I just finished the fifth book of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I don’t remember the precise title (Death Masks?), but that hardly matters since the titles are the least interesting or memorable parts of the series. They are wonderful fun, each and every one of them, and while they lack in some areas (Butcher’s a bit predictable at times), I recommend them to anyone looking for some light reading in the Urban/Contemporary Fantasy genre.
Anyway, the reason I bring Butcher up is that his main character, Harry Dresden, is confronted by an otherworldly
spirit who, as payment for services rendered, asks him for an honest answer to a question: “Why do you do what you do?” In other words, why does Harry, powerful wizard, bother living his life as a protector of the mortal world, which puts him in harm’s way, hurts his finances, and ruins his personal relationships. In essence, the spirit asks Harry why he is a hero. The best part?
Harry doesn’t know the answer.
As most stories – and fantasy/scifi stories in particular – have a hero of some kind, this is a question that really needs to be pondered by any writer in the genre. We too often, I feel, simply accept the actions of the hero at face value. We shrug our shoulders and give the ol’ Uncle Ben speech about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Does it? Does it have to? I don’t think so. There’s no reason why Superman has to do the stuff he does – there are literally infinite excuses to be used to get out of helping strangers. The vast majority of humanity uses them every day, all the time; I’m no exception and neither, probably, are you. Even if we do help, it is in contained and focused ways – we give to this charity, but not to the poor directly; we’ll help people move, but we won’t care for their pets; we’ll make sure a drunk friend gets home okay, but we won’t confront him or her about their drinking problem.
I mean, ask yourself: if you could fly and stop bullets with your chest and do all the stuff superman does, would you spend all your time flying around stopping crime? If not, how much time would you spend? How long would you keep it up? Be honest with yourself.
A hero – by which I mean a real hero and not somebody we dub a hero due to some fluke of fortune – is something rare and special. I see no reason we should consider such people less rare and less special simply because they exist in another world. One of the reasons I like Harry Dresden as a character is that, for all the corniness to his person, he is a true hero but, at the same time, not an inhuman one or one that we simply accept at face value. Harry does what he does because, on some level, he can’t quite figure out what else he would do with himself. It’s a vocation, not something he shouldered because he figured he ought to. He doesn’t have a responsibility to help the helpless – this is constantly pointed out to him – yet he does it anyway. Why? He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s an idiot half the time.
I think folks with the ‘hero complex’ are people who don’t stop to think too hard about why they do what they do. They do it because they can’t imagine the alternative. That guy who runs into his neighbor’s burning house to save their dog is a hero not because he’s smart, but because he has to do that in order to feel normal. Most people wouldn’t. Nobody would blame him if he didn’t. He’s not showing off, he’s not doing it for the glory, he’s doing it because, dammit, if he let the dog die in the house it would bother him, like, forever. Yeah, it’s just a dog, but c’mon – you can hear it yelping, for Christ’s sake! You’re just going to stand there?
And another thing: you know what isn’t heroism? Revenge. Revenge is giving into your base impulses, demeaning yourself to a level of animal. We needn’t even talk of morals here or how it doesn’t solve anything – Revenge is allowing another to dictate your behavior; it is reactive, not proactive. It isn’t heroic, it’s animalistic. Frank Castle is not a hero when he kills the bad guys. If he is a hero, it is for other reasons entirely. Revenge makes for good stories and good drama, but it doesn’t make good heroes. I don’t admire such people, anyway – I understand them, yes, I even sympathize with them, but I don’t admire them.
The guy who jumps into the freezing river to save someone else’s kid? That guy is a hero. I admire him. Maybe he’s stupid, maybe he’s crazy, maybe he isn’t thinking things through, but he had to do it. He couldn’t stand there and watch. It isn’t his responsibility, true, but heroes don’t do heroic things because they’re supposed to. They do them because they can’t help themselves.