Books, heroes, heroines

What Makes A Hero?

In keeping with the recent post on Peter Pevensie (AKA High King Peter the Magnificent – now there’s a title to live up to!), which got me thinking again about my Hero and Everyman post, and also with the start of a brand-new season of NCIS:LA this week (yes, aside from figure skating – and by the way, you will probably have to suffer through a post or two on that this winter, because that’s just how I roll – the NCIS shows are the only television I really care about anymore. Although I am really, really curious about Once Upon A Time starting in October, given its fairy tale premise), I got thinking about the kind of hero that I have always been drawn to, both in literature and film (and television).

So here you have it.

The type of hero I prefer:

Sam more than Callen (NCIS:LA)

Will more than Jack (Pirates of the Caribbean) (only in the first, though, because then Will just got irritating and Jack got immensely more charming)

Faramir more than Boromir (Lord of the Rings)

Mr Knightley (or Henry Tilney) more than Mr Darcy or Captain Wentworth (Jane Austen’s novels)

Etc, etc.

Not necessarily the squeaky-clean, never had any faults (like Peter) hero, but the one who isn’t angsting all over the place, the one who is truly good, the one who knows what is right and strives to do it. Not so much the tortured anti-hero for me. One of my chief complaints about the LotR films was the changes they made to Boromir and Faramir’s characters – how they made Boromir, the weak one, seem more heroic, and turned Faramir, who was strong and just and good, into somebody who was weak and willing to do almost anything to earn his father’s approval. GRRR.

I think that’s one reason I like Edmund so much in the Narnia books, because we get to see his journey from the most un-heroic beginning to a man who is confident in what is right, and acts upon it without much inner anguish or tortured questioning or intense struggles between what he wants and what he should do.

(Unless, of course, you are reading much of the Narnia fanfiction out there, where Edmund spends the rest of his life beating himself up for his temporary alliance with the Witch. GRRR again.)

Taran, from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, is another similar character – one who starts out with foolish ideas about what a hero is, and grows to be a quiet and unassuming hero of his own without even realizing it.

This applies to heroines as well, of course. I have mentioned before about my fondness for Cecy and Kate of the Sorcery & Cecilia books by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. There are two girls who are confident in what is right, and able to act upon it. Granted, their actions often stir up yet more trouble, but that just adds to the fun. And it’s not over-confidence, either – don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of the smug, or even the one who never questions. I think that’s why I liked Will so much in the first PotC movie – when his sense of rightness clashed with “the rules” he’d always lived by, he had to undergo a struggle to determine which was stronger – his instinct for justice, or what he’d always believed. Which made his decision in the end far more cheer-worthy.

Or Sam, from NCIS:LA – though it tore at him to break away from NCIS in last season’s finale, to walk away from the structure he lived by, it was more important to help his friends (and save Hetty). If Callen hadn’t walked away first, would Sam have done so? I’m not sure, but once Callen did, Sam had to back up his friend and partner.

And that is awesome stuff, and to me, the sort of thing that makes a hero (or heroine) truly interesting, and truly worth emulating.

What sort of heroes do you prefer – the tortured ones, the ones suffering from a lot of inner angst, the anti-hero like Captain Jack Sparrow, or the simpler heroes, like Sam and Faramir, etc? I think there’s a lot to be said for all kinds, and I’m always interested to hear where other people differ from my preferences – it helps me broaden my writing repertoire as well as gives me stuff to chew on personally! Also, when it comes to Jane Austen heroes, am I the only one who thinks that Mr Darcy remains something of a bore even after his change, and that Mr Knightley is one of the greatest heroes in literature (I know Rockinlibrarian agrees with me on Henry Tilney’s swoon-worthiness, at least!)?

Books, fiction, heroes

Peter vs Peter

Because sulkiness is so much more magnificent than nobility

And a hero without angst is like romance without kissing in the rain.

