When Heroes Fall

When Heroes fall

People like heroes. But people love broken heroes.

Often our favorite fictional characters are the ones who act out rebelliously, fall to temptation, or turn out to be just plain evil. Even with their flaws, we love them all the same, if not more. But that begs the question, why do the characters we love act that way?

To Mirror Reality

A story is not a record of cause and event. It’s a snapshot of someone’s life. You’re not just reading about something that happened to someone somewhere. You’re living it.

Real lives aren’t lived out in neat little lines, chugging along like an uninterrupted choo-choo, and they certainly don’t make sense all the time. Real lives more closely resemble a painter’s palette–sometimes so messy you’re not even sure what color you’re looking at.

People can be stupid. We do dumb things all the time, often for no better reason than “I wanted to.” Why would literature, created by messy, crazy, lopsided people be anything besides messy, crazy, and lopsided?

To Teach a Lesson

Historically, stories have been an effective tool for conveying very specific and important information in a way that can be easily remembered. Like parables, parents would whisper terrible tragedies to their young ones to illustrate the importance of their warnings.

After all, originally Little Red Riding Hood got eaten by the wolf. Takeaway? Don’t talk to strangers, don’t tell them where you’re going. While you’re at it, don’t walk in the woods by yourself. That’s just stupid.

To Increase Interest

Reading about a perfect person who always makes the right choice would be like watching Superman go up against Lex Luthor, unaffected by Kryptonite. Dull and predictable. Failure is what makes a story interesting. It’s that ability to witness someone fail miserably, picking themselves up again, trying to make it right, that keeps our eyes glued to the page. It’s that not knowing what will happen–whether our hero will succeed or not–that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

When Failure is a Bad Thing

Sometimes the characters we like do dumb things that just don’t sit right with us. If this balance between believable failure and character stupidity is tipped to the wrong side, we, the audience, often disengage, not knowing exactly what threw us out of the story. All we know is we don’t like this character and are ready for something new.

Usually this scale tips because what the character did was unmotivated. Instead of acting according to their specific worldview, they did something that was completely opposite for no apparent reason.

For example, if the character you’re reading about is a sheltered Christian girl and at some point in the book she decides to give in to her persistent boyfriend, this action, according to her worldview, would be considered wrong, immoral, and damaging. A true Bible-believing Christian would do her best to remove herself from the temptation of sex before marriage. Seeing a strong Christian decide to sleep with her boyfriend for no good reason tells is that something about the development of this character is broken.

Though a failure such as this could still go over well with readers if, say, our heroine had been struggling with the temptation for a while. Or perhaps she’s under the pressure of her parents’ oncoming divorce, stressed out, and decides to act out irrationally in response to that. To put a cherry on top, our heroine should also suffer some kind of consequence due to her infidelity, more specifically, due to acting against her worldview.

A lack of proper character motivation will kick readers out of a story. WIthout proper motivation for her actions, readers will dislike our fictional heroine without even knowing why. Especially if her actions directly contrast with her own belief system. With no consequences, readers will catch on to the fact that something isn’t lining up, and because of this disconnect they themselves will disconnect with the character and the story.

In Conclusion

Characters do bad things all the time. Heroes fall and suffer the consequences. That’s what fiction is made of. When you’re favorite character does something stupid, it isn’t always a bad thing for the story as a whole. It all depends on their motivations.

Next time your favorite character does something dumb, take a good hard look into why. This may open your eyes to a much deeper, more enriching understanding of the book.

7 Responses to When Heroes Fall

  1. Bryan Kelly says:

    I find the same is true of villains. A hero who does “wrong” and has a chance to fall is usually the most interesting, as is a villain who does “right” and has a chance at redemption. I think a large part of this is that the characters are no longer static figures in the story, being either an antagonist or protagonist, or being only “good” or “evil”, but instead they take on a much more fluid role. You wonder where they might end up and what they might become, rather than knowing the story’s already decided for itself the moment it started. Characters like Gollum or Zuko embody this wonderfully.

    • Abigail Endsley says:

      Zuko’s arch was one of the best I’ve ever seen! Oh man… don’t even get me started… SO GOOD!

      My favorite thing about Gollum in particular is that doesn’t have an arch… he has a squiggle! He’s good, then is corrupted by The Ring. Then he meets Frodo who has control of The Ring and, slowly, some of his goodness shines through again. Then, he turns his back on his new “friend” and is consumed by evil once more- in the process of which, he does something EXTREMELY GOOD! (Casting the ring into the fire… he just… you know… cast himself along with it.) I would love to spend an hour just talking about Gollum and his complexity, but I’m sure everyone around me would get bored. :)

      • Bryan Kelly says:

        That scene where he reunites with Iroh! And the– wait, yeah, I better stop too.

        Or, as I now like to call it: a squigollum. It’s a new name for this sort of thing! But yeah, that’s part of what I was trying to get at. It’s when you have to constantly question what a character will do next that you really get invested in them.

        Hmm… I might last 55 minutes. But I probably would just descend into bad Gollum impressions for the last five, this is true. ;)

        • Abigail Endsley says:

          I’m sure a class would love to sit and listen to you making bad Gollum impressions. Especially if you give them chocolate! Teenagers (and adults) will do anything for chocolate.

    • Abigail Endsley says:

      I love stories even without heroes and villains at all. It’s great when you have two sides who are so THOROUGHLY convinced that they are right, but oppose each other, creating wonderful conflict and wonderful dynamic. The reader may be able to sympathize with one over the other, but they can’t say that either side is “wrong.”

      But that was kind of unrelated to your comment… it’s just where my mind went after reading what you said. ;)

      • Bryan Kelly says:

        Oh, it’s a good tangent. And totally agreed. I often yearn for that when reading fiction, but it’s fairly uncommon. It’s a lot more complex than just sticking with a morality tale.

        • Abigail Endsley says:

          Definitely. And it gets even more exciting when you can’t decide which side you’re on. I long to write a story like that. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! It’s going into my idea jar.

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