Fictional Heroes and Heroines

The other day, I came across a reader comment that suggested that I’d bowed to the “PC censors” and made the protagonist of a recent book into a “beta male,” because he actually listened to women, rather than a “real hero.” The reader then went on to suggest I should go back to writing “real heroes” as in the old days and “shock the sour PC fantasy killers.”

Outside of the fact that no one gets a look at my books before they go to my editors, let alone a P.C. or any other censor, or the fact that I don’t write to please either the politically correct or the politically incorrect, the comment raises a number of preconceptions that readers have, such as the fact that there’s some small cadre of PC types who decree what books get published or that a hero or a protagonist has to fit a specific mold. While there are certainly readers, reviewers, and even some editors who push the extremes of the PC mindset, what still determines what gets published is what readers will buy. And that is why Larry Correia, Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, Patricia Briggs, N.K Jemison, Ann Leckie, Charlie Jane Anders, and I all sell a significant number of books – and we all write very differently.

There are all kinds of readers in the F&SF field, and while there’s still a large contingent of readers, mostly white males, from what I can tell, who prefer the traditional, “take-no-prisoners” male hero who loves weapons and gadgets more than women, and who expects women to know their place, I think it’s fair to say, although most of my main protagonists are male, that very few, if any, of them fall in lockstep into that stereotype. And, of course, there’s also the fact that, at last count, I’ve written something like 11 books where the main protagonist is female.

That reader comment raises the question, of course, about what a “real hero” should be in fiction. Obviously, there’s quite a range of qualities in fictional heroes in F&SF books being written and published today, and some of the ones I’ve liked the best in recent years have been heroines. For every reader, however, the “real” hero or heroine is the one with whom they can identify, or at least appreciate and come to understand.

Personally, as should be obvious from my books, I’ve always had trouble (and more as I’ve grown older) with the “take-no-prisoners” protagonist, even as I’ve written about people who’ve had to do just that, because, from what I know of history and personally witnessed and experienced, those kinds of “heroes” invariably wind up creating a massive body count, and either end up as dead or tormented for the rest of their lives. To my way of thinking, anyone who piles up bodies like that and remains unmoved and untouched isn’t so much a hero or heroine as a sociopath or psychopath.

That’s why, again in my opinion, Charyn in Endgames is more of a “real” hero, because he makes hard choices with a high personal cost and avoids the massive body count to forge a working consensus among warring classes… but that’s my view, and readers who prefer something else can certainly find it, because, despite that reader comment, there aren’t any PC censors out there. The growth of more diverse heroes and heroines with different thoughts and viewpoints just reflects a widening of those who read F&SF as well as a change in the views held by many readers.

6 thoughts on “Fictional Heroes and Heroines”

  1. Frank Hamsher says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Endgames, and not for its entertainment value.

    To me the protagonist was trying to make the best choices available to him on the basis of gathering input and information from all sources available to him. After painstaking consideration making his own decision based on what he hoped would be in the best interest of the people he “ruled.” As this “ruler” he tried to make these decisions in the best interests of all stakeholders.

    What a different world this would be if a majority – or even a sizable minority – of those governing made decisions on that basis!

  2. Frank says:

    Wouldn’t it be deathly boring to read only that with which I agree? I certainly would not wish that to be the case.

    I can see that there is some sense of “comfort” knowing that the characters from a favorite author’s work will react in the same way that made me appreciate an earlier work, however, that comfort would convert to mind numbing tedium with no changes.

    If Charyn was too young, too calm and not sufficiently violent/militant to be a “real” hero, then I guess I’m not into “real” heroes. In my experience, real courage and real heroic actions are not so macho as some believe…it is the actions that happen quietly with no particular fanfare that often are pivotal to history.

    Please continue to do what you do…they way you see fit. That’s what got you to where you are, and I, for one, appreciate that. Thanks.

  3. Ryan Jackson says:

    Wait… Charyn is the “Beta Male”? I was sure the accusation would be against Beltur since he does set aside and ignore certain poor behaviors in his consort that most people would claim to not put up with (and most married people, male and female, would say they do put up with because love isn’t perfect and you take the good with the bad nd none of us are perfect human beings).

    Charyn does take advice from female characters (and male) but I never once got the feeling he bowed to them. (The logic of their argumen maybe, but not them)

  4. Your heroes and heroines — including both Charyn and Beltur — are one of the reasons I love your fiction. I like how hard they work, how they try to do what they think is right, and I consider their willingness to listen to women as a definite strength.

    In the books about Charyn, I also particularly appreciated that he had to achieve his goals without possessing magical imaging talent. In the books with Beltur, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of positively-depicted gay characters.

    Of course, having a wide range of books and their heroes/heroines is good. Among the other authors you mentioned, I have very much enjoyed work by Ann Leckie and by Charlie Jane Anders.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    I am curious as to the initial reader/commenter’s position (the writer whose comment prompted the essay). Did that person make the comment because they actually believed it or because they wished to provoke a reaction? Or is it because the type of “hero” they wish to read about is vanishing quickly from the F&SF landscape? It is vanishingly hard to find the 1940’s gangbuster/womanizer/misogynist as a hero these days unless one bothers to rummage through the free books at Smashwords (if you haven’t, I don’t recommend it). Perhaps they are lamenting the fact that many protagonists in the current crop of books are women, LGBTQ, and/or non-human… And that such books are interesting to read and selling well.

    Or maybe they’re just internet trolls and LEM is feeding the bears….

    1. From the context of the comment, I suspect that the commenter is one of those lamenting the diminishing number of “1940s gangbuster/womanizer/mysogynist heroes.”

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