Does the world shape the hero, or the hero shape the world?
This dance between hero and world, between inner and outer change, between being shaped by the world and shaping the world, makes for the richest heroes when the two “flows” are balanced. The world challenges the hero to grow and change, and the hero in turn shapes the world. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a love affair.
To be a hero, the protagonist must shape the world according to their vision. If they don’t, then they’re not heroes! (If they DO impact the world, they also might not be heroes; they could be villains… or a more nuanced shade of gray in between).
“The world” here can take several different meanings. If we’re talking a personal, inter-character drama, the world might simply mean another character, or small set of characters. Maybe the hero is a mentor who helps someone else resolve an issue or have a moment of growth. In epic fantasy, the world usually has a much larger “circle of concern”, determining the fate of continents, lands, or even truly the world.
The point being: the hero must have an external impact on the world. Even in the case of a stylized psychological story, with a character cast of one, where the person might be overcoming a psychological issue, “the world environment” in this case would be the character’s own mind.
A hero must be an agent of change.
But in my view, the richest stories are where the world is a coequal partner in the romance of change. The world impacts the hero, and the hero undergoes change. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t start as a hero. Maybe the hero is shattered by the change he or she must enact on the world. Maybe the hero starts out as a straight forward champion, and become an anti-hero to save the world. There are many possibilities.
Aradma (When Dragons Die)
In my trilogy When Dragons Die, one of the main protagonists is a seelie (elven) druid named Aradma. Through the first two books, she’s largely a character who observes and reacts to the world. There are several spurts of action in Lightfall (when she frees the Troll society from religious fundamentalism), and in Covenant when she finally takes action against the vampire incursion. Her great flaw, however, is that after the effect she has on the Trolls, and after she has a child, she withdraws from the world. She is too hesitant and fearful that she might be overstepping her bounds. She has great power, but she doesn’t want to impose her will on others.
But, she’s a hero. (Ok, a heroine). The old adage holds true, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and her sin is not living up to herself and what she’s capable of. Every time she delays too long, the price paid when she finally acts is greater yet. In the third book, The Tides of Artalon (to be released December 2013), she finally comes into her own in full, and steps up to the plate. Until then, the world has shaped her more than she’s shaped the world, but at the end she is instrumental in transforming Ahmbren into something completely new, though some won’t agree with her vision.
Kal El (Superman, Man of Steel)
Superman also has a two-way dynamic. In the movie Man of Steel, it’s easy to see the impact he has on the world. His immutable nature is reflected in his incorruptible character. It’s easy to make the mistake and think he’s a one-way hero, who acts on the world while the world doesn’t act on him. He’s going to do what he’s going to do, and there’s nothing the humans of the world can do to change that.
But that would be wrong. His character is shaped by the world, specifically through the Kents, by growing up here. He may be Kryptonian, but he has a distinctly human personality and set of morals. He may be alien, but he’s the embodiment of the human ideal, the product of our planet. So, we still see the two-way dynamic here.
The problem, of course, with Kal El is that much of his character change happens off screen, in between scenes. His presentation is rather static, and the audience doesn’t get to experience his character growth. In presentation, he’s definitely weighted towards the “external change” end of the spectrum.
Frodo (The Lord of the Rings)
Frodo is another predominantly “external hero” character. He rises to the challenge, but he doesn’t really change much as a character. He’s slowly corrupted, but that’s an external battle with the Ring, not a true inner struggle against his own self. He does what must be done from the beginning, and is, in my view, a rather one-dimensional hero. What makes him interesting is his external struggle—he’s not Aragorn or Boromir, or Gandalf. He’s a salt-of-the-earth person, a simple man of the garden and pastoral countryside, who does what must be done. What he does is truly heroic because he wins through sheer determination, courage, and moral fiber. He doesn’t have a magic sword, or secret magic powers to draw upon. It’s through courage, resilience and compassion that he succeeds (and really, that Sam succeeds) rather than strength and power.
Harry Potter (Harry Potter)
The Harry Potter series does a fantastic job of balancing world-influences-hero and hero-influences-world. He starts as a young boy with a sense of wonder about the world he’s going into. His view of the world is fairly simplistic: most people are basically good, except his foster family. Adults wizards and witches are good, as are most wizards and witches, except Draco and company. As the series progresses, he grows up and his view on the world becomes more nuanced as he peels back the onion.
What I especially liked about Harry Potter, in addition to the content of the books raising in maturity level to meet the age of the characters, is his own inner struggle with ego and desire. He feels entitled to know more from the beginning, and really starts to second-guess Dumbledore in the middle books. I find this an accurate view of adolescence, the idea that once you pierce a few illusions of childhood, your new perspective must be accurate… so accurate in fact it’s even more accurate than your elders’ views… because they’re the ones who supported the earlier world view that you just shattered. Right? Well… we all know life’s a bit more complicated than that, and most of us come around to realizing how wise our parents are, after we have to test everything for ourselves. Harry Potter makes this journey, and saves the world to boot. Good job, Harry.
Rand al’Thor (The Wheel of Time)
The protagonist in Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time also is an excellent case of balance between world-shapes-hero and hero-shapes-world. Despite the overly long series (14 books to tell the story), this is still, perhaps, my favorite fantasy series. Of course, Rand broke the world (in a prior life) and now will save the world in the Last Battle against the Dark One, but the real story is the journey in between those two points. Rand must struggle with the personality and memories of who he was in the prior incarnation, keep his sanity against the taint of the male-half of the One Power, and come up with a plan to unite the world in preparation for the last battle.
But, the interesting part is his relationship with the female Aes Sedai who would mentor him. When we start the series, we very much feel they should shut up and listen to Rand, because he’s the chosen one and is the incarnation of “the Dragon”. The Aes Sedai seem like nothing more than stuck-up political meddlers, who are too used to being the greatest power in the world. We think they need the perspective he’ll bring because their power levels aren’t the same.
But then, their relationships becomes more complex, and some of the Aes Sedai do have a wisdom beyond what Rand sees. Rand hardens himself in order to survive his task even as he rises in power, but unchecked his ego will break and he will fail. He’ll become too hard, and would fall to darkness if he can’t swallow his pride and listen to the perspective of some of the ‘younger souls’. As annoying as the Aes Sedai can be at times, their guidance is necessary, and he only starts to become who he must in order to succeed without destroying the world in the Last Battle when he starts to actually listen to people and take advice… and admit when he’s wrong.
In summary: Heroes and the World are Lovers in an Affair
To summarize, the relationship between the hero and the world is something like a love-affair. It’s a two way street, rocky at times, wonderful at times, and the best relationships change both lovers for the better, bringing strength, insight, and growth to both parties.
So that’s all for this week. Hope you all have a great weekend, and see you next week!