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How real must a fictional hero be?

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When we watch a movie, TV show, read books, or even write our own heroes in fiction: How real do we really want them to be?


I was reading an op-ed piece about Batman franchise and it gave me a big eye-opener about fiction and reality.


Part of Batman’s success with audiences is the impression among viewers that maybe, just maybe, Batman is possible. It’s not really true, of course, but people love to think of Batman as being among the most “possible” superheroes, that if someone really commits to training and trying hard enough, maybe they could become Batman. That appeal is enhanced by the fact Batman usually operates in a world that is recognizable to us, dark urban landscapes that reflect our fears and social ills, and we look down the streets of that city and it’s not too hard to imagine it’s our own. Peppering this illusionary realism with the more outlandish elements works, precisely because audiences buy into the character so strongly due precisely to the false sense of realism in the character and his world.

Compare that to the nature of other Heroes in fiction whether it is the magical world of Harry Potter or Marvel's Avengers. Audiences and readers alike love that type of fantasy as well, because the heroes are completely fiction.


Do we really need to ground our heroes in the realm of the "possible" with characterizations and emotions based off our humanity? Or, can we have heroes that defy human expectations, where there is no human like characteristic at all with their issues?


It's an interesting question and something GA readers may enjoy thinking about their favorite GA characters and authors.

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I think that there is a fine line between believable and cliche.


Humans are complex and they have many levels. The problem that I've seen is that these complexities become too easy for some writers. How many times have we seen:

  • The cynical/angry cop with problems at home.
  • The military officer that is haunted by a failed mission.
  • The evil industrialist that is evil for no particular reason.
  • The just married lovable rookie cop that's about to die.
  • The guy in the red shirt that's doomed.
Characters like these are immediately recognizable from Law & Order, Last Resort, every movie made in the eighties and Star Trek.


How much trouble is it really to show another side and move past the cliche.


For instance: In the Last Boy Scout Bruce Willis plays a hard-bitten smart-ass private detective. He does indeed have problems at home but when asked why he doesn't get a divorce, he says because grass is green, the sky is blue and I still love my wife. Consider how much more you tell the reader about a character when you show that side of him.


Why is the military officer haunted? Did he screw up? Is he afraid that he'll screw up again? Is he blaming himself for the inevitable consequences of a no win situation?


Why is the industrialist evil? Is he in competition with the memory of a domineering father that told him he was a little faggot that would never amount to anything? Is he doing everything he can to "beat" his father? Is he desperately trying to keep a dying industry alive on life support?


The rookie cop in Judge Dredd that rushed the door and got killed... was he just plain dumb or suicidal?


The red shirt that gets killed protecting a core character... does he even have a personality?


Yes... you want your characters to ring true but remember: not everything you write requires a detailed character study. Sometimes the reader doesn't need to know.


With protagonists and secondary characters, it's good idea to give them depth and consistency... or inconsistency as long as it makes sense in character.

Edited by jamessavik
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In many fantasy and sci-fi venues, the world is created is the expectation is the "reality" needs to conform to this world view. Sometimes this breaks - for instance, ***SPOILER*** but in the third Matrix Movie, Neo performed tasks that should not be possible in the "outside world".


So looking at just the Avengers - we have a multiverse with many alien races, and as well as many races of gods spawned by the life essences of mortals who believed in them. So Thor and Loki are powerful but constrained by their heritage and powers. But you also have Hawkeye, Black Widow and Iron Man, who are a bit more in the Batman mode of incredible trainng plus some fancy (expensive) toys. The Hult and Captain America are more of a mix - chemically created though Cap has the added advantage of an almost mystical shield. People live, interact, die - because of the contraints that have been established. Once in a while, a "cheat" happens, like bringing back a dead character or doing a massive multiverse-merge. But good stories and interesting characters can still be crafted in this, or other worlds, such as Harry Potter's universe.


Good world-crafting is the key - and then making sure to not violate your own creation.

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The Captain's shield isn't mythical, it was originally a triangular shielf made of bulletproof alloy. Comic franchise issues occured, switching it to the round one. The whole 'the shield is a special vibrational metal that only comes from another planet' bit came way way way later than the original comics, and the movies.


But I'm letting my geek show.


