The Human Beneath the Hero

Ellen Ripley
Ripley with Newt

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.

Pain Hurts

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!

You can find Tristan’s eBooks (including his recently published epic fantasy novel, TWIXT HEAVEN AND HELL) at Amazon and Smashwords.

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julienbrightside
julienbrightside
8 years ago

I am going to say Rincewind from Terry Pratchettes Discworld.

Sunny Cynthia Johnson
Sunny Cynthia Johnson
9 years ago

Simon from Memory Sorrow and Thorn trilogy

Matt White
Matt White
9 years ago

Boromir. He succumbs to the ring, but redeems himself by giving his life for the Hobbits.

Ben Hughes
Ben Hughes
9 years ago

Aragorn he is afraid of his forfathers weakness has transferd to himself and will be consumed by the ring.

Jack_Dowden
9 years ago

In terms of a character who doesn’t feel pain, I’d have to say my favorite example is Nic Cage from Con Air. He gets shot in the arm, and just keeps walking! Even the guy who shot him looks perplexed, it’s pretty funny.I agree with what you’re saying though. To root for a character, you have to empathize with them. You can write a “badass” character who doesn’t outwardly display emotions. But you have to let your readers know that they are actually hurting deep down, that they’re people, just like the rest of us.

D Lawrence
9 years ago

Thanks for this great little article Tristan, it tackles an important principle with clarity and humour. I have to say that I personally really love the heroes of Tolkien. Aragorn is both mighty and humble; he is courageous and afraid; fierce and tender…a very excellent hero. Even more powerful, yet more deeply flawed, is Turin Turambar (Children of Hurin, JRR Tolkien) His tempestuous emotions were very ‘human’ but he had the added burden of a family curse, bestowed by a belligerent god. It’s exciting that, in fantasy writing, we not only have the natural aspect of physical or moral frailty; we can also draw on the supernatural and magical, allowing its influence to buffet our characters and test their true mettle.

GregoryWrites
GregoryWrites
Reply to  D Lawrence
9 years ago

Turin
is indeed a good example. I cannot truly claim that I empathize
strongly with him (he, like Achilles, is too “Epic” a hero to feel truly
human) but I _can_ understand the dueling pressures of his temper and
his guilt, especially after the slaying of Beleg Strongbow. A powerful
moment in the Tolkien mythos.

Stephani Owens
Stephani Owens
9 years ago

I love Harry, I also like Eddie Drood

Adam Frederick
Adam Frederick
9 years ago

Indiana Jones fought Nazis, found the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail and battled Russians for a crystal skull, but was still afraid of snakes.

Stephen Evans
Stephen Evans
9 years ago

I have to agree with the picture and go with Ripley from the alien films. But then again I could also say Frodo, his weakness being the ring, and him actually losing to his weakness.

Valerie Quigg
Valerie Quigg
9 years ago

Harry Dresden…especially in Changes. But I feel his “weaknesses” are also his strengths.

Feo Takahari
Feo Takahari
9 years ago

Despite Arnie’s lack of humanity in . . . well, in most of his roles, I think this can still be applied to nonhuman protagonists. The slime in my current WIP doesn’t feel pain, but it’s capable of fear, and it has other traits that are recognizably human (most obviously its sense of loyalty.)As for a favorite vulnerable hero, I’ll be cheap and go with Ender Wiggin, the hero of my favorite story. He’s ruthless to the point of sometimes seeming mechanical, but it’s always in the service of what he thinks needs to be done, and it’s at the expense of his own increasingly guilty conscience. (One of the possible takeaways from the story is that his philosophy of always choosing the “lesser evil” had to destroy him, because it was inevitable that he’d someday make the wrong choice.)

Aidan of the tavern
Aidan of the tavern
9 years ago

Inspirational article, thanks.

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