What Makes a Good Hero?

This list was harder than the previous list: What makes a good heroine? There were several reasons it was harder.

First, my list for good heroines was informed by how I think women should actually behave. However, I can fancy a book or television hero without (always) making it personal. For instance, I can like a hero without having dated or wanting to date a similar personality. (I would never want to date someone like Booth, for example. Or Mr. Rochester.)

Second, many times my interest in a show is in the hero-heroine interaction. Without that interaction, the hero wouldn’t be enough to carry the show or to model behavior I would want to copy. Imagine Mulder without Scully—yikes! (“Scary Mulder” indeed).

Third, many of my favorite male characters aren’t necessarily the heroes. (Peter McNicol as Larry Fleinhardt is a good example.) On the other hand, the definition of "hero" is up for grabs! (Perhaps, I should say, "main protagonist.")

However, I have been able to come up with a list of favorite heroes (main protagonists) which I will use to create a list of good hero attributes:
  • Booth from Bones as representative of the romantic hero.
  • Patrick Jane from The Mentalist as representative of the troubled, semi-romantic hero.
  • All the Stargate men—naturally (yes, I am including Dr. Rodney McKay).
  • Benton Fraser from Due South as representative of the solitary hero.
What attributes do these heroes hold in common that I find satisfying to watch?

1. The heroes are confident in a nonchalant way.

Jack O’Neill and John Shepherd
take the prize here. I doubt there are two more nonchalant heroes on television. It is appropriate to pair them together since they are an extroverted and introverted versions of the same personality type.

The best example of their similar nonchalance comes from the pilot to Stargate: Atlantis where the following exchange takes place:
O’Neill: This isn't a long trip, so I'll be a succinct as possible.
Sheppard: (After a long silence.) Well, that's pretty succinct.
O’Neill: Thank you.
The remaining heroes are less nonchalant but still manage to confront danger and uncertainty with finesse. Okay, McKay gets a little wild and crazy and talks too fast, but in general, these heroes tend to meet problems with aplomb. (McKay is actually the most heroic of the bunch because he overcomes a normal amount of cowardice and courage to perform truly courageous and selfless acts.) Patrick Jane's willingness to call things as they are gives him a little bit of House confidence (without the brassness).

I return to this issue of confidence below--from a slightly different angle.

2. The heroes have a sense of humor.

The heroic aplomb is helped by the heroes having a sense of humor. Benton Fraser may seem an exception here, but I’ve always considered Fraser's “straight man” persona to be partly put on. He isn’t faking so much as he is deliberately being more himself.
Ray: This is what's wrong with you, Fraser. You see a problem, and you gotta fix it. You can't even go to the men's room without stopping and telling some simple stupid charmingly witty Inuit story that inspires people to take on the world's social ills!
Fraser: Well, I'm sorry, Ray, but I fail to see how a small group of people banding together to form a neighborhood watch constitutes a form of political anarchy.
The remaining heroes are given to excessive irony (Jack and John), rampant sarcasm (McKay), and quick repartee (Booth). I also have to add Patrick Jane's unbelievably mischievous and charming smile. All by itself, it makes you happy!

Another aspect of hero humor is the ability of the hero to not get pissed at the heroine/react defensively to subtext. This may actually cross the fiction/reality line because it is an attribute I admire and wish I could emulate.

A great example comes from Booth in the first season. Bones makes a promise to a little boy which Booth then keeps.

Brennan: I knew you'd back me up. I knew you wouldn't make me a liar.
Booth: How did you know?
Brennan: Because you want to go to heaven
Booth: But you don't believe in heaven.
Brennan: But you do . . .
Here's the kicker (or "kickster," as Bones would say): Booth just smiles. Brennan's assumptions don't bug him; he doesn't feel used or manipulated or out-of-control. (I will refer back to this particular dialog later.)

3. The heroes respect women without putting them on pedestals.

Because, let’s face it, putting women on pedestals is just another form of condescension. (A woman on a pedestal can’t interfere or contribute. She’s just supposed to stay there.)

