NEWS – Part One: On Heroes and Why We Need Them

Howard Andrew Jones is the author of The Desert of Souls (Thomas Dunne Books 2011), a historical fantasy set in the 8th century Abbasid caliphate featuring the characters Dabir and Asim, who’ve been appearing in a variety of short fiction venues since 2000. His Pathfinder novel, Plague of Shadows, is set to appear in March of 2011. In addition to his many writing exploits, Howard is a writing instructor and Managing Editor of Black Gate.

We are thrilled to welcome Howard as our April Guest Blogger. Please leave comments or questions for Howard on these pages, and check back throughout the month for more thoughts on fiction and writing!

Part One: On Heroes and Why We Need Them

by Howard Andrew Jones

I read about people liking anti-heroes as protagonists and I sometimes wonder if I mistake their meaning, especially when they mention Wolverine of the X-Men, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Dictionary.com defines an anti-hero as “a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.”

In other words, anti-heroes are miserable people with few to no redeeming characteristics who are up to very little of interest, and that doesn’t describe Wolverine, Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser, Conan, or a host of other famous characters. I am probably showing my hand here already. I’ve read my share of stories that feature antiheroes and have little desire to read more. If you like them, more power to you, but I’d be hard pressed to name more than a few that have ever held my attention. I’d rather read about heroes.

Stories about heroes fascinate me, and, I believe, humanity as a whole. How else to explain why we still tell tales of Herakles and Theseus, of Robin Hood and King Arthur? As children we thrill to them, and their modern day descendants, be they heroes in comic books or cartoons or video games and blockbuster movies. But how should we feel as adults? When we hit our mid 20s do we have to switch off to reading stories filled only with anti-heroes because they’re more “realistic?” Even many of us who don’t make the switch because we don’t like the fiction smile a little sheepisphy and claim we only like fantasy or science fiction or some other, gasp, genre, because we need the escape.

Surely we need not feel guilty about desiring some kind of release from the pressures of our lives, but I think there is more to it than that. I think it’s inspiring to see someone not just strong enough to face down the monster, but someone willing to stand up for the little guy when all hope seems lost, or who has the kind of code that means she’ll do the right thing even when no one is looking.

There are real heroes out there, putting their lives on the line to keep us safe, and sometimes dying in the process. Those are the people who fascinate me; those are the characters I want to see on the printed page; those are the sorts of protagonists I want to write about. They have always inspired me.We live in a world that has had, and still has, true heroes, putting their lives on the line for country hearth and home. We forget too easily that characters with heroic qualities are realistic. I think that we’ve become so cynical that we sneer a little when we hear stories of heroics and imagine that it can’t really be true, or we wonder if the hero secretly beats his wife. We’re savvy enough now not to believe everything we hear or read, because, God knows, we’ve been fooled plenty of times. But heroes are real, and far more fascinating to watch in action than anti-heroes, for they reveal our own better natures, and provide examples to inspire.

I’m not saying that I personally want only to see strong-jawed iron-thewed men and women with Dudley Do-Right sensibilities in today’s fiction. I’m not interested in reading about (or for that matter, writing about) flat one-dimensional characters. And I’m not advocating that anyone needs to change their preferences to suit me. But I’m not ducking my head anymore. This year I turn 43, and when someone on the campus I teach at asked me what my book was about I no longer grinned awkwardly and mumbled something about “escapism” as though I were apologizing. I proudly said that I write swashbuckling adventure stories, with heroes. Because there’s nothing wrong with that, and it may be that there’s a whole lot right.

Part Two: Sword and Sorcery

Part Three: The Take-Away

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Comments

  1. I don’t see how a hero, even a cartoonish Dudley Do-Right, can be one-dimensional in any fleshed out world. You’ve got your code, you adhere to it in harsh circumstances – that takes serious conviction. The weight on the shoulders of a paragon would be even worse. In children’s stories these things can be oversimplified, as a Dudley Do-Right cartoon typically was. But in contemporary mature prose? The only reason these characters can’t work is that the authors don’t have the imagination or the fortitude. Your drive to write about the driven and the altruistic makes total sense to me.

  2. “You’ve got your code, you adhere to it in harsh circumstances – that takes serious conviction. ”

    Well said. I think that’s one of many things I really love about the historicals of Harold Lamb. A lot of plot problems arise because the hero refuses to compromise his principals, and that leads to strong storytelling.

    “Your drive to write about the driven and the altruistic makes total sense to me.”

    Thank you!

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