Don’t mistake me: I think William Moseley is an excellent actor. And I thoroughly enjoyed his performance in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. And taking Prince Caspian as a movie on its own merits, apart from the book, he played his role well.
But he just wasn’t – couldn’t possibly be – High King Peter the Magnificent. King Peter, who tells the unsure and humble Prince Caspian (I also quite like Ben Barnes, but oh! his Caspian was almost as poor a representation of the book’s character as Peter) first thing “We haven’t come to take your throne, you know, but to put you in it.” Who never questioned Aslan’s choice in sending them back to England, then bringing them to Narnia only for a short time. Who loved deeply, and was not ashamed of it; who mourned deeply and was equally unashamed. Who was noble, and just, and courageous, pretty much everything a traditional hero of medieval literature was supposed to be – just look at Malory’s King Arthur, and the knights of the Round Table, sometime.
And yes, I understand that all of those traits don’t translate well to a modern-day movie-going audience. Remember my old post on Hero and Everyman? It’s the Everyman most movies promote, not the Hero. Not anymore. People’s tastes have shifted. And that’s okay, for the most part, because Everyman is important, too – especially when, as Rockinlibrarian pointed out on that post, the Everyman does the heroic (SAM!).
But still. We could have done with less angst – or with angst over a different matter. Instead of the selfish “me me me why did Aslan send me back I was king I want to be king again why doesn’t anyone take me seriously wahhhh,” it could have been more along the lines of “what happened to Narnia why are these interlopers here what do you mean the beavers are extinct they were my friends Narnia is in my blood and it is hurting which makes me hurt and England is cold and unfriendly and I can’t find my footing.” And then, of course, he could have learned while in Narnia how to search beneath the surface to find the warmth and joy that still existed, and to decide to seek out the same in England, which is why he was suddenly fit to return to England for good, because Narnia had taught him what he needed to know.
You could even have worked in the tension between him and Caspian, if necessary – in that Peter has a hard time entrusting his land, his people (and trees, and Animals, and Others), to a descendent of those who silenced the land’s song to begin with, but in time sees that Caspian is different, and puts aside his prejudices to give the young prince a chance.
Instead, we got stereotypes. Oh, we got stereotypes. And a very, very 2000s outlook from a character who lived in the 1940s. Which, I think, is what my frustration boils down to – it’s all very well and good to have a relatable character, but when you start acting like those characters live in this era, but still set them in a former, you’ve started to skew history, and project your own way of thinking backward, and nothing infuriates me more than that.
(Well, okay, a few things do, but it’s on my top ten list.)
So frustrating. Because Peter, as written, is a marvelous Hero, one to look up to, one to strive toward. After all, that was the point of the chivalric tales in medieval days, wasn’t it? To give people an Ideal? And I think it’s a shame that they tore that away from Peter in the movie and turned him into a sullen, resentful, bitter, stupid teenage boy.
Oh well. At least we still got this out of the whole thing:
I know it’s a few years old now, but what did you think of the Prince Caspian movie? Does it bother you when movies change the inherent character of people in books? Do you think it is a mistake to impose today’s values and mindsets onto characters from past eras, to make them more relatable, or is that just a natural side effect of historical fiction (movie or book)? Do you mourn the lack of Ideal in today’s fiction?
children, heroines, quotes

True Princesses

My nearly-four-year-old and I share a fascination with Princess Kate – I beg her pardon, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. We just call her Princess Kate, though.

Joy and I (and my father) happily watched as much of the Royal Wedding as we got up in time to see. Granted, most of Joy’s thrills came from the horses that pulled the carriages, and with the bride’s beautiful white dress. Mine came because I had adored Princess Diana as a little girl, and it felt like coming full circle to watch my daughter sit in absorbed fascination at her son’s wedding.

We don’t do Disney princesses around here. This hasn’t been so much of a conscious decision against those sorts of princesses; we just don’t do much for television or movies at all. As my girls get older, though, I am devoutly thankful that their ideas of princesses come from the likes of Princess Kate and Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Anne in “Roman Holiday” (we watched that on Hepburn’s birthday), rather than pale, insipid versions of fairy tales princesses.

