Recently, the C.S.O. and I have been enjoying John Nettles’s old Bergerac series. Nettles’s intrepid detective Jim Bergerac, a sergeant in Jersey’s Bureau des Etranges, is a classical hero figure. He gets into any number of personal scrapes, including with his superior, his ex-wife, a succession of ladyfriends, and the rich elite of that island, but resolutely retains his dedication to the law. A few of those dramas feature as an auxiliary quasi-protagonist the character of “Ice Maiden” Philippa Vale, a highly accomplished jewel thief portrayed by the beautiful Liza Goddard. Miss Vale is a figure of a sort that’s become common in contemporary fiction: the severely ethically compromised protagonist we call an antihero.
The Philippa Vale character, and how she interacts with Jim Bergerac, got me thinking about heroes yet again. These days, antiheroes handily outnumber classical heroes. We even find them partnering with classical heroes, as in the dramas cited above. In part, that’s because we can see a bit of ourselves in them, even if we lack the skills to make a living as second-story men. But in equal or greater measure, it’s because of our cynicism.
Ours is a cynical age. The cynic is unwilling to believe that a man’s motivations can be entirely high-minded. In this, he is correct; rare is the man who acts exclusively from the demands of ethical principles. We are too conscious of our personal interests and the uncertainties of the future ever to dismiss them completely from our thoughts. Perhaps it was always that way, though the fictions of earlier eras tend to speak otherwise.
Our cynicism makes the construction of a believable hero an unusual challenge. After all, for your hero to be believable, the reader must be able to imagine that he could exist. More, he must be able to believe that your hero, or someone very much like him, might exist—perhaps even be somewhere nearby. The superhero, who’s defined to possess powers no real man could command, excludes that possibility…but so does the man who’s motivated solely by the dictates of right and wrong.
A story whose hero is outside the bounds of plausibility demands much more “willing suspension of disbelief” from its reader than it would if its hero were believable in the above sense. That’s not a fatal problem if you’re willing to position your tale in one of the speculative genres. The contemporary vogue for superheroes in fiction testifies to the existence of readers ready to accept and enjoy such tales. But the fuzzy gray zone of stories that tease reality’s limitations along their edges without utterly dismissing their constraints can also be a fascinating place to explore.
We’re not quite in the realm of magical realism here, though we’re sidling up to it. What I have in mind is a figure who stands apart but does not burst through the envelope of believable human nature. He must be somewhat larger than life in one or two senses, but comfortably well situated within what we know of Mankind in all the others.
It’s not easy to keep your hero dancing along the border that separates the world of men who could (and do) exist from the realms of impossibility. It takes effort and characterological adroitness. The cynical reader will be ever alert for steps that take your hero across the line.
There are a few such heroes in contemporary fiction. F. Paul Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” stories portray one. Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels depict another. Stephen King shows us one in Needful Things. But they’re uncommon. The typical writer either stays well within the “cynical zone,” or goes “full superhero,” or adopts the deplorable “antihero” template that currently dominates mainstream fiction.
I like tales of barely-believable heroes. One kind I’ve attempted to depict is much smarter or more potent than those around him, but remains within the bounds of believable human nature (and the laws of physics). Another is a largely ordinary fellow physically and mentally, but far more committed to his conception of right and wrong than the common run of Mankind. He would never walk away from an injustice muttering that “it’s not my problem,” or excuse a dishonesty on the grounds that “everybody does it.” But both varieties are a severe challenge to keep believable.
Whichever kind of hero you prefer to write about, the important thing is to keep them heroic: men who’ll dare greatly and risk considerably in pursuing their visions of justice. Remember always that drama arises only from situations in which men must accept hardship and risk to pursue an ethically lofty goal. A man who makes that bargain and sticks to it is a hero, even if he must fight his way past a mountain of personal inhibitions and threats to what he values. Indeed, it’s the need to surmount such fears and inhibitions that makes a hero believable to the contemporary cynic. If you can make your hero believable to the cynic, you might even relieve him of part of his burden of cynicism, at least for the duration of your novel. And cynics’ money spends just as readily as that of the starry-eyed worshippers of steely-eyed superheroes who never sway from the demands of justice, I assure you!