Today we’re going to take a look at some of the clichés that befall protagonists, mostly in fantasy stories. I am, of course, talking about the ‘Hero’. Fiction and fantasy have come a long way over the years, and our character development has come along with them, we now have multifaceted heroes, flawed heroes, and anti-heroes (my personal favourite). But while we’ve come along way in some respects, there are still a lot of hero clichés out there and I’m going to rant about my most hated three.
The Reluctant Hero
This is perhaps one of the most common clichés and that is probably why I hate it as much as I do. It drives me nuts and, as with nearly all clichés, smacks of lazy writing. Can’t be bothered to give your hero motivation? Well, that’s fine, make circumstance their motivation and be sure to have them complain about it.
Don’t get me wrong, if my own personal circumstances changed in such a way that I had no other choice but to step up I’d probably bitch about it as well. Especially if ‘stepping up’ involved a quest and some dragons (those dudes are dangerous). However, that would be real life and real life is boring, no one wants to read or watch or play a story where all the main hero does is moan about their circumstances.
A Hero’s defining characteristic shouldn’t be that they don’t want to be a hero. Its overdone and boring and doesn’t provide the kind of character depth that some people seem to think it does. To be honest, a single defining characteristic in and of itself is lazy, people are not that simple, we are multifaceted, and heroes should be too.
I’m not saying this can never be done well, just look at The Hobbit, Bilbo is not exactly thrilled when all the dwarves turn up at his house and he freaks out at the idea of an adventure. But then he stops wigging out and gets on with it. It works well because his reluctance is initial only. Once he gets going, he just gets on with it. There are a lot of times when he’s frightened and out of his depth but that’s not the same as reluctance and it also doesn’t stop him from playing his role as the hero. The damn dude faces down a dragon with riddles for crying out loud.
The Brooding Hero
I think this sometimes gets confused with the antihero, or rather the author/creator will try to craft an anti-hero but instead will just make them broody.
Their main, or only, character trait is that they are grumpy. That’s pretty much it really. Their grumpiness might be explained with some tragic backstory or significant personal circumstance but that’s hardly compensating for the fact that the main focal character of the story is a miserable bastard. Super-bonus-hate points if your brooding hero changes completely when he meets the ‘love interest’.
As I always say this is just pure lazy writing, it puts me in mind of teenagers when they go through the phase where it’s cool to hate everything and enjoying things is lame. It comes across as false and lazy. No real person only has one emotion, even the angriest or saddest person will still feel something other than anger or sadness occasionally. Even if the brooding is portrayed as a ‘shield’ to hide behind it would be near impossible to maintain it 100% of the time.
As always, I’m not saying brooding characters never work, sometimes they can but you need to balance it. You need to give the character good motivation for acting the way they do and make sure it is not their only emotion. You should also have some other characters to balance them out, so the audience doesn’t get bored after ten minutes.
A good example of this is the 2019 version of the Dororo Anime. Hakimaru is a typical broody character, his father sacrificed his body to demons and he’s on a quest to get them back. So yeah, he’s not happy, he’s also not very expressive (like at all) but that’s because he was born without …. well almost all of himself. He couldn’t even feel until episode two when he recovered his nervous system (episode three where he explores the ability to feel and all but walks into fire was amusing and adorable). There’s a very good, understandable reason why he’s not expressive, why he’s quiet and why he’s as driven as he is. But best of all, he’s balanced by the character Dororo, a chatty, happy and cute kid who travels with him.
Can’t be bothered to think of a reason your hero should be sympathetic? To hard to create motivation for someone without a tragic backstory? Then why not just make your hero an orphan! Dead parents, especially if they are dead because of the villain, are a great sympathy getter and a perfect motivation. You can have the family die on or off screen it’s entirely up to you, it doesn’t matter really, it just depends on how hard you want to tug at those heartstrings.
Can you detect my sarcasm?
Orphaning your heroes is one of the laziest ways to get your audience to give a shit. It’s been done so many times that it has become a joke. Think Wreck-It Ralph 2, the scene with the Disney princesses and they make a joke out of the fact that none of them (except Mulan) have mothers. It old and tired and it doesn’t work. Give your hero a family, you can still have the family as motivation without them being dead.
Do you have any particular bugbears when it comes to typical heroes?