Thursday, January 19, 2012

Running on Feet of Clay -- How Bad Can a Hero Be and Still Be a Good Guy?

What makes a hero heroic? Where is the dividing line not just between the heroic and the ordinary, but between the hero and the villain? And how gray is the area between them where lurk the anti-heroes that fill modern action fiction?

Go ahead. Make his day.
There are the ideals of the (capital H) Hero, as seen in these quotes:

The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.
-- Benjamin Disraeli
Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individual's character.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.
-- Bob Dylan

But I daresay that the more perfectly noble a hero is, the more true this next quote is:

Being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth.
-- Will Rogers

Since the beginning of pulps and comics, heroes have skirted the line between good an evil actions. The Spider can be as psychotic as those he destroys. Early Batman had no qualms of shooting a villain. And so it goes.

Modern, contemporary fiction is filled with heroes that come in varying shades of gray, from almost black to bordering on silver-white. But with only a few exceptions, they aren't the cookie cutter good guys your grandmother might have taught you to look for in a hero.

To dish the dirt on fleshing the world of heroes and anti-heroes, we once again turned to some of today's working writers in the pulp, genre, and comics fields.

How important is it that your hero have "feet of clay"? 

What evil lurks in the silk-sacks of men?
Only the Spider knows!

Ed Erdelac: Very, to me. A hero is only as interesting as his faults. If a guy can save the world and not get dinged up along the way, where's the fun in that and who can relate to it? The kind of heroism I appreciate and can relate to comes from overcoming not just exterior, physical difficulties, which most anybody can do with proper motivation and training, but the inner obstacles we throw in front of ourselves, the moral, mental and ethical dilemmas, the self-doubt and excuses. I think I write heroes that don't quite know what the hell they're doing all the time, that aren't always sure of their plans or in complete control. If you take the time to foster this kind of thing, you also get the added bonus of making your antagonists a little more threatening if they can learn and exploit those inherent weaknesses in the hero's character.

Devin Grayson: Any good character—whether heroic or otherwise—needs some kind of balance. Otherwise you have a character people can’t relate to (which in turn can become a kind of de facto flaw, but only if the writer is conscious of it).  Drama is fueled by conflict; the more jagged edges your character has, the more friction you can generate. One of the challenges of a character like Superman is that his physical flaw is so specific—proximity to this one kind of rock that comes from this one obliterated planet and is therefore supposedly in short supply here—that writers end up going through absurd, distracting machinations to bring him face to face with it.  Fortunately he is more complex emotionally, so there are other kinds of stories that can be told. What kind of stories can you tell about a hero without any kind of Achilles’ heel? There’s nothing for a reader to invest in if there’s no possibility of the hero facing harm or defeat.

Adam Garcia: I don't like writing the "perfect" hero who is good just to be good. That's lazy writing and poor characterization. Flaws make a character three-dimensional, human and therefore relatable.

Troy Hickman: I'm a silver-agey guy, so that tends to color (no pun intended) my views. I want my characters to be as human as possible, and in stuff like Common Grounds and Twilight Guardian, the heroes have a TON of faults. However, that doesn't mean they have to stop acting like heroes. I'm sure Lenny Skutnik had all sorts of personality quirks and flaws, but it didn't stop him from pulling folks out of the freezing Potomac. And it didn't make Adam Strange any more "human" to suggest he'd cheat on his pregnant wife; it just made him a jerk.

Yes. Even in the '90s.
Lee Houston, Jr.: The main characters/heroes cannot be 100 percent perfect, otherwise, where's the adventure? Yet if they are too imperfect, how do they ever accomplish anything, let alone why bother to read about them? The best characters are the ones who do have a flaw (or two) yet are still able to do whatever is right/expected of them either because or despite the drawback(s) in their lives.

Sean Dulaney: While some faults lend a human touch to a character, "feet of clay" might be going too far and can start your character -- hero or anti-hero -- down the road to being a tragic figure rather than a protagonist. You want them to have something to overcome, but if you give them a fault/affliction/addiction that is too much, that runs the risk of being more the story than your intended plot, or can ring false if the protagonist overcomes it too easily.