Anyway, I don't think that we have to make our heroes be the 'guy next door' in order to make them appeal to readers. We simply have to make them 'human'. Consider the varying qualities about each character that prevents them from being 'too perfect'. Clark Kent - Superman's mild mannered disguise - is a bit clumsy and hopelessly shy. Bruce Banner obviously struggles with repressed anger issues, yet is a gentle giant at heart. Batman has a vendetta in his heart over his parent's murders and can act irrationally in that regard. Iron Man's Tony Stark is a irresponsible playboy, until it really matters.


In my own stories, I have a male character that is a tech genius that freelances for the government that swoops in to help my main character get out of a very bad situation. Yet, I had an ex of his show up early on and point out how very very bad this guy was at relationships, due to his work and personal failures to connect with his date/partner. (Double Down, if anyone's interested in which story I mean)


In Nephy's Face in the Window, Haze swoops in to help Ace from the abuse he's experiencing and the way his family treats him like he is a helpless child, yet Haze has his own very real and damaging temper issues due to a past trauma that affects his own family.


In Andy's Premium story, Chosen of Honorus, Farrell, the wizard who is supposed to save the world, is a horrible slob and a more than a bit impatient.


No matter what genre, age, or type of character, the common thread through all of these is that no matter how powerful, smart, or good they are, they have very human qualities we can relate to. Everyone might say they want the perfect man, but really, how boring would that be? I want to see the flaws and the struggles to overcome challenges by my heroes in stories, because that way I feel I can root alongside them as they gain their deserved happily ever after moment.

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Trebs says it exactly. It all depends on the world the author creates.

Any character can violate the laws of our 'real world' as long as their actions, abilities etc are consistent with those of the world they are part of.


By definition 'fictional' characters can't be real.

They can feel that way to the reader though, and it's the human qualities which Cia has just mentioned which a good author will use to help the reader identify with, or relate to, those characters.

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Short answer: the character can be as real as you want him/her to be.


Longer explanation. There is no rule concerning this. In general, though fiction is fictitious, but it is "make believe." Therefore, the author will make some attempt to make it real and relatable. The contemporary writing style is realism so it's generally safer to follow the modern convention. Though that's not to say if you want to write in Romanticism style, you can't. Les Miserable has a ten years gap between when Victor Hugo started and then picked up again. My teacher mentioned to us that there is a visible difference when he first started, the literary movement was still at the end of Romanticism and when he picked up again, Hugo simply could not ignore the world was going forward with Realism, so the last half of the story has an altered styled, accordingly.


That said, another teacher said ever since 60's or so, literary movement is more experimental rather than terms like "Realism", "Romanticism", "Modernism", "Shakespearean", etc., defining what style the story is in. So it's what you want the story to be. You're the author. There are still composers dedicating in writing classical music, so there is really no reason why you shouldn't write in a style you're more comfortable with, just you have to prepare that people will ask questions if you're not going with the contemporary trend. I also shoot my landscape photos in a more traditional style, so sometimes I feel it's harder to explain why my color is not as vibrant and less contrasty and exposure is more conservative, because I rely very little on using photoshop to make things pop a little (but I feel that'll lose realism in the process), though lately I've been bow out on that and start to post-process my photos a little more liberally (I mean landscape photos. Other genres I've always post-processed them based on conceptual vision, but landscape I feel it should be "natural"). But it's a very hard sell if you go against the trend, when people are so used to seeing unrealistic level of color based on Photoshop manipulation (there are ways to make color pop using just lighting, but that's not what I see usually).


It's interesting you're bringing Batman as an example. Many Marvell comics are usually written by different authors during their long run, and each author will give different interpretations to them. So some interpretation will be more real than others. I don't read comics, but I've heard people will like a certain "era" better because the "Batman" under so and so author is better, and each person's taste does differ, so there is a room for different level of "realism" if you want to call it that way. That said, whatever you choose to do, be sure the story is relatable. People tend to like a character who they can relate better. People do have different backgrounds and different life experience, so some will like some story better while the another person might trash the same story purely because the latter person cannot relate to that story. If the story is completely unrelatable to anyone, then it's very difficult to find a reader base. In that case, it's no longer a stylistic approach issue.

Edited by Ashi
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We all have our Geekdoms. Superheros - whether DC or Marvel appeal to us. They show what we aspire to and yet they need to allow the reader in. Whether you are looking at bumbling of a teenage Spiderman or the godly powers of Wonder Woman no matter how powerful they are, they still have chinks that allow you to see them as human. Naturally both DC and Marvel have their purely human superheros that allow people to dream. Whether it is Captain America or Hawkeye from Marvel or Batman and Green Arrow from DC you see that even the average human being can work to be more. We love the heartache of Wolverine and how Superman is always the big Blue Boyscout. I think it isn't that we want to be them as much as we want the ability to see ourselves as being capable of acting that way. They are all flawed and no one is perfect.