Some of the heroes (Benton, McKay) are a little uncertain around women and make up for this, in Benton's case, with excessive civility (McKay is just rude). But none of them are dismissive.

The Stargate heroes win the prize for heroes who, without taking women for granted manage to take them for granted. It's the difference between undervaluing or ignoring someone versus assuming someone has the right to exist/be there/contribute something. Booth, for instance, gets kudos for wanting Bones' opinion while not perceiving her as perfect. And Patrick Jane doesn't flare up when Lisbon takes a stand, like when she returns the lottery-won jewelry:

Teresa: All right, guys. It's been fun playing dress-up, but playtime is over.
Cho: I'm sorry, boss, what do you mean?
Teresa: This. (She gestures at the necklace Patrick gave her.) It's kind of a waste, don't you think?
Patrick: I would have bought world peace if I could. They didn't have it in the casino gift store. Very limited range of items for sale.
Teresa: You know what I mean.
Patrick: I know those emeralds look lovely with your eyes.
Teresa: Thank you. It's beautiful, but I can't keep it.
Patrick: I understand.
4. The heroes know themselves.

This raises a conundrum. The reason so many romance novels succeed is because the hero doesn't make his problems the heroine's problem. He takes care of things! Unfortunately, he also tends to be ultra-alpha and dominate, which becomes tiresome. Confidence and self-knowledge are not limited to ultra-alpha and dominate males.

Having said that, I will start with the most alpha of my listed heroes. One of Booth's most attractive qualities is that he DOESN'T kowtow to Bones. Regarding the dialog quoted above, one reason Booth doesn't get upset is because his ego isn't that fragile. This is very attractive.

However (note to women), it isn't just the male's responsibility to develop this quality! One reason I get tired of books like Twilight (and a number of mystery series) is because the heroine runs around wondering if she is good enough and having her ego massaged by the confident male. Geez, wouldn't he get tired of this?

To continue, good heroes are never so tunnel-visioned, they don't know who they are. Booth is proud of being a beer-and-skittles guy. He doesn't pretend to be anything else although, like Benton and Jack, he sometimes emphasizes certain personality traits deliberately (he isn't as uninformed as he sometimes acts). He is a good father who has "stepped it up" and sees that as a defining part of his personality.

Patrick Jane has accepted his past mistakes to the nth degree. In some ways, he is too hard on himself, but in some ways, he isn't. Setting aside the Red John stuff, defrauding people isn't terribly kind. And there are enough flashbacks in Season 1 to make it clear that Jane did deliberately defraud some people, even when what he did hurt them emotionally.

All the Stargate guys are totally honest with themselves. One of my favorite examples is McKay when he tells a bunch of bad guys, " I don't know if you noticed or not, but I'm an extremely arrogant man who tends to think all his plans will work."

And Benton, who is actually quite hard to read, is never dishonest. About anything. He is occasionally self-deluded when he thinks he can help someone he can't. In the first season, he tries to save a deceitful, dark-haired woman from herself. In the final episode of that season, he and his partner have this exchange:
Ray Vecchio: Benny, not every woman with long dark hair tries to kill her lover.
Benton Fraser: Oh.
Ultimately, Benton always acknowledges what must be done.

To end this section, I agree with Eugene's comment that the hero should not be "fixed" by the heroine. If you can't accept him as he is, ladies, or he doesn't know who he is, stay away from him (you shouldn't need Dr. Laura to tell you that.)

5. The heroes are loyal/stick around.

Okay, guys, if you want to know how to attract/make a woman happy, this is it. Evolutionarily, biologically, genetically, culturally-speaking, the way to a woman's heart is loyalty.

