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I have often heard it said that it is the job of the artist to hold up a mirror to society. I suppose I have never agreed with that philosophy. It’s rather like holding a mirror up to a fat person so that they are constantly reminded of their weight. Regardless, the trend of deeply flawed heroes has become more prevelant in books, movies, and television.
I remember everyone telling me how good the reboot of Battle star Galactica was. I loved the show when I was a kid, and so I tuned in to the new iteration starring Edward James Olmos. Gone was the optimism and joy of the original. There was no hopefulness in the midst of despair, and in relatively short order I realized how deeply flawed was every single person, including the noble Adama. I found myself rooting for the Cylons, who were at least striving to become better.
The flawed hero is far more interesting than the perfect hero, Superman for instance, who is never morally conflicted and always does the right thing. But the trend of flawed heroes has gone from just imperfect to deeply flawed, to the point where they're barely distinguishable from the antagonist. This isn’t new. Stephen Donaldson has a deeply flawed hero in the Thomas Covenant Chronicles, but his hero eventually redeems himself at the end of the series, and is getting progressively better and nobler as the story progresses.
Modern books and movies have given us deeper, more tragically flawed characters to whom the appellation “hero” hardly applies.
I remember reading books as a child that thrilled and excited me, and made me feel hopeful and optimistic. Books, and for that matter, all our entertainment has become darker and more pessimistic. The Dark Hero has it’s place in literature, but it’s depressing. Famed film maker, Steven Spielberg made the promise early in his career to never produce a film without a happy ending. Happy endings are good, and I think that sometimes we, as writers, get a little too full of ourselves, and we get a little preachy. We write about the darkness within because, well, that’s the trend right now.
Certainly all of us have some darkness in us, but we also have light and goodness, and I find optimism far more appealing than pessimism. I think most people do. The Dark Hero trend, hopefully is coming to an end, and that hopefully means more heroes who, while not perfect, are morally certain and resolute.
It is possible to write flawed characters that are not morally conflicted or challenged. Don Quixote is a flawed character. There is so much wrong with him that he has become a cliché for blind optimism and altruism, but his moral rectitude is inspiring. He sees a common prostitute as a noble lady, and a lowly servant as a loyal paige. You never doubt that Don Quixote will do the right thing, the noble thing. He is a character for the ages and he has endured for centuries.
But the Dark Hero persists, and is far more prevelant today than in days past. It has its place in literature, and I can appreciate the Dark Hero in the right story, but he has become the goto for most modern works. Think Sin City, Battle Star Galactica, Even Batman is deeply flawed in his latest iterations. I do not like the Dark Hero, but I do think much of what is being written today reflects all our faults and short comings, and is a reflection of our current self doubt and self loathing as a society.
I do believe that authors have a responsibility to write with a conscience. I know how much of who I am comes from the books I read as a youth, and I wouldn't be surprised if I underestimate that influence. Like it or not, we affect those who read our words because words are tremendously powerful things, and we should be careful how we wield them. Perhaps I am suffering from the "thinking too much of myself" syndrome I mentioned earlier, but I do believe we have a responsibility to bear in mind how powerful our words can be, and consider the affect they may have on a reader's perspectives. That is why I disagree with the premise that it is the writer's job to hold a mirror up to society.
We do not improve by dwelling on what’s wrong with us, not as individuals, and not as a society. I believe the responsibility of the author, the musician, and the artist is not to hold up a mirror to show us all our flaws and blemishes, but to create something noble and beautiful, and worth aspiring toward. I think, as authors, we accomplish far more when we strive to inspire greatness than we do by simply reflecting all our faults.