Shane Berryhill: When writing fiction of any form, I think it's best to approach the persons in your stories as 'characters' first rather than functions (heroes, antiheroes, et cetera). In doing so, you'll automatically ground them in truth, giving them both strengths and hang-ups that make them real and therefore interesting. That said, there are many exceptions that work: Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Sherlock Holmes. I could go on. But note how even these well known tales bring the reader into the story and into the lives of their 'heroes' through the 'window' of more flawed--and therefore more human--characters. With Star Wars, it's with CP30 and R2D2 that we encounter Luke and Yoda. In Lord of the Rings, it's through Frodo and Sam that we relate to Gandalf and Aragorn. And the unapproachable Sherlock Holmes is viewed through the eyes of his more down-to-Earth companion, Dr. Watson. These 'gods of myth' are best understood when filtered through the veil of humanity.

Shane Moore: When I write my heroes (and villains) it is important to me to create a real person. If I look at heroes in today's world, they have weaknesses and some wrestle with moral dilemmas that they may often lose to. In the Abyss Walker world, what makes a hero extraordinary is not their immunity to the moral and ethical downfalls--but the successes despite them.

Jim Ritchey III: Not very...I mean, how could he or she walk? Can this hypothetical character fly? Still -- GROSS! But seriously, if you’re trying to write superhero comics, and are not a spiritual descendant of Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Denny O’Neil, Steve Gerber and/or Alan Moore and their like -- at least attempting to make superheroes behave like human beings -- you’re betraying the best of what superheroes can be. The best, most identifiable hero has to fight all obstacles -- including his/her/its own fear and doubt. People without problems don’t have souls. I’m not talking about emoting all over the place, or ‘cookie-cutter,’ obligatory pining unrequitedness, like was the bane of Marvel for 2 decades after Stan quit writing comics. Just -- put some of YOU into the protagonist, and have it make sense in driving the plot -- which should be a serious challenge to the protagonist, either internally or externally.

Sarah Beach: I like writing characters of all sorts, so all variables are possibly “in play” when I’m creating them. And then too, I know where the phrase “feet of clay” comes from: Nebuchadnezzer’s dream statue of head of gold, chest & arms of silver, belly & thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron & clay. The last is important because when the feet were smashed with a rock, the whole statue came crashing down. So … no, I don’t think it is necessarily important that my hero have such flaws that he or she is utterly broken because of them.

I do think such a character can be very interesting, but I am most likely to write a character with “feet of clay” only if I want a tragic character or story. Otherwise, I will probably dial down the intensity of any flaws I give my hero.

Chuck Miller: All of my heroes are deeply flawed, though not necessarily fatally so. I'd say it's very important to me, because I just can't write paragons. I can't really identify with someone who is perfectly good all the time. But I can identify with someone who is good in spite of himself, or who isn't above using questionable means to achieve a good end. The Black Centipede is cast in this mold. He is never unsure of himself, and is cheerfully ruthless and violent in the pursuit of his strange vocation. I've given him a compelling reason to do what he does; he is pursuing knowledge of the "Dark Power" he believes is constantly at work under the surface of the everyday world. He became aware of it through his connections with H. P. Lovecraft and Lizzie Borden, both of whom play roles in his origin story. He doesn't see himself as either good or evil, and has chosen to fight crime as a way of challenging and testing the Dark Power. He has none of the standard heroic motivations. All of this is true at the beginning of his career, anyhow, though he will evolve morally as the series progresses. He's barely in his 20s when he starts out, and he was always a peculiar child. In many ways, he never "grew up" in a conventional sense. He is still teachable, but just barely. In the second book, he forms a sort of partnership with Amelia Earhart, who acts as something of a moral compass, though it isn't an easy task. The relationship changes both of them. Generally speaking, I don't like people who are absolutely morally certain that they are doing the right thing. Most of my characters have no such certainty. Which doesn't stop them from doing it anyhow.

John Morgan Neal: It depends on the character and story/series. I certainly do not believe every hero should have feet of clay or the same level of it. Certain flaws or tics or character aspects that may make then identifiable or relateable sure. And in some cases a truly deeply flawed feet of clay type. And in some cases a Lone Ranger type who is as sterling as his silver bullets.

In the battle of hero vs. anti-hero, what's your preference to write? Why?

