Overcoming: The Nature of Heroes

Eagle 200Hands up if you have heard of ‘The Eagle’. Not many people have. Counter espionage agent, Jeff Shannon – known as ‘The Eagle’ was a pulp character from the late 1930’s / early 1940’s. He didn’t really take off – only appearing in a handful of stories – but recently he has been revived for The New Adventures of the Eagle, a title from Pro Se and Altus Press’ Pulp Obscura line.

Intrigued, I read the book, which contains six new Eagle adventures. It was a fine collection of stories, but one really stood out for me, “The Coming Storm”, written by Teel James Glenn.

Anyway, Teel and I got a talkin’ – and I ended up asking him if he would like to do a guest post on P2K to talk about his latest project The First Synn: The Bloodstone Confidential. But he decided to take a different approach. You can read it below. Take it away, Teel…

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When David Foster, maestro of P2K, extended the invitation for me to write a guest blog, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to a new group of readers. At my height, I don’t really have to get on a soapbox to make a point, but I thought it a good opportunity for a virtual one.

Rather than talk specifically about the hero, Gideon Synn, in my new series from Pro Se, the first of which is The First Synn: The Bloodstone Confidential, I thought I would talk about the concept of what it is to be a hero.

The concept of heroes has been greatly distorted in our present world; in today’s society thugs who can run fast with a ball are prized above educators, artists, scientists or healers. Celebrity and infamy have supplanted famous and deserving of admiration for far too long.
I felt compelled to write about what it is to really be a hero in a literary sense.

True, sports stars have always been admired as achievers of the near impossible – at least to most – but in past societies that status was linked to good citizenship, ethics and a sense that their skills – however hard they worked to hone them – were somehow a gift of a higher power to be shared, not a skill to be exploited at the cost of others.

Along with this distortion of what it is to be a hero has come a rise in the of the status of the bad guys – the anti-hero and villain – to the status of hero.

True, some of that came from a series we all love, The James Bond books and films. In them, of course, Bond is the knight without armor, fighting for the right by using the methods of the bad guys. He has a license to kill, to womanize and to drink to excess – yet he is clearly the good guy. He does these things because he is a flawed and many faceted human being but there is absolutely no mistaking that he is working for the good. Rosa Klebb, Hugo Drax, Auric Goldfinger, Blofeld and Scaramanga are the baddies for sure. No attempt to excuse or sympathize with them happens – to understand them, yes, but not to make the reader agree with them. They are villains, plain and simple.

There is a school of thought that says villains are more interesting than heroes; that Dracula is more fascinating than Van Helsing, Butch Cavendish more intriguing than The Lone Ranger or the Joker more delightful for the audience to spend time with than Batman.

I say no; resoundingly NO!

I say that if a reader finds a man who kills, maims and then laughs about it more satisfying than one who tries to prevent said mayhem they are flawed beyond recovery or the writer has failed in his/her job in presenting the charters in context.

No villain should remain unexplained, it is true, but that does not excuse their villainy, just humanize the monster to make him more understandable and his connection to the hero more tangible. All drama is, ultimately some sort of morality play, after all.

With this raise in the villains’ status has come corresponding devaluation of the hero, claiming them to be grey and boring.

What has allowed this mistaken image of heroes as bland, uninteresting cardboard cut outs, this complete reversal of all that holds society together?

Was it the Hayes Code that demanded such flawless heroes that they could not be human and strive to overcome human failings? The church groups who refused to acknowledge their own base doctrines, which talk about the very need for flawed humans to try for the godhead as a daily goal? Did they ignore the fact that few of the holy writings of any religion talk of unblemished existence as a norm – it is always a daily goal to be worked for, our human nature to be overcome?

Perhaps all three reasons – and others – connected to create this general decline in personal responsibility and self-awareness.

When fire happens and a building is engulfed, who is truly more interesting to spend time with; the giggling psycho who lit the fire and watches a ten year old burn to death or a normal healthy and fearful person who, despite the danger and possibility of their own destruction runs toward the fire?

Think hard – your answer could get you committed.

But seriously folks: a protagonist might delight in a child’s death – and if it were a horror story be the person we follow through the story to its conclusion, but the hero is always the person running to try and save the child.

And here in lies some of the problem; people mistake hero for protagonist and vice versa far too often.