I’m not sure whether Disney is the root or the result of the problem with how we in this culture instinctively view princesses. I do know it is a more modern way of looking at things – that “princess” is synonymous with privilege and luxury, instead of responsibility and sacrifice. A perfect example of the difference, and how much things have changed in the last hundred years, is looking at the difference between the book A Little Princess, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1905 (revised from a serial written in 1888), and the popular movie version that came out in 1995.

In the book, Sara’s “pretend” that she is a princess starts while she is living in pampered luxury, but where it really takes effect is when everything is stripped away from her. She says, in effect (my copy of the book is in a box at the other house right now, so I can’t give exact quotes), “Anyone can be a princess when she has lots of pretty things and everyone likes her. A true princess shows her worth when all that is taken away.” Sara shows her true “princess-ness” by always being courteous and kind to those who constantly belittle and abuse her, by giving generously of what she still has left – namely, her imagination and story-telling abilities – to those around her, and by sacrificing her own needs to those who are less fortunate even than she (“this is one of the populace, and I’m not truly starving,” she says, as she gives away her buns to the little beggar girl, in one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes in the entire book). Because of the era in which the book was written, she of course receives her reward in the end, but still, the idea is that because she was a princess when everything was dark and bad, she was raised up again to luxury and comfort.

The movie sends a different message. It’s been several years since I watched it, but I remember the general idea as well as specific scenes quite plainly. From what I remember, and reviews I’ve read, what sets Sara apart from the other girls as a “princess” isn’t so much how she behaves as her imagination. She doesn’t always treat everyone with respect, as is shown in one scene where she pretends to place a curse on the school’s “mean girl.” In the book, Sara does have a fierce temper, but part of being a princess means she has to control it, even when she wants to box the bully’s ears.

In the movie, Sara’s salvation comes when all the girls put their differences aside and band together to help her. And in the end, they realize that they are all princesses at heart, if they just tap into their potential. At surface, that seems like an “awww” idea. But looking at it more deeply, it is directly opposite to the idea proposed in the book, which is that one has to work and sacrifice and love deeply to be a true princess – you are a princess if you behave the same regardless of your circumstances, instead of needing the circumstances to be just so to show you your worth.

The difference is subtle, but like I said before: I want my girls to grow up with the idea that it is how you behave to others that sets you apart, not how others treat you. Yes, dear girls, by all means grow up with princesses as examples, but let them be princesses like Sara Crewe of the book, not of the movie.

Or, as King Lune puts it in The Horse and His Boy,

“For this is what it means to be king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as there must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your kingdom.”

It’s not about privilege. It’s about sacrificing for your people, for those you love. And that, my friends, is the noblest goal of all.

ETA: Re-reading this, I realized this could really be the companion piece to my Hero and Everyman post. Connections without even realizing it!

What are your thoughts on princesses? Are you a fan of Disney? Do you agree that it is good to have fictional role models, even princesses, so long as those role models show praiseworthy traits?

Books, characters, heroes

Hero and Everyman

First of all, let me apologize to everyone who has posted a comment since Tuesday evening. Apparently Blogger’s “hiccup” yesterday caused it to lose all comments made on Wednesday and beyond. Grr. We had some interesting stuff going, too!

And now, on to the actual post:

Watching NCIS:LA (yes, I watch both NCIS and NCIS:LA; and no, it’s not just for the eye candy (although that doesn’t hurt)) this week, I was struck anew at the difference between the Hero and the Everyman, and how both are vital to tell a compelling story.

Ha! Bet you didn’t know one could  get such revelations from NCIS, did you?

In brevis, the Hero is someone we aspire to. He or she is the one we admire, the one who shows the most praise-worthy traits, the one who gives us an example and makes us yearn to be better.

The Everyman is someone we can relate to. He or she is the one we feel akin to, we understand, we wince in sympathy, and as he or she interacts with the Hero, we get a sense of how we would interact as well. The Everyman makes the story real and personal.

Hollywood, in general, seems to get this confused. They try to make the Hero and the Everyman the same character. This might work in a few cases, but usually just ends up leaving the audience with nothing and no one to aspire to. We, as a society, need True Heroes. Tortured heroes, after a while, get old.