Ed Erdelac:  Though it may seem contradictory to my previous answer, I prefer an honest to God hero to an anti-hero. I think that's because I grew up during the antihero popularity boom in the 80's. The Punisher, Rambo, Wolverine, the 80's Kyle Baker incarnation of The Shadow, the guy who would do anything to smash the bad guys as hard as the innocents were getting smashed. I ate those up as a kid, but I think I've outgrown that mentality a little. Nowadays I admire a hero with restraint, the guy who won't necessarily cross that line because even though it might not make practical sense to the outside observer, he knows in his heart what the difference is. There's so much utter badness in the world, so much mud splashed on the knight's armor, it's kind of interesting for me to see a guy who strives to keep clean. This'll sound really corny and maybe cliched, but I think it also has to do with my dad. My dad really was the one (or at least one) good cop in the bad town. There were cops that used to come to my house for coffee when I was a kid that one day I didn't see anymore because of stuff it turned out they were into. My dad never really made headway in the department, but he never crossed that line either. I didn't learn or understand about that till maybe eight or ten years ago, but I guess it informed my opinions. My writing strays a lot into antihero territory for reality's sake, but I relish writing a `pure' hero.

Is that the face of a guy who shot first or what?
Devin Grayson: I prefer anti-heroes, because they make more sense to me.  Though our world is full of altruistic acts, the people who perform them do so for personal, sometimes selfish or even dark, reasons. To be motivated to do something great because you’ve gone through something awful is a much more interesting premise to me than to be good because you just…are.  The former is a story. The latter is a characteristic.

Adam Garcia: Anti-hero; they're far more believable.

Troy Hickman: I prefer heroes. "The anti-hero is postmodern man's way of saying 'I give up.'"

Lee Houston, Jr.: Assuming by "anti-hero" you mean someone who never sets out to do good yet still accomplishes it at times anyway, while I have yet to actually write about any anti-heroes, I really don't have a preference.

Sean Dulaney: I lean more towards wanting to do more with a "hero" character, possibly because we've seen so many attempts to do the whole "bad-ass anti-hero" thing going back to the late 60s. I like the challenge of having the guy (or gal) who is out there trying to do the right thing actually be interesting rather than being the "bland do-gooder."

Shane Berryhill: Again, I've alluded to this above, and will touch on it some more below, but the best characters are grounded in reality. And in real life, people don't fit into perfect, neat little categories such as 'hero' and 'anti-hero.' Take the main character of my novel, CHANCE FORTUNE AND THE OUTLAWS. Chance falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum -- the 'conflicted hero' area. While he's no gritty Wolverine, neither is he an 'always confident,' 'always right' Superman. In fact, in my second book, CHANCE FORTUNE IN THE SHADOWZONE, his actions, while taken with the best intentions, indirectly cause the death of his best friend. It's this gray area that mirrors real life--where right meets wrong and hero meets 'anti' -- that the most interesting characterization and storytelling take place.

Shane Moore: I prefer the anti-hero. As someone who recognizes my own downfalls and villainous inner feelings, I like to feel as if I can still be redeemed despite them.

Jim Ritchey III: Heroes, although I’m about to try to write a sympathetic, revenge-bent psychopath. Why? Because Alfred Bester already created Gully Foyle. I dunno, I try to make my antagonists as identifiable as possible, so most of the time they’re almost antiheroes. It’s good to have any character have reasons for behaving the way they do, or they’re cardboard cutouts.

Sarah Beach: Oh, definitely I prefer writing heroes. I want to write about characters I’d like to spend time with, and I find virtue more appealing than villainy. Some people complain that writing “good” characters is boring, but I actually enjoy the challenge. My take on it is that when a character chooses a more … well, virtuous route, his options for action become more limited. His emotions may be urging certain actions, but his choice to be “good” is likely to be in conflict with those impulses. I like getting into that.

The original "heel."
That said, I have chosen to write anti-heroes on occasion. I once decided I wanted to write a long narrative poem about Don Juan, based on the way the story is told in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. And I had to decide just how far I wanted to go with the character. Since, in the story, Don Juan is “so far gone” that he doesn’t even recognize the necessity of repentance, I wanted to write a completely amoral character. Which I did. And on another front, in a fantasy novel I’m writing, I have a character who has been utterly seduced and corrupted, except he hasn’t quite realized that yet.

So, I don’t mind writing anti-heroes if I have a point to it. But they’re not my first preference and I don’t write them very frequently.

