A while back, I posted on the subject of dark fiction and expressed the hope that our collective obsession with it is coming to an end. One of the defining qualities of dark fiction is the absence of heroes. In a dark story, we find protagonists to identify with, and we care what happens to them if the story is told well, but we don’t admire them. All governments are corrupt, all religious authorities hypocritical, all warriors merciless killers, and at their best even basically decent people find themselves in situations where they have to act like monsters in order to survive or to protect those they care about. Or push comes to shove and all their values of honor and integrity and compassion go out the window in a storm of fury and rage. This is the lesson of the dark side: that under the skin, or when put to the test, we are all depraved horrors.
But of course, that’s not the only (or in my opinion, the best) type of story to tell, and while it expresses a partial truth, there are other truths to be told involving hope, compassion, and the achievement of something better than the ordinary. In a story like that, a special part is played by heroes: people we look up to and admire, people that save the day, people that sacrifice themselves for a greater good, and people who, by imitating their virtues, we use as springboards to make us better people.
A hero can be, but isn’t necessarily, a main protagonist. A protagonist hero has a little different dynamic in the story than one that is not a protagonist. The protagonist is a viewpoint character (whether the story is told in first or third person) and so the reader becomes intimately aware of his or her flaws, limits, and doubts. That doesn’t have to be the case with a non-protagonist (although there’s no particular reason it can’t be), and that means a non-protagonist hero can be (apparently, from the protagonist’s perspective) pure, fearless, invincible, and glorious. All of this means that the non-protagonist hero — let’s call him the Champion — calls for a little different treatment than the protagonist hero.
A Champion is someone that the protagonist looks up to. He may be a great warrior, a powerful and wise magician, a cunning thief or spy, a noble and enlightened ruler, a spiritual teacher or leader, the protagonist’s parent or guardian, or really anyone in a position to help, support, advise, or protect the protagonist. During scenes when the protagonist and the Champion interact, the protagonist obtains important lessons on how to be a hero, on right action, and on virtues such as courage and self control. The Champion may also impart important practical skills — magic, use of the Force, how to sword fight, how to fly a space fighter, how to pick locks and scale walls — and serve as a fulcrum for the protagonist’s character development and setting up the story’s main theme and conflicts.
Having this sort of figure in the story gives the protagonist a model to emulate and someone to believe in, but of course you don’t want the protagonist to be too secure and comfortable. It can’t be possible for the protagonist to rely on the Champion entirely; he must strive with his own efforts, suffer through his crises, and deal with the consequences of his decisions. There are several ways to accomplish this.
The Champion is gone when most needed. One device to put the protagonist on his own is to simply remove the Champion from the picture at a crucial juncture. Perhaps he’s called away for some vital task that takes precedence over helping the protagonist out. Perhaps he’s overcome by truly awful foes and killed or held prisoner. Perhaps the protagonist becomes annoyed with the Champion casting such a long shadow and strikes out on his own without telling anyone.
The foe is too much for the Champion alone. In this variant, the Champion doesn’t really disappear, but the enemy is so powerful or the challenge so great that it’s beyond even the Champion’s awe-inspiring abilities. Unless the protagonist steps up to the plate and applies crucial skills and insights and courage at the right moment, all is lost.
The Champion doesn’t believe the protagonist’s warning. Another way to remove the Champion’s protection is to give him a stubborn streak, a flaw in his character that keeps him from taking the protagonist seriously. The protagonist knows that something is amiss, but the Champion refuses to believe it, and so the protagonist must face the problem without the Champion’s protection and guidance, either because it must be faced now and there is no one around to do it, or because the protagonist wants to prove to the Champion that he’s someone to take seriously.
The Champion becomes the antagonist. A third, somewhat darker way to remove the Champion is to turn him into an antagonist. This can happen by many different roads. Perhaps the Champion was always corrupt, and the protagonist comes to see this over time and turns against him. Perhaps the problem is higher up, in persons or institutions to whom the Champion has pledged loyalty, and when the protagonist struggles against those persons or institutions the Champion sees the protagonist as a traitor. Perhaps the Champion was grooming the protagonist for some sinister purpose, and the protagonist figures this out. Perhaps the Champion began sincerely, but the habit of power and honor has turned him callous and arrogant.
Whether the Champion becomes the antagonist or just isn’t there when needed, the protagonist has to face the main challenge of the story without that protection and help — maybe even up against it.
A fine line needs to be drawn here, because before that happens the protagonist must learn enough from the Champion, from companions, and from facing lesser challenges that he will be up to the challenge of facing the big threat alone. In all cases, though, the Champion presents for the reader an image of what a hero should be and what we should all strive to become. Even when the Champion turns out to be flawed or becomes an enemy, that very flaw illustrates the ideal, as something the Champion fell short of, requiring the protagonist to do better.
Copyright: Prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo