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The Dark Hero -- by Jon Goff

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.

Posted by Jon Goff 15 May 2017 at 00:49
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Responses to this blog

Breagha 15 May 2017 at 17:16  
I think I mostly agree with you. It seems that, today, protagonists can't be too flawed or too evil, as long as the story is interesting.

That said, I tend to root for the Dark Hero myself. Both in the evil or the deeply flawed incarnation. In the stories I read as a kid, I was completely infatuated with characters like Raistlin, Haplo, Han Solo, even Leon, and I am to some extent still. Thinking on it, though, I realised characters like Long John Silver and Jean Val Jean are very high on the list of characters I liked (and still like), and the flawed character is by no means a new invention (though it would seem there's currently an overpopulation of them). Common for the the ones on my list is that despite their darkness, they all did the right thing in the end, some sooner than others, and I suppose they fall under your Thomas Covenant Chronicles example.

The point I agree most with you on, is the one about the mirror. In my - limited - experience, we are all basically 'monkey see, monkey do', and the better the people we see on the screen or on the page (or even in RL ), the more we'll be inspired to do good.

The point I agree less with you on, is the one about limiting the flawed characters. I think flawed characters are incredibly important. The more flawed, the better. As long as they grow through the story. Characters like Superman (the old one) are impossible for mere mortals to ever hope to emulate - he is too good. An everyday man, just as flawed or maybe even more flawed than us, who rises above and beyond his limitations, he gives us something to aspire to, because if he can, then so can we. The hired killer - without scruples - who slowly develops a conscience because he sees a child being mistreated by her parents, he too gives us something to aspire to. If someone like that can develop a conscience and do right by someone less fortunate, then so can we.

My most immediate reaction to reading your excellent, thought-provoking blog entry.
Mhtritter 15 May 2017 at 17:43  
For me, my time and my perspective which all I have to offer, I think this a fantastic blog. There are many sentiments here which hold true, both in the grand message and in its details. I know that at least for me as well that "much of who I am comes from the books I read as a youth" is undeniable. When I passed from adolescence to adulthood, and was threateningly close to being disheartened and discouraged by the pettiness of what I saw around me, it was reflection upon the message within the important books I read which made me realize I wasn't alone in wanting more. Books such "Illusions" and "Lord of the Rings" and "Dune" and countless others which used a perspective of the average person striving for nobility I realized came not from something manufactured and alien, but from a person no different from myself, striving to share their understanding of purpose and meaning. Only then did I feel less alone.

CritiqueCircle recently had the following as it's quote of the day: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.' ”
— Kurt Vonnegut

I emailed it to myself, so accurate it seemed. And Jon Goff has hit this nail dead on.

Life and humanity will probably always be a battle between those who wish to succeed within society and those who wish to succeed beyond it. It is, of course, difficult for either side to respect the viewpoint of those in the alternate camp. I expect that some with dismiss Jon's blog, some with distain it, and I further suspect Jon realized this but went forward anyhow. I applaud him.
Harpalycus 15 May 2017 at 19:35  
The blog is well-argued and certainly thought-provoking, but I remain unconvinced.
Interestingly, Socrates (or probably more correctly Plato speaking through him) famously argued that poetry should be banned except for that which praised the gods and human excellence. So, the argument has a long and reputable history.
Nevertheless, I would certainly invoke immediate caution.
Firstly, there are pragmatic considerations. Is there indeed a real trend towards darker protagonists? There may well be, but in terms of sampling error, subjective criteria and confirmation bias, I really wouldn't like to say. There are certainly many 'feel-good' books and films out there. If there is such a trend, to what extent is it a meaningless fluctuation in the ever-shifting sea of fashion, a momentary wave to disappear as quickly as it came? What is the true causal relationship? Which is the driving force and which is the driven? Is this possible shift driven by societal changes or does it drive them? Finally, what actual effect can be confidently ascribed to such? I don't know. It is too complex a knot for me to untie.
Secondly, I must disagree with the contention that the dark hero is far more prevalent today than in days past. Indeed, the flawed hero goes back to the very dawn of literature and has been with us ever since, consider the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer, Oedipus Rex and the whole corpus of Greek tragedy. Consider Hamlet, Othello and Coriolanus. I would be hard-pressed to think of any major Shakespearean character who is not flawed. At which point flawed shades into darkness is a judgement call.
Finally, the point, though, which really causes me the most concern, is the conclusion that the author's 'responsibility' is to hold up that which exemplifies nobility and beauty. I disagree with this as much as I disagree with the idea that a writer should hold up a mirror to society. I cannot think that there should be any inherent limitation upon what an author wishes to say, nor how they should say it. If an author wishes to write of the noble and beautiful then more power to their pen, but it is but one colour in a spectrum.

Paulpowell 15 May 2017 at 21:04  
"Holding up a mirror to society" is indeed one job of the artist. It is a long-standing and very vital service of art (art is the handmaiden of truth, you might say). But no one claims it is the only office the artist can perform.

If we confine ourselves here (for the sake of convenience) merely to discussing cinema... it's easily seen that there are many other functions film can perform. When we pause to reflect on the history of movies, we can easily identify at least half-a-dozen different roles for cinema.

Entertainment, education, invoking catharsis, historical purposes, documenting culture, political purposes, scientific purposes...just off the top of my head. 'Trends' in the goals of our filmmakers wax and wane.

