A couple of days ago, Rawle Nyanzi made a thoughtful post about virtue and heroism. I think he hit the nail on the head by attacking the notion that heroism and villainy are subjective.
Heroes can be found in every corner of the globe. From Chinese wuxia tales to Western knights-errant, classical Japanese samurai to modern day manga heroes, heroes hold universal appeal. But what makes heroes special?
They uphold the values and virtues of the societies they live in.
The xiake dedicates his life and his sword to justice and freedom, helping the innocent and the oppressed, and defies of bandits and corrupt rulers alike. The idealised samurai lives a humble, austere life in service to his lord, seeking to perfect the art of the sword and to cut down evil wherever it emerges. Superman fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
Heroes hold themselves to high standards and act according to those standards. In doing so they affirm and uphold the values of the society they live in. Everywhere they go, the world is a little bit safer. They provide an ideal to aspire to, achieving both self-perfection and the continued preservation of civilisation.
The fashion of subverting traditional heroism by having heroes and villains use evil means for evil ends reduces the conflict between both sides to a battle between opposing faction of blackguards. In a world where morality is subjective, there are no moral standards against which to hold anyone to account. There is no struggle against temptation or barbarism, for without objective standards there is no lower place to tempt someone to fall, and no basis to condemn something as barbaric. There is only the will to power, and what foul deeds may spring from the naked pursuit of ambitions and desires.
In such a story, there is no reason for anyone to act nobly, selflessly or honestly. No one will uphold the laws and values that underpin society; thus, there is no one doing the necessary work of keeping the in-story civilisation alive. From the perspective of the readers, there is no one who will inspire them to become better people, no models for virtuous behaviour, no ideals to live up to.
For readers to recognize that both sides in such a story are similarly heinous, the readers must themselves have objective moral standards — the same standards that the story decries. For readers without moral standards, such a story serves only to encourage them to contine subverting the values that undergird civilisation.
For a character to be a hero, he must embody virtue. But it does not mean he must be flawless — or fatally flawed.
The Obssession with Flaws
The day after Rawle’s piece, Yakov Merkin discusses the obsession with character flaws and why he stopped worrying about flaws.
I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that every hero must have some kind of major flaw. Every aspect of a character, including his flaws, must be organic and contribute to the story in some fashion. If a character flaw has no impact on the story, that flaw doesn’t need to exist on the page.
We can see this concept best in noir stories. This genre is characterised by characters who doom themselves by failing to overcome their fatal flaws. In Double Indemnity and The Guard, it is greed; in Taxi Driver it is a potent mix of loneliness and wrath. These flaws propel the characters across a moral line, leading them to self-destruction. There are no heroes, only villains and victims.
Stories with flawed heroes, by contrast, require the characters to confront their flaws. Instead of letting their flaws destroy them, they battle their flaws in a bid to become better people. Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series has Taylor consumed by his addictions and his rage, but he eventually succeeds in going clean and learning to forgive those who have wronged him. Heroes are marked by their dedication to virtue and their opposition to evil, and by having them face the evil within, they earn the reader’s respect.
With that said, it’s not necessary to have flawed heroes either. Neither Conan nor John Carter of Mars possess major flaws; likewise more modern heroes like Izuku Midoriya and Elvis Cole don’t have major character flaws that undermine their ability to do good.
Heroes don’t have to be flawed to be heroes. The best stories with flawed heroes have the heroes overcoming their flaws to become better people, and by extension, better serve the cause of civilisation. They show people that human frailties can be overcome, that there is always hope to become a better person.
What about antiheroes?
Antiheroes are not conventional virtuous heroes. They may lack courage, integrity, compassion, or some other classical virtue. However, I would argue that the difference between antiheroes and villains is that the former (however reluctantly) still does good in the end.
John Constantine of Hellblazer is selfish, arrogant and manipulative, but he barely redeems himself by defeating the schemes of demons and sorcerers alike. The Shadow and The Punisher wage war on criminals, but they restrict their wrath to the guilty and leave the innocent alone. Kail Leonard of Tsuyokote New Saga lies, cheats, murders and manipulates everyone around him — but he is driven by higher goals.
Antiheroes allow a storyteller to explore themes that can’t be done with conventional heroes. In Tsuyokote New Saga, Kail Leonard is sent back in time after defeating the Demon King in a terrible battle. He decides that he will do everything in his power to prevent the Demon King from invading the human realm again — and is not bound by conventional morality. Such a story explores the notion of whether the ends justify the means, and indeed the protagonist keeps noting how things have changed from the original timeline.
With their flaws front and centre, antihero stories have opportunities for redemption. Jack Taylor gets a shot at a better life in America, but he chooses to stay in his native Galway to support a friend diagnosed with breast cancer. His rage and stubbornness makes enemies of everyone around him, but he learns to forgive someone who tried to kill him. Because of his flaws, these small victories have great weight.
Flaws also point the way to tragedy. Ah Jong of John Woo’s The Killer is a hitman with a conscience. After blinding a nightclub singer during a gunfight, he vows to raise the money needed to send her overseas for surgery. However, his life of crime comes back to haunt him, and his boss double-crosses him. He eventually raises the money she needs, but dies in the final shootout.
For antiheroes to be seen as antiheroes, they must be viewed in the lens of objective morality. To appreciate such characters, the audience must have moral standards to compare these heroes against. Antiheroes may not be paragons of virtue, they may be riddled with flaws, but they still do good. They still have hope for redemption.
Virtues and Villains
Virtues define a hero. He acts to uphold the laws and values of his society, be it the world of the rivers and lakes, Edo-era Japan, or Golden Age America. This quest for righteousness is the heart of a hero; any skills and superpowers he may have serve only to aid him along the way.
Heroes without objective moral standards are not heroes at all. Even heroes driven by a personal code of honour, such as wuxia heroes, have ideals they strive for and standards that hold them in check. Without restraint or a higher goal to aspire to, there is nothing stopping people with superior skills to pursue selfish goals at the expense of society.
Those who do are called villains.
A hero’s quest to uphold virtue and overcome evil recognises higher goals and strict standards. The tale of an amoral villain protagonist celebrates only vice and nihilism. The latter leaves a foul taste in the mouth; the former inspires readers to become more than they are.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, stories about heroes don’t tell readers that evil exists. Readers already know evil exists. These stories tell readers that evil can be defeated.
Hero stories don’t have to be boring or simplistic. If you like stories about complex heroes struggling in a world shaded with grey, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.