Many high fantasies have the opposite problem. They have the Hero with no Everyman, which leaves the audience feeling disconnected. We as humans need someone to relate to, as well.

A good example of how this works well can be seen in the Chronicles of Narnia. In Peter, we have the Hero. One of the biggest gripes you will hear from fanfic writers is that Peter is impossible to write realistically, because he has no flaws. That’s not because he is a “Gary Stu,”but because he is a Hero. He’s the one everyone looks up to and want to be like.

The Everyman? Well, he goes by the unfortunate name of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and when we first meet him, Lewis tells us he “almost deserved” his name. Poor Eustace is a nuisance, a pest, hates and is secretly jealous of his noble cousins, and even after he is changed still maintains his Everyman status. In The Silver Chair Trumpkin the Dwarf can’t even get his name right, first calling him “Useless,” and then wanting to know just how he is “Used to it.” When the Prince, Puddleglum, and Eustace fight the serpent, we are told that Eustace’s blow lands on the body and skitters off the scales without doing any good. He thoroughly enters into every adventure, but doesn’t have any special skill that makes him unique or special.

By The Last Battle he has grown, even to the point where he can fight alongside the King (another Hero), but he is still the Everyman, just doing his best with his limited abilities. It is Jill who has the special ability to move almost unseen through the woods, Jill who rescues Puzzle, Jill who is the lone archer during that last battle, where Eustace is the first one captured and thrown in the stable. Eustace is never made a king, unlike his cousins. He is never referred to as “lord,” as Digory is (and both Polly and Jill, it seems, become “Lady” without any difficulty in the matter). He is just Eustace throughout, growing into a loyal Friend of Narnia, and giving his all without ever having anything special to give.

(In case you can’t tell, Eustace is my absolute favorite character from the Narnia series.)

In NCIS:LA, which started this whole train of thought, Callen and Sam act as the Heroes (Sam as the True Hero; Callen gets to be the Tragic Hero). The rest of the team is heroic in its own way, too, and it isn’t until Deeks comes along from the LAPD that we get a more human character. Deeks is brave enough, and good at his job, but he isn’t exactly the super-dooper expert at anything like the rest. He even looks more ordinary: scruffy, regular build, etc. Through his interaction with the team, and how he slowly integrates with them and develops his own set of skills has been one of the reasons I keep watching the show. That, and it’s fun to watch things blow up.

There are, of course, a lot of ways you can play with The Hero and Everyman roles, to expand them a bit. Take Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as a classic example. There you have:

Aragorn – True Hero

Boromir – Guy who thinks he’s the hero, but weakly gives in to temptation.

Faramir – Guy who also thinks Boromir’s the hero (and he isn’t), but doesn’t give in to temptation, thus qualifying himself for the role of Lesser Hero.

Frodo – Everyman who grows into the Hero by the end. Those are also becoming more common (and one of my favorite characters to write), and are also important for humans – because we need to see that ordinary people can grow to do extraordinary things.

Sam – Everyman

Then, of course, you have Eowyn (I think Eomer comes under the Lesser Hero category), who plays a similar role to Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia. They both start out wanting to be the True Hero, but by the end have accepted a subordinate role quite happily – Eowyn as a Healer and wife to the Steward, and Edmund as ruler equal to his sisters, and under his brother. Lucy and Susan, in CoN, have their own roles as well, of course, but those are slightly harder to define. Lucy is Inspiration, and Hero, and Joy, and Faith, and … well, she’s Lucy. Susan is more akin to Boromir (HEY – fanfic crossover with a Susan/Boromir pairing, anyone?), in that she starts out heroically but gives in to her weak points. Unlike Boromir, who dies for his transgressions, we are allowed to hope, at the end of the CoN, that Susan may yet repent and attain the role of Restored Hero.