Chuck Miller: As I say, I don't know what I'd do with a character who was pure hero. I much prefer anti-heroes and villains. They're more interesting psychologically and dramatically. I use a lot of historical figures in my stories, and I have yet to find one of them who holds up as a complete paragon of virtue. Some are worse than others. I try to identify the good and the bad and exploit both. William Randolph Hearst is my favorite so far.

John Morgan Neal: I honestly have no preference. I have as much fun writing the noble heroic Silver Age type hero to the more troubled and downtrodden Marvel type hero to the Spaghetti Western style "hero" who you can barely tell from the baddies. Just like I have great fun writing my villains. In Aym Geronimo I have my noble hero and her varied personalities on her team, a main antagonist who is a true villain's villain and a roguish 'anti-hero.' I know how to maximize my fun.

How bad can a good guy be and still be a good guy?

Ed Erdelac: The answer is that it directly correlates to how bad the bad guys are. If the villain of the piece is particularly heinous and cruel, you can get away with the good guy getting his hands a little dirty. The darker the adversary, the more relish the audience gets from his downfall and even suffering a bit. I'd personally draw the line at outright sadism and torture. Dirty Harry can step on a guy's bloody leg out of a need for expediency, but I don't think he wouldn't have gotten his sequels if he'd been smiling while he did it. Then again, you've got Mike Hammer treating his lover to a slow death when it turns out she's the one he's been looking for, or Marv in Sin City, who downright relishes torturing a serial killer to death. But on the other other hand that guy was mounting women's heads on a wall. See what I mean?

Devin Grayson: Motivation and intent counts for a lot, but I think this is an issue we struggle with outside of fiction as much as within it. Does an artist’s or politician’s good work excuse bad behavior? Can you admire someone’s professional legacy even if the dregs of their personal life make you cringe? Do the ends always justify the means? What precisely does intention count for? I don’t know the answers, but I think superhero stories are a terrific place to explore the questions.  

Adam Garcia: Very, it's all a matter of perspective.

Troy Hickman: It depends how you define "bad." Some people would define "bad" as, say, killing a villain. Some would define it as breaking the law. Personally, I try to depict my heroes as people who stick to their principles, and TRY to do the right thing. They're the people I'd like to be, and I know that even though I have myriad faults, I can still be a "good guy" despite them.

Lee Houston, Jr.: There are more shades of gray in our moral composition today than there used to be. Lying to a suspect has grown acceptable. Authorities are shown doing it all the time on television and presumably do so in real life too as the situation warrants. What is wrong to one person may be acceptable to another. Yet there are some things we can still all agree on. The ultimate line is still murder. If the villain dies during a shootout, or is killed just as they are about to take someone else's life, that's one thing. However, if the hero intentionally kills the villain outright in cold blood without provocation, that's another. But between the two points?

Sean Dulaney: A lot depends on genre and situations. Harry Callahan has a massive body count, but how many actual deaths in the Dirty Harry films were cases of him shooting first just for the hell of it. John McClain wound up killing a few terrorists, but they had his wife as a hostage and were trying to kill him. Luke Skywalker killed every member of the Empire on board the Death Star. Callahan is a cop, McClain is as well, but feels he has to act despite being out of his jurisdiction. Skywalker is part of a rebellion against a fascist empire that blew up a planet. The post-Crisis Superman killed (or his actions resulted in the deaths of) Phantom Zone criminals from a pocket universe when he was left with no other option. The fact that, even if it's part of the job, there can be remorse or an acceptance of punishment (Callahan's suspensions) for the "bad" actions, is key to the good guy staying a good guy.

Shane Berryhill: Good and bad can be very relative. Classically speaking, a good guy, even a bad good guy, truly becomes a bad one when he begins buying into a 'might makes right/ends justify the means' philosophy, and starts enforcing his will on those who disagree with him, fooling himself that he's doing it for the greater good when in fact he's become the very face of evil (Darth Vader, anyone?). Bad guys always believe they ARE in fact the good guys.

Shane Moore: That is entirely up to the demographic you are writing for.