Hannibal Lecture was a sick SOB who ate people and delighted in other’s suffering; he wasn’t the ‘hero’ of Silence of the Lambs – or even Hannibal the sequel; he was the protagonist.

In the first book (I have problems with the sequel even having been written/filmed but that’s just me), Clarice is the heroic figure but not an unflawed or bland character. She has a complex of failings and weaknesses that she strives to overcome and that is what makes her a hero.

She overcomes.

Websters defines hero as: A: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability. B: An illustrious warrior. C: a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities. D: the Principle male character in a literary or dramatic work.

A hero does not sweep in and, with no problems or questions about what he/she does, solve all that must be solved – if he did it would be the blank and flat line boring that far too many people think a hero is. No, conflict is the essence of all drama and so it must be with a hero as well. Inner conflict is as important-perhaps more so than storming the castle is the reason why it is stormed!

A hero must have something at stake and something to overcome or it is not drama.

People who favor the ‘anti-hero’ concept that was popularized with such furor in the 1960’s cinema because film critics (don’t get me started on that jaded group) had decided that role models were passé – forget that it was not a new concept and is based on a faulty assumption.

Hercules of classical myth (definition A) is a hero because he overcomes his own personal faults. He is really an anti-hero by that very modern definition. He is a drunk, he kills his family in a fit of madness and spends a guilt-ridden life trying to make up for that. Not a bland fellow at all. But he tries to do good, and that is the thing that makes him a hero (definition C). In fact, in a ‘Hollywood’ happy ending, his good works get him elevated to demi-god hood!

The faulty assumption is that heroes just do what they do and are not affected; but in fact they have to take what Joseph Campbell called ‘the Hero’s Journey’ – moving from point A to their end point in a story and growing or evolving in someway or, by definition they are not heroes. Heroes doubt, have their moment of weakness, their ‘human’ moment just as villains, to be fully human, must have theirs. (Hitler was good to his dogs, the original Blackbeard was Joan of Arc’s sidekick and protector and Dracula was a patriot for his homeland before he became a human mosquito).

As a writer I feel obligated to connect with those human portions of both sides of the moral wall or I feel I’m cheating my readers and not doing my job of presenting a ‘complete’ world for them to journey to. Yet for me, I really don’t want to spend more time with unpleasant people than I have to. My rule of thumb is, would I want to spend a ten-minute elevator ride with any given character, say Blofeld, Lecter or Dracula? No. Then why spend more time with them on the page than I have to?

This brings us to definition D.

I confess, my criteria are narrow by some definitions but it’s my party, I’ll smile if I want to … or something like that.

At the same time, nobody, including me likes a stuffed shirt’ and I don’t want my heroes to be that way either. Thus, while I may want them to be a hero, I need them to be flawed so I, a flawed human, can connect with them. Like Bond, who is about as flawed as they come, a hero does not have to be a church deacon, but, I feel, he has to be trying to be, to some extent.

I still want them to be better than me; more able to withstand temptation, more able to endure pain etc. because else, why am I reading about them? But just enough so that I can believe and connect with them.

And I want my villains to be less than me, expressing the darkness I fear either externally or in some dark corner of my own soul that I want to conquer.

And this may be where I differ from much of the world at large; I do not delight in seeing people worse off than me as a way to make myself feel superior. (No, I do not watch Japanese game shows to see people get pasted!)

And that may be why those aforementioned critics liked so-called anti-heroes. Maybe in their mind, following the adventures of rapists, killers and perverts that they made their ‘heroes’ has made them feel better about being flawed.

Me, I’d rather look up to the heavens than down in the mud even though I never forget that even the demi-gods have to stand in that mud.

How about you?

About the Author

BloodstoneTeel James Glenn has written on theater, stunts and swashbuckling related subject matter for national magazines like: Aces, Black Belt, Echoes, and Fantastic Worlds of E.R.B. and fiction for MAD, Weird Tales, Peculiar Stories, Pro Se Presents, Fantasy Tales, Afterburns, Another Realm Blazing Adventures!, Tales of Old and other magazines.

He has 30 books in print including The First Synn: The Bloodstone Confidential and a story in The New Adventures of the Eagle, both from Pro Se Productions.

He received the Pulp Ark Award for best author in 2012.
You can keep up on his adventures at theurbanswashbuckler.com.

Overcoming: The Nature of Heroes