Friday, October 29, 2010

Conventional, Archetypal Literary Figures: The Hero

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Heroes are close, country cousins to villains. They are not perfect.

Consider Tony Stark, the fabulously wealthy, clever fellow who becomes Iron Man. He was self-absorbed, pursuing his own interests and pleasures until he becomes aware that his company kills people and he himself becomes a target of bad guys. Such a life-changing moment, we would hope, would elevate one’s purposes, and for Tony Stark, it does. Nevertheless, to survive and win, he needs a special nuclear ticker, a suit of impervious armor, and good fortune.

Most superheroes need a gimmick--just as Tony Stark does. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a special sense that allows her to detect vampires. She also possesses super strength and heals quickly. Superman isn’t even from earth, and Spidey needs venom to soar above buildings. Only poor Kick-Ass tries to go it alone; his bruises and fractures remind us that mere mortals may not win against mighty foes.

Consider Beowulf, the epic hero of the Anglo-Saxons. He loves to test his strength in swimming contests, against monsters, and in pursuit of gold. He even travels to Denmark in order to assist Hrothgar and enhance his standing in the world as a loyal man of courage, but Beowulf is not perfect. He can be deceitful, and he brags about his achievements.

In addition, in two of his most fierce battles, Beowulf, like most superheroes, cannot win without help. When he fights Grendel’s mother, he needs a sword bigger and stronger than his own. Fortune favors him when such a sword just happens to be within his reach, and as the biggest, strongest man anywhere in the world, he just happens to be able to lift it and use it to off her head. Much later in life, Beowulf faces an enraged dragon alone, and he cannot win. He’s old; his armor and shield are nothing against fire. Beowulf loses that last round, but his courage to stand before the creature becomes part of his legend.

Some mere mortals, upon whom Fortune refuses to smile, fight in spite of the odds against them. They lose, of course, but the fight itself defines them. Oedipus may be a man cursed by the gods. He is hot-headed, arrogant, impulsive, and tyrannical, but consider what Oedipus’ aims are: he wants to protect the people he believes to be his parents, he wants to save Thebes, and he wants to uncover the truth at all costs. Now those are aims we can cheer, and as a result, Oedipus rises to the level of hero, tragically cut down by his own hand and his own rotten destiny.

Hamlet is another guy who can’t catch a break. His uncle slaughters his own brother, Hamlet's father, to become King himself (by the way, Claudius is Scar; ghostly King Hamlet is Mufasa). Claudius steals Nala--I mean, Gertrude, and steals Prince Hamlet’s (Simba’s) right to the throne. The nasty uncle, now king, has allies galore and a standing army (or hyenas). What’s a prince to do? Rely upon a wart-hog and meerkat? Hardly.

But Hamlet is the hero even though he and everyone else dies in the end. Hamlet seeks the truth. He worries about his mother. He restrains his vengeful hand while considering how Denmark itself has been and will be affected. He ponders the true purposes for which man was placed on this earth. In other words, he strives for excellence in his pursuit of justice. He’s just not very nice about it all.

So that is why I assert that the heroic literary archetype is a close cousin to the villain. Both are imperfect humans, but the hero tries to rise above his own humanity and forego purely self-interested, opportunistic, petty motives in favor of divine purposes that include selflessness and courage and sacrifice. Like Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the hero risks life itself for a greater good.

Sure, heroes rescue damsels in distress, slay dragons, run into burning buildings, and solve crimes. They are often stronger and faster than the rest of us, but even the strongest and the fastest occasionally need a suit of iron, a monster sword, an AK-47, or a Taser.

Heroes rarely win without help. Sometimes they don’t win at all; sometimes they just run out of luck. Most of the time, they are no more perfect than a villain; they are just capable of empathy and able to restrain their petty impulses.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. Or read McCarthy’s award-winning novels, No Country for Old Men and The Road. In any one of these books, identify the hero and the villain(s), taking note of their traits.

Writing Challenge:

Write a story featuring a hero who is not perfect, but one whom readers can support.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Contractions

When I speak to family and friends, I use contractions often. I say I didn’t remember to pick up the milk instead of I did not remember to pick up milk. When I write e-mail messages to friends and family, I use contractions unless I need to be emphatic. For example, I did not start that rumor has more force than I didn’t do it.

In this blog post, I used contractions now and then because this post is written less formally than some others have been. This post has a conversational tone about it so contractions are appropriate.

In formal writing, though, contractions should be edited in favor of full words. Letters, contracts, messages to co-workers on company letterhead or computers, resumés, cover letters for resumés, and almost every assignment given in public school or college require that you proofread for and eliminate contractions, including all of those short-cut, shorthand text messages such as LOL.

[On April 11, 2010, the GUM lesson was also about contractions.]

Road 1ST Edition