Breakdown of a hero, pt 2: What not to do

On Wednesday, I broke down some of my favorite heroes:  Batman (in all his incarnations), Jason Bourne, and Indiana Jones.  What makes them so great, in my opinion, is that despite their overwhelming awesome talents and minds, they have flaws and their own unique motivations.

I’d planned on devoting part 2 to how my own characters compare, but today while at the gym I got to thinking about heroes on the other end of the spectrum, and thought I’d highlight a few horrible heroes as an example of what not to do.

The biggest flaw a hero can have is to not have any flaws at all.  This is called a Mary Sue character, and it pops up all the time.

Tarl Cabot
Fortunately for the world, Tarl Cabot isn’t very well known.  He’s the hero of a series called the Chronicles of Gor, written by John Norman.  The premise is that Tarl is transported from Earth to the planet Gor, where warrior men fight for control of various city-states and enslave all the women as sex-slaves.  I’ll ignore the philosophy and horrible writing to focus on Tarl himself.

He arrives on Gor unable to speak the language, but he quickly learns it because he’s just so dang smart (he also becomes a chess master in later books, again because of his wonderful intellect).  He masters every single weapon on the planet, quickly becoming better than people who’ve spent their whole life using it.  He understands the nuances of every culture and tribe, and often is able to become a leader in each society he encounters – the plains warrior nomads, the desert nomads (headed by Saladin, because the author has no imagination), the merchants, the fishermen, the city gladiators, etc. And in each book, he has untold numbers of women throwing themselves at his feet because he’s just so darned attractive.

So, in short, there’s a handsome, strong, smart warrior leader who can defeat everyone and always gets the girl.  Just about every book in the series portrays him this way.  It got so that I was actively rooting against him.  That’s not something you want for your character.

The name says it all.  X-ray vision. Superhuman strength. Ability to fly. He can probably breathe underwater. Hell, if I had those powers, I could be a crimefighter too.

Yes, he has his weakness in Kryptonite.  And Batman and Lex Luther know it.  But when it comes down to fighting criminals, Superman will always win.  There’s no element of surprise that you get with mortal superheroes.  And maybe that’s the appeal, in that you have someone who’ll always win.  But who wants to read a story where you already know the ending before it even starts?

There seems to be a universal plot in fantasy: unknown hero boy has super ability/object that makes him the chosen one to defeat a great evil.  Harry Potter. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Those dragon books by that sixteen year old whose dad owns a publishing company.  And, of course, David Eddings’ Belgariad.

Garion is an all-American boy (yes, I know he’s not American).  He’s smart but not too smart.  He’s kind, and funny, and attractive.  He’s an all-around good guy.  While he gets into trouble on his adventures, his friends – the thief, the bratty girl, the wizard in disguise, the wise old aunt – have his back.  In his world, good will always win (and hey, he might even become good friends with the leader of the bad guys, who just need to see the error of their ways).

In short – he’s boring.

Basically, what it comes down to with these guys is that if your hero is too perfect, with no flaws, he either comes across arrogant – like Tarl – or boring – like Garion.  In the real world, no one is perfect.  There’s always some flaw that we have to struggle against, that keeps us from reaching our goal.  A realistic flaw, like Batman’s devotion to a cause at the expense of a personal life, and not a cheesy one, like Superman’s reaction to a rare chunk of rock.

As I wrote about on the role of the villain, the hero needs to be someone we can identify with.  If the reader can’t see himself in the role of the hero, then why would he want to keep reading?

Which heroes do you hate?  Why?

1 Comment

  1. You know, I just hate anything that the media hits me on the head with at every opportunity and insists that I absolutely love it. I can’t stand being told what I should think. I resisted the Harry Potter books for a long time because of that, and still haven’t read a couple in the middle.

    I kind of think Harry’s a bit of a cliche. Boy hidden away to protect his future but doesn’t fit in there, the Big Bad is after him simply because of his parents, he’s the only one who can defeat the Big Bad! And of course he winds up happy in the end.

    He’d be more interesting to me if he had some serious flaw that he could never overcome. Hermione and Ron wind up happy too. I don’t care that the series is aimed at young adults, they can handle deeply flawed characters.

    So there!

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