I need a hero...

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Sep 28, 2017
I have a question, a question and a few subsidiaries. It's a big, wide, existential kind of question. That, or a down-the-pub-after-one-too-many kind of question. One of the two.

What is a hero in 2020? What do they do that makes them heroic? Can someone still be heroic without the rest of us muttering cynically?

But mostly the question is the first one:

What is a hero?
Hi Rich, my simple (and possibly hackneyed!) definition of a hero is someone who shows courage in the face of fear. I think this always has been true and always will be, but there are other kinds of heroism that don't fall so neatly into my definition, especially in 2020, like showing grace in the face of defeat; courtesy when confronted by unjustified belligerence, and then there is the glamour of our creative and sports heroes, novelists, actors, pop stars... actually, I can see why you call it a big question! I will think on. It's a fascinating line of thought to pursue.
A hero is a brave person, it goes without saying. They feel the fear and do it anyway. They may shoulder a lonely, terrible weight of doing things they would rather not do, for the greater good. Because if they don't, maybe no-one else will. A hero always retains their humanity, but they do not do popularity contests, and ask no one's approval to do what they feel is the right or just the necessary thing.

There is always cynical muttering. A hero has to rise above it and not give blow for blow. Eyes front, fixed on the true target.
Faced with that extremity, they feel the fear and do it anyway. Courage isn't courage if you weren't afraid in the first place. Above all, a hero never gives up but it is never, NEVER about THEM

Alexander the Great was no hero in my eyes. Vicious spoilt brat.
Hector, tragic hero.

Gentle Dr John Snow is one of my heroes from history.

They have CAPACITY. A hero's faults and failings are writ large. A hero is not mean, spiteful or petty.

I think anyone is a hero, who does what their best judgement says is right, proper, just and necessary, when it means going up against any kind of really big target or so-called authority, so that the bully will not win.

A parent going to sort out a rotten Head teacher, so as not to betray a child down who's been on the receiving end of a blatant injustice. A patient refusing to take rubbish from a doctor, a police officer calling out an evil in the system, as with that detective lady with Greater Manchester Police.

There will always be villains and gatekeepers, folk muttering or hiding in herds, and heroes.
What is a hero?
I shall ponder that one, but in the meantime, I wonder if a hero is a hero because of the person who sees them as a hero has decided so; kinda in the eye of the beholder.

What one person sees as heroic, someone else might think is foolish. A hero rarely sees him/herself as such. They tend to do whatever they do and we decide if it's virtuous and worthy of our admiration according to how we see ourselves within it, i.e. if I as a reader think I lack courage, anyone in a story jumping into a gun battle to save an injured person I might see as heroic. Someone who has lost someone in battle might think the same story as foolish.

So I wonder, is it the person calling someone a hero the one who decides, hence anyone or anything can be heroic? In that case writing a hero would mean tapping into the fears of the reader who then see the MC act in a way that the reader themselves would like to. So a hero is anoyone who does what the reader would like to do but can't for whatever reason. Am I making any sense or is it all Swissglish?
The original definition of hero was protector/defender, so to be a hero means there must be something to protect or defend. A hero is not heroic if there is no reason to put the body on the line.
A hero is anyone who puts aside their fears and risks everything/life to save/rescue someone. To be heroic involves stakes, too, but not the hero and her life. A hero is a defender [of something/someone - someone works best, because we relate then to both rescued and rescuer].
Which means, a person can be heroic for a moment and save someone else from a particular fate, and then they go back to being 'ordinary' [this excludes superheroes, of course, because no one can be heroic all the time without severe psychological issues].
Agree with so much of the above. I think as cynical as we may be (although is there ever a generation that doesn’t think it’s the smartest, knows better? With or without snark) I’m not sure our definition of a hero has ever changed - self-sacrifice, courage in the face of defeat etc etc.

Heroes with a dodgy past? Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen the Han Solo archetype too many times but I suspect that’s down to the quality of how he/she’s drawn. When it’s done well it’s still so emotive because it offers us redemption as well.

What may have changed - and I guess this is where the cynicism comes in - is whether we believe in heroes anymore (in an age of, well, we know where we’re at). But regardless, we still need them, the virtues they display, as everyone’s said, don’t really change, fiction or fact.

