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What makes a hero?

I’m writing this blog not long after watching one of my favourite movies; Batman Begins. Whilst watching the film, it got me thinking about just what it is that makes a character in a story, whether in book or on film, a hero? And has our perception of what makes a hero always been the same or is it changing?

A hero is defined as someone who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. But the more I thought about the question, the more I began to doubt that definition. It just seems to me to be ... a bit too vanilla. Heroes are good people. They strive for justice, show tremendous courage ... yeah, yeah, I get all that. There are many heroes in real life and in fiction who are exactly that; think army heroes, or people who save others from burning buildings. People who for whatever reason care for or try to save others and in doing so put themselves in harms way. These are all heroes.

But the fact is a hero who is all good, who has high morals in everything he or she does and who never puts a foot wrong, never once crosses the line of rules and regulations and laws, can be quite boring in a fictional world I think. When I list out my favourite fictional characters, they all carry something else about them too. A dark side. You see, to some extent I want my heroes to be bad - and I don’t think I’m alone.

It’s no accident that virtually all heroes of comics and in crime and thriller fiction have a dark side to them, an edge that I think makes them more interesting, but actually completely goes against the definition of what a hero is. Take Jack Reacher for example, or Jason Bourne or James Bond. Three very well known action heroes, but really the list goes on and on. Each one is considered a good guy, we follow them, we believe in them and their judgment. But each one carries out acts that in real life many people would be appalled by. All readily assault people, for example. All are killers. Granted, we know they only do that to the “bad guys”, of course, but there’s no room for such vigilantism in the real world, is there? Bad guys get arrested, they go to court and to prison - those are the rules that we live by. But much of the time I don’t want that when I’m reading a book or watching a movie. I want the bad guy to get his comeuppance there and then. Because I know damn well that he’s bad, the writer already told me so. There’s no need for legal process.

I wondered whether this picture of a more troubled hero might just be my preference, or even a generational view; It’s notable for example that many classic comic book heroes have been the subject of movie reboots over the past decade where the lead character is much darker, drier and angrier; there’s Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Wolverine to name but a few. Not to mention the emergence of other fictional characters of even more dubious morality such as Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. There are many characters who are not necessarily nice people, but we route for them all the same.

The lead character in my Enemy series, Carl Logan, is much the same. It was my Dad who first got me thinking about this when he read an early draft of my second book, Rise of the Enemy. He asked me whether I wanted readers to like Logan. The answer was yes, of course! It seemed so obvious to me, because I really like him. But my Dad questioned that, and suggested that maybe not everyone would - Logan, after all, kills more than one person in cold blood in the stories, when he certainly had the option not to. I actually toned down one or two of the action scenes in later edits because of what my Dad said to me. Yet the more I thought about this point of what makes a hero, the more I delved into heroes from the past, warriors and heretics and revolutionaries from bygone eras, I kept coming back to the same view. Yes, heroes are undoubtedly noble and courageous, as per the definition. We’ve all read stories of true heroism, life-savers, and can only hope that in a life or death situation we too would act like they did. But in many, many cases, heroes are also ruthless and brutal.

So why is that? The only answer I can give is that it’s basic human nature to empathise and idolise people with those qualities for the very fact that we could never ourselves act like they do. We’ve all thought and dreamt about punishing people who have wronged us, or wished bad things to happen to horrible people we’ve heard about in the press - terrorists and murderers and the like - even though we’ve never met them. It’s a human emotion borne from our need to keep order in society by achieving retribution against those who have wronged us directly, or simply passed way outside our own moral compass. Or something like that. It’s a type of hero that has always been around in folklore and in fiction and that I think always will be.

What makes a hero? Well, the dictionary definition hits the spot in many respects, but I like my heroes to have a little extra too. To end with a cheesy analogy, I like my heroes like I like my coffee: strong, dark and bitter, but warming nonetheless.


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