In today’s popular culture we are awash with anti-heroes. You have your Walter White, your Tony Soprano, Dexter, Tyrion and Jaime, Bond, Bourne, Holmes, and Solo. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an anti-hero.
Now, I’m not complaining. I’ve espoused my love for anti-heroes on this very blog. Anti-heroes are great when we need a character to identify with and connect to. They’re perfect because they’re so imperfect. They wallow in their imperfection. The fun is watching them overcome their shortcomings, or overcome a seemingly insurmountable foe.
And all the while, we live vicariously through them. We wallow in our own imperfection. We imagine ourselves vanquishing, humiliating, or even destroying our adversaries.
But in today’s world things have gotten really, really imperfect. We’re more divided than ever. Observable truth, things like 2 + 2 = 4, have become, strangely, debatable. Children are being ripped from their parents’ arms…
We’re through the looking glass, and we need a compass to make our way home. Characters who will point us True north. Characters who stand for something. For Truth, Justice, dare I say it? The American Way.
So, today I want to make the case for the classic hero. Because right now, we don’t need women and men who are deeply flawed. We’re already surrounded by them. We see them on our screens, we read about them in the news, and we stare at them in the mirror.
We need characters who are better than us. Characters who are superior in heart and mind. Or, just plain Super…
What is a classic hero?
A classic hero is a character who is born a hero. They are set apart from the common man. Superman was the last son of Krypton. Perseus was the mortal son of Zeus. And, Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, the word made flesh.
The point is these characters do not choose greatness. Rather greatness is thrust upon them. They do, however, choose to leverage their power in a way that benefits their community. Because in the immortal words of Uncle Ben:
Loneliness is the name of the game
But with all that power, and all that responsibility comes an equal amount of isolation. Take, for instance, Harry Potter. A classic hero if there ever was one. Constantly isolated among his peers. They scorned him, distrusted him, abused him. In the end, he was still willing to sacrifice himself for his fellows.
Even his two best friends shared a connection with one another, that he was excluded from. A deep and profound love that Harry only viewed from the sidelines. But, as a classic hero, that was his lot in life.
The same is true for other classic heroes. Peter Parker is forced to hide his identity from his true love.
Superman is an immigrant, forever an outsider in his adopted land. And Hermione Granger always places the greater good over her own selfish interests.
Yes, it is a lonely road that the classic hero must travel, but it is a path of their own choosing.
This loneliness is contrasted to other characters in your story. Characters free to pursue normal lives and relationships.
Who are our classic heroes?
In literature, they’re all around you. From Hester Prynne to Katniss Everdeen; King Arthur to Luke Skywalker. They are the “chosen ones,” either by birth or by fate. Characters who are willing to do what others won’t or can’t. Above all, they are the characters who stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Characteristics of a classic hero:
Classic heroes defend the people who can’t defend themselves. The most vulnerable in our society.
Your classic heroes are courageous, proud, virtuous, and just. But, don’t confuse this with perfection. Because in reality perfection is impossible and in fiction it’s boring. Courage can be crippled by ignorance, and with pride often comes vanity. Virtue and justice, when twisted, become rigid and dogmatic.
The key is empathy. Your reader must identify with your hero. Don’t make your character perfect. Just make them good.
The Fatal Flaw
Your classic hero shouldn’t be perfect, and they also shouldn’t be immortal or infallible. Classic heroes are often saddled with a single mortal weakness. Samson had Dahlia. Superman can be brought down by, ironically, a fragment of his former home. Harry was the accidental Horcrux, the poor bastard. And Achilles had, well, his heels.
The point of these flaws is to introduce conflict. A character who can’t be killed is a character who isn’t worth writing about.
Why do we write about classic heroes?
Because a hero is a symbol. They’re not who we are. They who we should be. Superman is a humble farm boy from Kansas, but for one fact. He is imbued with almost god-like power. And what does he do with it? He doesn’t bend the world to his will even though he’s capable. Even though his intentions would be virtuous and just. That’s not in his nature. He doesn’t want to control. He only wants to help.
So, what does Superman do? Yes, he battles aliens and he diverts catastrophes. But also…
He saves kittens from trees. Not because it’s the most important thing in the world, but because it’s what one little girl needs from him.
Classic heroes serve those in need. In an imperfect world, those are the kind of heroes we need. The heroes we should strive to be.