A hero responds to adversity in a way normal people do not. He confronts it when 99% of people turn away from it.
There are micro ones - my heroes and macro ones - national heroes depending on the audience.
As a writer, you know your audience so your hero could be someone who confronts a fear typical to your audience.

Asking for a 2020 hero narrows the field to current fears.
For 2020 hero we need to identify 2020 fears. Macro and micro. Maybe global warming, or war with Iran or the fallout from Brexit. Or on a micro level, a fathers Alzheimer's, an immigrant's fight for residency, the average man who confronts a terrorist, the fear of death (timeless)

He/she is the winner in our story. They may not win the fight (he died a hero) but they win our hearts.
This has been a fascinating discussion. Thanks to all of you who replied :)

It seems there's a general thread here that holds up selflessness as a key heroic trait. That's interesting because my understanding of classical, and other pre-Christian heroes, is that their heroism was often vainglorious. Notions of selfless honour are, relatively speaking, more recent inventions (I'm massively generalising here).

So perhaps we can say that a modern hero acts selflessly for the benefit of others (at least during the heroic act; they will almost certainly be otherwise flawed). That definition of heroism would appear to stand up whether it be on the grandest or most domestic of scales.

So if a hero acts selflessly, does that mean the definition of villainy is selfishness? That's an interesting proposition given the current, apparant, cult of the individual.

Do we want stories that challenge individualism? Is that where modern heroes are to be found?

What do you reckon?
An out and out villain is gratuitously cruel.

Animals do things that cause cruel suffering to other animals. Parasitic wasps are horrifically cruel in their action and effect. But no animal is deliberately, consciously gratuitously cruel except for a rotten human.

An accessible hero also has a certain pathos.
I've seen cats with mice. I don't think we are unique. Animal cruelty is an extension of the hunting process. An adrenaline kick rather than enjoyment of what the pain is. Perhaps the same is true for a human psychopath.

That was my definition of a villain. That they will inflict suffering, knowingly, and not just out of indifference.

I agree, the Enlightenment brought about good things, but also a new evil; an over-elevation and separation of the human animal from all the other animals. As did the Bible. Man shall have Dominion.

I try never to be too certain of anything
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My mother has a horror of chimps. Says they are too much like the worst of us. Though also, they can be the best. I've seen chimp compassion as well as cruelty.

Chimp heroes?

There undoubtedly are. I've read about baboon heroes. They spotted a leopard lying in wait as the troop went home one twilight. These male baboons crept up on the leopard and killed it before it could attack, but it also killed them. Self sacrifice, those baboons.
Ants too, taking out a praying mantis. They chewed her head off after she swooped down and ate some ants from the column. Word went back to the soldiers. First they had to find her, up there in the tree.

You could see the planning it, twiggling their antennae, co-ordinating.

Cruel. I expect I could be, in certain circumstances. If someone deliberately did something terrible to one of my children, forget forgiveness, and they can cart me to hell. Except I'm agnostic, and don't believe in hell except as a situation in a place on earth or a state of mind.

(She said on a Sunday :))

Amen indeed.

I try never to be too certain of anything
My mantra too.

I once saw film of a dolphin being raped by males from another pod. She went back to her pod and communicated the attack. A group of 'her' males then organized a retaliatory strike. Makes you think.

But back to individualism. Is it heroic to act against negative self interest, to shine a light on the positive aspects of the group?
Sketch us a scenario Rich? Is this a story you're working on? What you are describing here seems to be some act of selflessness. Heroic or not, can't decide without having an idea of the context or stakes.

Edward Snowden, hero or antihero?

Some heroes, people might agree on more straightforwardly than others,

The Red Baron. Enemy but hero? Rommel too, possibly. William the Conqueror, no one calls him a hero. Why not? He abolished (white) slavery.
But he also turned freemen into serfs, more or less overnight, and burned up a great swathe north of the Humber, deliberately, punitively, after a rebellion, and tens of thousands starved to death in direct consequence. The reason for the rebellion. He, as the new king, was not protecting them from foreign marauders.

'By their deeds shall ye know them.'

Chivalry is such an old fashioned word, like gentillesse.

