This posts continues my meandering musing on the subject of heroism and other hopeful topics, especially as it involves fantasy storytelling. Last post dealt with heroes that are not the main protagonists of a story, but supporting characters. I now turn to the other category of hero: those that are the main protagonists of the story.
The protagonist needs to be treated a little differently from the side-character. The protagonist isn’t a Champion, or if he is, then we see through the Champion’s aura of perfection from the beginning. The protagonist is someone we identify with. He or she is flawed, uncertain, and must over time and experience come either to develop the skills and powers needed to meet the story’s challenge, or to believe in himself, or to reform his character to become a hero. Too perfect, too quickly, and we can’t identify with the protagonist or care about her. That change over the course of the story, in which the protagonist hero emerges into someone who can overcome obstacles and achieve goals, and we share in her growth as a hero and as a person, is the Journey. The Journey is the story, the character’s development and the plot weaving together like strands in a rope.
In the beginning, the protagonist isn’t up to the challenge that we soon learn he must face. One or more things is wrong or inadequate, and over the course of the Journey the problem is corrected, with the final change occurring in the course of meeting the climactic challenge and in its aftermath.
Weakness and Inexperience
The simplest way to chart the protagonist hero’s Journey is to make him weak, unschooled, unskilled, and hopelessly inadequate to defeat the Dark Lord, rule the kingdom, find the hidden magical treasure, rescue the captive princess, tame the flying horse, or whatever else the story’s quest may involve. The Journey, then, involves learning, development, and the acquisition of skills and powers. The protagonist is like Luke Skywalker, barely able to use the Force or wield a light-saber, hopelessly inadequate to face Darth Vader in combat; or like the boy Inigo Montoya, trying to fence with the six-fingered man after his father’s death and receiving scars on his cheeks for his trouble. This is the simplest form of Journey, in which the hero must learn, develop his skills, and face lesser challenges to build his confidence before he faces the big trial.
It’s also perhaps the least engaging and satisfying of the three, and is best used in combination with one or both of the others.
Lack of Confidence
A slightly more nuanced obstacle within the hero is when he doesn’t believe in himself. Raised in unexceptional circumstances, ignorant of her own potential, the hero sees herself as completely ordinary and everyday, a common peasant, an ordinary shop clerk, a simple college student. The main obstacle in the way of the hero accomplishing the great task and completing the Journey is that she doesn’t believe. The Journey, for such a hero, consists of trials that convince her, over time and through much struggle, that she is better, stronger, smarter, wiser than she thought, the right one to slay the enemy, rule the kingdom, or bring about peace in our time.
The most complicated way to allow for the hero-protagonist to grow is to make him a jerk. There are, of course, a lot of ways to do this. Maybe instead of lack of confidence, he has too much, too soon. Maybe he’s arrogant. Maybe she’s a troubled teenager who pushes everyone away. Maybe he’s a dark wizard and must undergo a crisis of conscience and personal transformation. Maybe he’s a cruel, evil warrior and must confront personal loss to learn mercy. Maybe she has always used and abused others, and must face and overcome the reasons why when she becomes a mother.
Like the growth of skill and power or of self-confidence, a moral transformation is a part of the Journey. In making that transition, the hero-protagonist allows us to make it ourselves vicariously, and to explore what we would do if confronted with a similar task (which in a metaphorical sense we are).
In the course of the Journey, the hero must make sacrifices. He or she must give something up in order to secure victory or achieve the goal. Perhaps the hero must die. Perhaps he must accept that he’s not going to marry the woman he adores. Perhaps she must allow someone else to gain the throne or other position she desires. Perhaps she must lose a cherished possession, or even, most tragically of all, accept the death of another person that she loves.
In the course of the Journey, the hero becomes someone who can make this sacrifice, this painful choice in order to save the world (literally or figuratively).
A Lesson For All of Us
Here’s the thing about the Journey, regardless of exactly how it’s constructed and what path the hero takes. It provides encouragement and inspiration for all of us reading the story, because while we aren’t all destined to defeat the Dark Lord, assume the throne, or solve the mystery of creation, we all have a Journey to make in our own lives, and something we would or should achieve, if we can overcome the obstacles that are in the way — external obstacles and, more importantly, internal ones.
And that’s the real value of the hero in fiction. He or she gives us a myth to live by, a model of who we can become and what we can aspire to be and achieve. To do that, the Journey must be two things: difficult and successful, the latter even if it’s also tragic. We should look at the hero as depicted in the story and feel a desire — not a selfish desire, but a higher ambition or purpose — to be like that, and to achieve something as fine, requiring as great an effort, and costing as dearly, as the hero does.