In some ways, it might show how we’ve stratified behavior: lying, not so bad; breaking and entering, tolerable if done for a noble cause; stealing, only from those out to hurt others; that sort of thing. We have this sense of justice, which seems largely to reflect society’s idea that hurting people is the worst of the worst. And “hurting people” now includes bullying.

      The good thing is, we still have this idea that there are lines that ought not be crossed. The bad of it is that society is determining what those lines are, not the authoritative word of God.

      But it is a wonder that those who do not believe in absolutes don’t recognize that their belief that some things are good and others, evil, is evidence of the very absolutes they disdain.


  3. 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.


  4. Walter Cantrell says:

    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.


  5. 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.

  6. MereChristian says:

    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.

  7. Julie D says:

    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.

  8. Autumn says:

    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.

  9. Alex Mellen says:

    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.”

What do you think?