The true meaning of a gentleman or gentlewoman.
Valuing the group over the individual is of course the basis of all war stories and heroes. But then 1984 makes the group the tyrant. It will vary story by story - and also your own perspective. Since the Romantic period there's been the cult of the individual outsider.
Sketch us a scenario Rich?
I wish I could! I'm groping towards a story, but there's very little there right now.

I've been reading about heroes, and I was hoping that by throwing some of my thoughts out into the group, I might get something back that would catalyze my nebulous thoughts.

Nebulous thought 1: genre is science fantasy.
Nebulous thought 2: a teenage single mother wants to stand on her own two feet, despite the wealth of support she's offered, but act ii finds her needing help when now there is none.
Nebulous thought 3: the centre ground is swiftly emptied when dogmatic radicals take the stage.
Nebulous thought 4: (courtesy of Arthur C Clarke) any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

They're we are, Rich, old chap, string that together into something coherent(!).

So I ask questions here...
Well, not seen you for a while. Nice to see you around :)

Looking at your four nebulous thoughts, I think of the 'wizard' 'Merlin as 'hero.'

A novel called The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, set way back of course. His mother, a princess. She would not name the father if I remember correctly. The boy Merlin was raised as an outsider in his own court. Regarded with suspicion, borderline pariah. An uncle he had always trusted tried to kill him. I don't trust my memory about the story...but it seems to chime with your four ideas. Then young Merlin discovers the crystal cave (Tardis, radio station etc, aka technology.magic) and we all know what this boy will become, a magician/psychic/'technocrat'.

Though hero is not a word usually attached to Merlin himself, he could be a candidate.

He made mistakes. He was tragic too. He falls in love only to be betrayed by a woman who wants to learn from him, Viviane/Nimue, but he is motivated by something else (born of his isolation?) and her motivation is power for its own sake.

One could take that broad scenario anywhere in time.
Do we want stories that challenge individualism? Is that where modern heroes are to be found?

What do you reckon?

I’m not sure I’d place it in the ranks of ‘villainy’ as such but I definitely think it would be interesting to challenge the throne of individualism and self identity right now, especially as so culture in recent times has made it almost equitable with purpose - reflected in social media.

Don’t get me wrong it’s good for our characters to learn to have positive opinions of themselves - when needed - but too often it’s seen as the only goal. And in the realms of our current discussion, that’s not always ‘heroic’. Personally I’m not sure it’s all that healthy either.
Heroes are defined by the eye of the beholder because they are embraced by those who applaud their cause. Heroes stand, at great risk, for whatever it is they believe; if not alone, then leading others while enduring life's "lonely at the top" realities. By that definition, one person's hero is another's villian, since murderers and dictators risk their lives against those who are counted as heroes by the opposition.
Well, not seen you for a while. Nice to see you around :)
Thanks! Likewise :) I'm always around, in the Writing Groups, behind the scenes doing the Guardian thing, lurking, but it's true I haven't been chatty of late. Thanks for the 'Merlin'. It's now next on the reading list (my eldest has a friend called Nimue, fancy that). Now I'm gonna get out of the way for a bit and let this thread run. There's gold in them hills.
What a great discussion! I agree with most of what's been said about heroes past and present. The biologist in me says that protecting your kids or your family can't be heroic as such, even when it involves personal sacrifice or even death--we're genetically programmed to protect our genetic material, whether it resides in our own bodies or that of our close kin. To be heroic, an act has to go beyond the biological imperative. Of course, anything hugely heroic will certainly increase your own genetic fitness if it protects all of humanity, or your nation or whatever. But I'm more willing to see the heroism in that, because it protects people the hero may be in conflict with, as well as their friends and family.

Thinking about my own heroes, before I became a cynical old lady ;) ... Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall were mine. Both women who dedicated their lives to (and in Fossey's case gave her life for) improving our understanding of our closest relatives and advocating for their protection in the face of professional resistance (as women in a man's field) and cultural resistance (both from the Western/European culture they came from and the local culture where they worked). They uncovered truths that shook the foundations of our understanding of ourselves as humans and were brave enough to communicate those unpalatable truths to the world. As a young woman determined to pursue a career in the biological sciences against fierce opposition from my family, my teachers, and local professionals in the field, these women were superheroes to me.
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Help on legitimacy of competitions and publishers

Do You Want To Be In My Book?