Booth, of course, is way up the list. Actually, they all are, but Booth is the most blatant. One of my favorite quotes comes when Bones and Angela are discussing Bones' brother:
Bones: I worshiped him. You know? God, he was so cool. Everyone knew I was Russ Brennan's little sister. I wasn't cool or pretty, so being his sister . . . You know that game, Marco Polo? I'd be sitting in class, and I'd hear out the window, "Marco!" It'd be Russ, checking in on me, letting everyone know that I was his little sister.
Angela: Did you "Polo"?
Brennan: Yeah, sometimes it'd be the only word I said all day. "Polo." And then Mom and Dad disappeared, and Russ took off. Suddenly, no one cared where I was. I miss that. Someone caring where I am all the time. (My emphasis.)

At this point, you hear Booth call, "Bones. Bones. Where are you? Let's go!" off-screen. It is immeasurably touching.
Patrick Jane demonstrates that, whatever his behavior in the past, he did adore his wife and child. He also states that he will always have Lisbon's back. When she complains that she can't trust him because he's always doing crazy stuff, he responds, "Lisbon, I want you to know that you can trust me. No matter what happens, I will be there for you. I will. I need you to know that. Now, can I catch you?" (They are doing a trust exercise, and he does catch her.)

Of course, saying, "Trust me" isn't enough: actions speak louder than words. The Stargate guys, for example, always follow through. The creed, "We don't leave our people behind" may not always be good military policy, but it's good romance and heroic policy.

And Benton, naturally, is Mr. Reliable. His reliability isn't confined to women; he is always there for his partner, neighbors, small children, pets, and total strangers!

To end, I'm going to give Bones the last word:
Booth: Mr. Decker, you and Donovan, you have a code word? Something to let him know that you sent me?
Decker: Paladin. Tell Donovan "Paladin."
(Decker leaves the room.)
Cullen: (stands) Paladin. Defender of the faith. Protector. Suits you, Booth.
(Cullen walks out.)
Bones: You know what? You tough guys are all very sentimental.


Jennifer said...

Absolutely. I like all the points you make. I would add that there are "heroes" I like that don't completely fit this (although maybe I'm broadening the term beyond what you intended.) When something is missing, however, it is made up for with something else. For instance, in My Name Is Earl, Earl isn't particularly confident and he doesn't really know himself. His earnest attempts to change, however, make up for that, giving him appeal.

In fact, I would add the quality of being "good" or well-intended, as essential. Personally, I don't like shows where the main characters are mean / selfish / dishonest, etc. I don't mind a criminal past, if there is an attempt to make things right, now. I can overlook most of the other qualities, though, if the hero is portrayed as making an honest effort to live up to the best of what he believes in.

I also like it when the hero has the quality of knowing where he wants to go, even if he isn't sure how to get there. Aimless drifting through life might make for an interesting story, but it also makes for an irritating character.

Kate Woodbury said...

I totally agree about heroes being willing to improve! I think that's one reason I like McKay so much. I also agree about meanness. I've never really understand the whole "roasting" people idea. House is the only character I can watch who does this and that's only because all the other characters call it for what it is. But some sitcoms actually treat House-like remarks as funny, not cruel. Huh? Well-intentioned-with-a-good-heart goes a long way towards creating an appealing hero!

I think one reason I've become so dead set on the "take him as he is" refrain is because I've never been able to get into the whole Thorn Birds' idea of a man giving up everything for a woman. It seems a fairly loathsome idea to me and not terribly comforting. If he is willing to give up everything, including his own sense of right and wrong, what will stop him from giving up her? Sometimes, I think Jane Austen is the only writer on marriage and courtship to figure this out.

On the other hand, one of the most interesting aspects of The Time Traveler's Wife (book, not movie) is that she marries the man as a dopey youngster, knowing he will grow into a cool and reliable middle-aged man. Some things do have to be taken on faith. Perhaps the key, as you suggest, Jennifer, is a positive direction (versus a negative direction or stagnation).

Joe said...

With one exception, the difference between being a narcissist and self-confident divides the annoying and the hero (this is a big problem with Twilight--she's a total narcissist; everyone else exists solely to serve her ego.)