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Relatability and Consistency is key. You have to give them enough human qualities that the reader/viewer can see the humanity within them so they can relate to them. It also makes them believable. Consistency! Don't keep adding or taking away from the character's ability(ies). Consistency is important throughout a lot of other genres, but in Fantasy/Super Hero stuff writers have the tendency to surprise readers with a new power or a new ability or a new hindrance to fit their plot instead of keeping the character within their primary mold. If you create a weakness.. don't take it away. If you create a power that goes one way... keep it going that way. Mind reading/Future telling seems to be the one most writers struggle with. Need to be careful and specific with the limitations and the way they do it.

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A lot also depends on what is labelled 'hero'. Go backwards in time and read Jim Thompson (underrated American NOIR novelist) - one of the first, along with David Geddis, Paul Cain, etc, to bring stories to market which involved 'anti-hero' types. In their day, that meant work like The Grifters, Don't Shoot The Piano Player (etc) - other genres had similar - Vonegut, Sladek, in SF, for example.


However, and I should point out here that I am NOT a fan, part of the success of the Twilight material is because there has been a re-defining of Vampire, away from Hollywood/RKO and created it, sadly, without acknowledgement to Mick Farren's work in the 1980s & 1990s.


Hero isn't synonymous with Super, or Good for that matter - it is some character whom you care for within your chosen suspension of disbelief.

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Great insights guys and lady krista :D


A lot also depends on what is labelled 'hero'. Go backwards in time and read Jim Thompson (underrated American NOIR novelist) - one of the first, along with David Geddis, Paul Cain, etc, to bring stories to market which involved 'anti-hero' types. In their day, that meant work like The Grifters, Don't Shoot The Piano Player (etc) - other genres had similar - Vonegut, Sladek, in SF, for example.


However, and I should point out here that I am NOT a fan, part of the success of the Twilight material is because there has been a re-defining of Vampire, away from Hollywood/RKO and created it, sadly, without acknowledgement to Mick Farren's work in the 1980s & 1990s.


Hero isn't synonymous with Super, or Good for that matter - it is some character whom you care for within your chosen suspension of disbelief.


I love anti-heroes and anti-villains (people with heroic ideals who serve a dark purpose).


I thought it was Joss Whedon with buffy who redefined vampires in the 90's.

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Charmed was the TV show which seemed to work best with Angels & Demons swapping roles, I think. Was never a Buffy the Vampire Slapper fan - Twilight, as I understand it, has Vampires that can move around in sunlight - apparently they 'sparkle' (I will sit through most things in the name of Love and my Best Beloved has certainly used that to his advantage on many occasions - one more freaking Shirley Bassey concert and I will not be held responsible for my psychotic reaction :) )


I think with Buffy it was more a case of the progression of the character herself - Twilight seems to be something of a new genre - there again, I also remember Tanya Huff writing material, and there was the BBC show Being Human which had an exceptionally good pilot, but got stalled for three or four years before they green lighted it.


If you like 1930s NOIR, then if you haven't read it already, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a good starting point - Travis McGee novels & the Lew Archer material from Ross MacDonald

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Charmed was self defeating on its exploration of good and evil after the show turned Cole completely evil. However that worked for me as plot development, because he was behaving human in the choices leading to evil aka it wasn't his demonic nature that pushed him to the dark side, it was his love for phoebe. (Yes i was a charmed fan too)


I don't care for twilight much. After Buffy and Angel series, I tended toward werewolves in fiction, less pale and more manly.


As for noir, you know my kryptonite. I love noir and neo-noir stories filled with lots of ambiguity and subtlety. Batman at times is an homage and descendant of the noir genre, especially during 1990's with Batman the animated series (B:tas, especially stories like "p.o.v"). It was Batman that got me interested in that genre.

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"Werewolf? There wolf!" (the late Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein)


The modern Batman has been a strange beast - certainly from a graphic novel viewpoint. For me, it was Bantam reprinting Doc Savage & The Shadow (along with The Spider - UK-based weekly 'kids' comic back in 1965) - and later The Shadow from the 1987/1988 sadly much maligned DC revival.


For some idea of The Spider - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spider_%28British_comics%29

Edited by Xtro
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