A common trait of beginner fiction is that its protagonists are all – to use the technical term – “total badasses.” They have no appreciable sense of fear, pain, apprehension, or doubt. They take multiple drastic wounds without slowing down, are threatened with all manner of terrible fates without flinching, and always seem to know the right thing to do.
When we are young, we might mistake the lack of obvious signs of these emotions for the lack of the emotions themselves – few of us possess enough discipline at an early age to conceal fear and pain, and thus have trouble understanding the concept. As we grow older, though, we realize that other people feel these things as well – even the ones who rarely show it.
To Fear Is Human…
These emotions – fear, pain, doubt – are part of the human condition. If your hero is impervious to them, it is harder to understand them and harder to imagine ourselves as them. The vast majority of readers experience these emotions on a regular basis just going about our daily, boring lives. We cannot bridge the gulf from being terrified by the possibility of missing the bus in the morning to facing down hordes of orcs with nary a twitch of the eyebrow.
… to Persevere, Divine
The lack of these emotions doesn’t make someone strong, it makes them inhuman. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from Terminator II – he’s a robot, and has none of our squishy human weaknesses. He’s fun to root for, but we do not empathize with him because he isn’t like us. He’s not really a character – he’s a spectacle.
Characters who display weakness at appropriate times are easier to relate to. Characters who triumph over them are easy to admire. An excellent example is the character of Ellen Ripley in the movie Aliens. The heroine is obviously terrified most of the time, but goes on anyway. She needs to fight on through that terror in order to save a small aquatic amphibian. She never really manages to conquer her fear – we see it break through over and over and over, right up to the end of the movie. Ripley, though, never lets it get the better of her. She deals with it and keeps running, fighting, and punching giant aliens in the face with a robot suit.
In addition to lack of emotion, the seeming inability to feel pain is a hallmark of the juvenile fantasy and science fiction hero. Putting aside the fact that an endless stream of absurd action movies has trivialized injuries that in reality are life-threatening, half the time our flesh robot of a hero doesn’t even seem to notice his wounds. Even long after the action is over, when every bodily process that normally helps us ignore pain (adrenaline, focus, etc) has worn off, the guy with several holes punched in him pays them no mind.
Show Us A Better Version of Ourselves
My friends, let your characters feel pain. Let them fear and doubt and hesitate. Then show us how they overcome these things through struggle and focus and discipline. Not only will they seem more human, but they’ll seem more like heroes. They will be people we look up to and wish to emulate, because we know that underneath the strength and the courage lies a human being who is frail and frightened – just like us.
Do you have a favorite hero from movie or literature that shows real, human weakness? Let us know in the comments!