The exception: Tony Stark played wonderfully by Robert Downey Jr. With a different actor and director, I really don't think the character would have worked.

Sherlock Holmes, especially as played by Jeremy Brett, is arrogant, but not a narcissist.

Mathew Park said...

A very nice article. The first of yours I have read, so bear with me if any of this is answered else where.

You have struck on something I have been thinking about for a very long time, mostly because you have used popular (and good) televisions shows I have seen as examples.

Since I have seen all of the Stargate series, I feel most comfortable using those examples in my problem.

In Stargate, with the dialog, I have always felt was too thought out. I don’t call it that way in a bad way, from say a technical-professional television critic way, but from a story telling way. Of the more modern, artsy writers I have read, they all seem to say that good dialog is natural dialog. There is hardly a line of natural dialog (my opinion) in the more memorably good Stargate moments. They, the heroes, all seem to say the right thing at the right time, for the most witty/comedic/dramatic outcome.

Now, you say that the hero must know themselves, but, and Richard Dean-Anderson in Sg1 after season 6 is the best example of this, should heroes be cognizant that they are in fact heroes in a story. Story here can mean a few different things: it can literally mean that they are aware they are in a television show and they strive to make their scenes vivid and memorable, but it can also refer to their awareness of the grand-story that life tells, and they seek to make their role in it the best they can.

Historically I feel that this awareness has more ties to the origins and the intrinsic purpose of stories. Homer never wrote about Odysseus fumbling over words, um-ah.. hey Circe.. you sure look nice. Beowulf does not have a line that isn’t overshadowed by one of his Men.

I am rambling. I will sum up: I think heroes, in addition to all you have said, are always heroes, in every moment.

If your hero disappears in a crowd, they are not yet a hero. Hero is more then just a title, it is more then importence ( many non heroes do things that are important to the story). Hero is like being 7’9. No matter what you do people will notice it.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think you raise an interesting point, Matthew! It's kind of the anti-hero versus hero dilemma (although anti-hero is too strong a term and the roles often blend: see below). Superman always knows he is a hero. But modern, anti-heroes often don't know they are heroes. House, for example, acts like he is the hero of his own hospital/show/life but doesn't really believe he is a hero in "real life." He is the ultimate sarcastic, dark anti-hero.

On the other hand, another anti-hero, Batman, DOES know he is a hero, but he is a deliberate hero, a man who set out to be a hero (or create the image of a hero), not a natural hero (a la Superman).

I think Jack O'Neill is a natural hero who doesn't realize he is a hero. Despite his lack of self-knowledge (in this regard), he is the Hero; he will always be the Hero: that's his role. For example, just like Heroes always say the right thing at the right time, Heroes also are recognized for what they are when they show up. Jack is always recognized (by the Asgard, for example) as the right guy for THIS civilization to deal with.

On the other hand, I consider McKay a hero, but he doesn't always say the right thing, and he isn't always recognized as a hero (except by small children) when he first shows up. But McKay would be a modern hero, not a Hero (and not really an anti-hero).

Looking at this from the fictional writer's point of view, I think there are three hero types:

The modern hero: He doesn't realize he is a hero. His heroism comes from overcoming ordinary, human problems in an ordinary, human way. Actually, Dave from NewsRadio is a great example of a modern hero.

The anti-hero: The anti-hero is bigger than life. He is recognized as a FORCE although he is not always recognized as a hero. His behavior often conflicts with acceptable, heroic activity. Tony Stark, Batman, and bad guys like Billy the Kid are examples of anti-heroes.

The Hero: The Hero is bigger than life. He is recognized for what he is, and his behavior will conform to a creed whether personal, social, or mythical. Superman, Booth, Star Trek captains, etc. belong to this mold. I do think this type is the hardest to write for; therefore, the best writers will often make them just a little off-kilter a la Jack O'Neill and John Sheppard.

Note: These types apply to women as well, but since the original post focused on heroes, not heroines, I stuck to heroes.