Daily Archives: October 10, 2010

Heroes Part I: Balancing Realism in Heroic Fiction

The other day I was typing along, working on my Waverly Hall project, and I was writing a scene where Meg and Reep once again escaped a painful death by mere inches.  As I worked, the analytical side of my brain started to question the probability of it all.  Here we have a teenage girl and an animal that doesn’t exist gallivanting through another world, challenging a villain, Korluus, who would perhaps make Hitler look like a warm, fuzzy kitten.  Despite the fact that this tyrant has kept an entire world under his thumb for hundreds of years, not only can he not deal with her summarily, but this high schooler and her inter-dimensional pet manage to derail his plans and break his hold over an entire planet.  What sense does that make?  After all, Korluus has read the Evil Overlord list.  Wouldn’t it make more sense if Korluus simply had his minions track them down and dispatch them without further ado?

It would, I suppose, but in reality Meg is one of a very special breed.  She is a hero and by definition she must defy the laws of sense and probability.  At the same time, she must do so in completely believable ways.

When we consider many of the best works of fiction, we find that my scenario given above is really no more difficult to believe than others in the abstract.  In The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien places the fate of an entire world on the shoulders of a short, fuzzy-footed creature called a hobbit.  Frodo, with his companions, manages to avoid entire hordes of vicious orcs for a year before he finally throws the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom.  If we were being “real” it is doubtful that the hobbits would have made it out of the shire before the nazgul had caught them, filleted them, and given the Ring back to Sauron (which he could enjoy over a nice hobbit steak).  C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are certainly no different.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children manage to lead the overthrow of a powerful sorceress who had kept Narnia in her spell for decades.  Even with the help of Aslan, if we were being “real” Jadis would have simply killed Edmund when she had the chance, and it all would have ended there.  If J. K. Rowling had made Lord Voldemort even one tenth “real” evil wizard, Harry Potter and his friends would have died ten times over before the end of the second book.

Of course, most readers don’t notice any of that when they’re actually reading the books.  If they do, they simply chuckle to themselves about how they would have done things differently and then move on to the next page.

Kyle has artfully pointed out many of the key elements of a good villain.  The balance between the hero’s almost (sometimes literal) supernatural ability to perform beyond all realistic expectations and the harsh practicality of any given situation is perhaps the trickiest to maintain.  If the author strays too far away from believability, it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief.  The character and the story then lose credibility.  If the author sticks too closely to realism, the story becomes boring at best and downright disheartening at worst.  Maintaining the balance is key.

We read heroic fiction—including fantasy and science fiction—because on some level we want to experience reality as it cannot be for us.  Few people, if any, read books because they want to feel dejected about the futility of life.  We want to see things work out miraculously for the hero, but it should never be too easy.  The hero should live in very real, very interesting times, but just as importantly he or she should find a way to rise above them.