To return to the initial idea of Hero and Everyman – I think it helps, as a writer, to define these roles. Not that your characters have to fit exactly into a mold, but in a world where anti-heroes are frighteningly popular, and the everyman, if he exists in the story at all, is either a joke or a cynic, I think it is important to remember why these types of characters are so enduring. As I said in the beginning: We need to have someone to aspire to, and we need someone to relate to. Those two desires are part of what makes us human, and it’s part of what most stories, I think, are trying to tap.

After all, there’s a reason why classic hero stories are classic. There’s a reason why NCIS and NCIS:LA are so incredibly popular.

It’s because they touch on the universal needs and desires we all share, to have a hero, and to try to grow into one ourselves, even though we are just ordinary people.

Are there other great examples of Hero and Everyman in literature or television/movies I missed? I know I only touched on a couple. Who is one of your favorite Hero characters, and one of your favorite Everyman characters? Do you think my understanding of why these characters are so important is accurate, or would you disagree? What are some other characters that are important to us as humans? And are you a fan of the NCIS shows, too?

characters, fiction, writing

Curiosity Killed The Cat …

… but it saves the character.

I’ve been getting bored with doing nothing but research, research, research, and very little writing. So the other day, just for sheer fun, I started a story set in 1920s England – an adventure-fantasy: Dorothy L Sayers meets CS Lewis, so to speak.

Or at least, that was my intention. About 6,000 words in, I noticed a deadly flaw.

My heroine was boring.

She was the eldest of three sisters (I like writing fic where the eldest is the heroine – it goes against traditional convention so well). She was the responsible one against her sisters’ frivolity. She was plain compared to their beauty and charm. She was shy in society. She was ….

*snore*


If my main character was putting even me to sleep, in a story that was supposed to be frothily fun, I had a problem.

So, like any sensible person, I took the matter to Facebook (and to Twitter, but nobody responded there – my FB friends are all much better, apparently, at answering writerly dilemmas), and got some helpful tips.

I mulled them all over, looked at their examples of good heroes/heroines who were responsible yet still interesting, and came up with a definite character trait to redeem this poor girl.

Curiosity.

To get a feel for the era and tone, I’ve been re-reading the Lord Peter books (such terribly hard research, I know). Lord Peter is an amazingly complex character, but one trait that really makes him stand out from the crowd is his imagination and curiosity. Sayers describes his curiosity as all-emcompassing, the kind that drives him to find out where his drains lead to and unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors.

My dad mentioned Brother Cadfael as another main character who is moral and responsible, but with an unquenchable curiosity that leads him, even as a monk, to poke his nose into everything that comes along.

Then I got thinking about others: Kate Talgarth, from the Cecy & Kate books, who might be something of a drip if it weren’t for her curiosity and wit. Jane Stuart, of Jane of Lantern Hill, who really starts to shine when she moves to PEI and is able to indulge her curiosity for life. Mrs Pollifax, by Dorothy Gilman, who joins the CIA as an elderly widow because she is bored, and whose interest in people gives her new zest for life. Pride & Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who along with her sister Jane is the only responsible person in her entire family, including her parents, but who is also endlessly curious about people and life. Lucian, one of my favorite of Lloyd Alexander’s heroes, starts out his book by nearly losing his head due to an deadly combination of responsibility and curiosity.

I could continue, but I’ll spare you. I’m sure you’ve picked up the gist of it by now. Curiosity is both a virtue and a flaw for a character. Most human beings suffer from it to one degree or another.

I think I have a tendency, in order to keep my characters from becoming impossibly perfect and likable, to make them too drab. It’s also entirely possible that as I have always been fairly responsible, and hence always labeled “boring” (or the far worse “Goody-Two-Shoes”), that my own life experiences are bleeding into my writing. Let’s face, life as a stay-at-home mom to two littles brings with it plenty of need for responsibility, and not much outlet for being fun or exciting.

So this was a good reminder for me personally as well as authorially, that being responsible does not automatically equate being dull. A healthy dose of curiosity (with a sprinkling of wit and sense of fun) goes a long way toward combatting being boring.

What are some of your tricks to make a dull character start to shine? Are you a curious person? Do you think responsible is always the same as boring, in real life or in literature?