So sensitive he kept a journal.
Jim Ritchey III: Pretty bad. The desire for or apathy towards redemption is an excellent plot device, and REAL LIFE is confusing. We can accidentally do bad things for the right reasons -- have perfect, shiny moral compasses and have horrible things happen because of our action or inaction. Violence is almost never appropriate in human behavior, but it’s our ‘bread and butter,’ and a nonviolent adventure story is usually mighty boring. So it helps to throw a little of the ‘Rube Goldberg’ nature of cause and effect into the mix, and imagine how you might have turned out morally bankrupt if you were a child soldier or raised abusively in some other way. If you can’t identify, at least have the character consistent. Plenty of ugly in the world to draw from. This is all just me talking to me -- MY self-imposed rules, so whatever floats yer proverbial boat, and gets you paid.

Sarah Beach: That’s an interesting question, though I don’t usually approach it that way. As I said since I like writing Good Guys, I don’t usually start with the deeply flawed dubious hero (like Sam Spade). Instead, I look to see how far gone any of the Bad Guys might be. Is there one, who for whatever reason, might choose to redeem himself. Some unexpected, last minute decision. The story possibilities, the drama of such a moment could be very exciting.

But to answer the question you actually asked, I don’t know. I think a lot of it has to depend on what the character’s heart is really set upon. We all know of real people who have committed very terrible acts because they really believed  in some “higher cause.” I think the last, most absolute threshold of “good” versus “evil” is the line between the ability to care for someone, anyone, other than the self and the state of caring only for oneself. The Good Guy will be in the first category, and anyone who chooses the second ceases to have the possibility of being a Good Guy.

Chuck Miller: It depends, I think, on what he's after, and where he draws the line-- if he does. A corollary to that question would be "How good can a bad guy be and still be a bad guy?" Sometimes my villains do very admirable things with good motivations, though they remain criminals, thieves and murderers.

John Morgan Neal: Well he can't be worse than the villain is the main thing. And as long as the reader/viewer can believe in/live vicarously through/want the hero to win. Deep down most folks are moral and ethical people and know what the important rules of life are. So do we as people and writers. If we have our heroes cross that line too far or too often then...well they aren't heroes any longer.


Look for these creators on the links to the right to check out more of their work:

Edward M. Erdelac is a member of the HWA. He writes the acclaimed weird western series Merkabah Rider for Damnation Books and has contributed to Lucasfilm's Star among other endeavors.

Devin Grayson has written for DC Comics Catwoman, The Titans, Nightwing/Huntress for DC and Black Widow for Marvel Comics and has had her work profiled in USA Today, Working Woman, and Entertainment Weekly and also in alternative press such as The Village Voice, The Advocate, and Curve.

Adam Garcia is a pulp and comic book writer, and the mastermind behind the Green Lama Unbound novel.

Troy Hickman's work includes his Eisner-nominated series Common Grounds, and his Pilot Season-winning title, Twilight Guardian , both from Top Cow. He's also done City of Heroes, Witchblade, Turok, ACTOR Comics Presents, and a ton of other stuff.

Lee Houston Jr. is a freelance writer and editor. He is the author of Hugh Monn and is writing for the forthcoming The New Adventures of the Eagle Volume One from Pulp Obscura.

Sean Dulaney's  work in comics includes various serials in the DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS anthology, 2007 Comic Book Challenge qualifier "The Misguided Travels of Earl O. Possum," 51 DELTA from Arcana and MISS VICKY & HER CUTIE COMMANDOS.

Shane Berryhill is the author of THE ADVENTURES OF CHANCE FORTUNE series from Tor Books.

Shane Moore is a former police detective turned novelist and the creator of the Abyss Walker fantasy series.

Jim Ritchey III is a comic book writer and artist and the creator of the Green Lama: Man of Strength comic book published by AC Comics, among others.
Sarah Beach writes screenplays, novels, short stories, comics, and nonfiction, and is the author of THE SCRIBBLER'S GUIDE TO THE LAND OF MYTH.
Chuck Miller is the author of "Creeping Dawn: The Rise of the Black Centipede."
J. Morgan Neal is co-creator (along with Todd Fox) of AYM GERONIMO AND THE POSTMODERN PIONEERS, and he was a founder, partner, editor and writer at Shooting Star Comics. He was the co-creator and co-writer of GONE TO TEXAS and REX SOLOMON along with Gregg Noon and the soon to debut THEM! along with artist and co-creator Rob Bavington.