Nevertheless, (to my ears anyway), Martin Scorcese puts it very well: "film is at it's best when it shows us either how we are living now; or some other way we might be living". Maybe this sentiment satisfies all of us including the OP?

The quote comes from "the History of American Film Criticism" or his own documentary on American cinema, "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies".

In the latter documentary, he can point to a long line of movies where these ethics were deployed to all our advantage.

The alternative certainly seems less robust. Really what would cinema (or any art) be worth if it only dwelt on "the ideal"? Is nobility and grace, an accurate representation of life? Where do illusions ever lead anyone? Self-knowledge deserves something too, no?

What kind of people would we be if we only admired art which panders, falsifies, or coddles us? We've seen enough of this in history, right? The European princes and burghers of the 1500s and 1600s; remember? They had power and wealth to commission only 'flattering' portraits of themselves.

Eh. If you wish to see this topic debated far better than anyone on the internet can do today, perhaps read the scathing comments from William Blake to Sir Joshua Reynolds on the purpose of painting. No love lost between these two figures. Reynolds was one of these guys who felt that art should only seek the beautiful and the ideal.

Blake (a talented graphic artist as well as one of England's most gifted poets) basically ripped him a new bunghole. His diatribe appears in the margins of Reynold's 'Discourses on Art' (of which Blake owned a copy).

Not sure if Reynolds ever saw it; but similar battles raged in the field of literature. The school of realistic fiction was defended mightily by authors such as Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert. A revolution in literature—and hard to argue with even today.

But I'm digressing. From what I can grasp, the OP of this blog post mainly chafes at the idea of "any constraints laid on an artist".

Well, naturally no one wants to fetter any artist from doing whatever he wants. But no matter what freedom he enjoys, it will probably fall out that if he is truthful in his art (rather than false) his works will always be much more cogent, effective, and relevant.

The portraits of those princes today are found only in museums. Real people need more realistic art.

Jongoff 15 May 2017 at 21:14  
Interesting points, Harpalycus. I thought I'd point out, for clarification purposes, that Socrates would have been speaking through Plato, not Plato through Socrates, as what we know of Socrates' teachings come almost exclusively from Plato.
Harpalycus 15 May 2017 at 22:07  
Sorry if it was unclear. That was precisely my point. The likelihood is that Socrates did not actually develop the philosophy of the later dialogues, but the character was merely used as a mouthpiece for Plato's views.
Rellrod 16 May 2017 at 02:12  
Great blog, and I largely agree. A couple of distinctions —

I like Breagha's comment, but balk at the point of "The more flawed, the better." I think that's the easy-to-make slip that's produced the current overpopulation (yeah, Harp, I think we're seeing a high point in the oscillation here) of unadmirable characters. Make a character too perfect, and our suspension of disbelief fails; we can't readily believe in, much less identify with, the character. But it doesn't follow that we make the character more appealing by loading him/her down with more and more faults, until the person is simply an irredeemable mess. We want to see a person with plausible weaknesses, especially if they're overcoming them (in part). But we also want protagonists we can root for — or we won't care what happens to them.

To say that we must be able to respect the protagonists in at least some ways is not to say that all the characters must be perfect. Of course not. It's standard practice to use bad people and bad actions to highlight the contrasts in action and character. (Of course there are also plausibility concerns about totally bad characters, which is why we're also advised to give even the bad guys some good qualities.)

As to the purpose — It would be oversimplifying to say that the sole purpose of literature is to ennoble the reader. But the author does have to take into consideration the various effects on the readership, including emulation ("monkey see") as well as warning. (How wearily many of the modern dystopias seem to be shaking a finger in our faces, saying "Take care it doesn't come to this!" — but a well-done cautionary tale does serve a valid and even morally admirable purpose.)

It seems to me that between the daily papers, and the surplus of gloomy fictional dystopias and dysfunctions, we need encouragement at this point. Not all authors have to supply it; but some do. "If Love and Honor and Duty can be salvaged, then someone must write about them in a fashion which carries conviction." (Joseph Wood Krutch, quoted in Janet & Isaac Asimov, How to Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort, 1987)

Visceral 16 May 2017 at 02:37  
I agree with you...just not in every circumstance. I suppose I'm an incredibly grey person when it comes to the do's and do-nots of characters in stories.

You can have a person who is deeply flawed in a million unique ways, but a morally upright character has less variation, usually. I think that the current dark hero trend is a revolt against the more "boring" characters that used to fill our novels and movies, perhaps because our society has become less conservative and it is less taboo to dive into those areas of the human psyche. I am against following a trend for trend's sake but I think it is incredibly important to explore the dark sides of people: just as important as it is to explore the light sides.

I however don't stand for books that preach an immoral message. If you have a horribly morally flawed character, the story needs to teach in some way that yes, he/she is flawed, either by the character changing for the better or them receiving consequences for their actions. It is great to have stories that teach us to better understand the dark, but it isn't good to have stories that make us want to be dark.

I suppose this viewpoint is up to the reader, however. That's simply my take, and I get the core of what you're trying to say. Darkness has become a bit to stylized lately. This post did make me aware of that, so thanks for writing it up.
Paulpowell 16 May 2017 at 19:48  
If the OP is seeing too many heroes these days who are "not-very-much-more-likeable-nor-nobler-than-the-villains-they-face".... to me, that sounds more like just the glut of schlock-based contemporary Hollywood writing; bad screenplays and awful adaptations. It doesn't sound to me like an argument that we should revert back to impossibly pure heroes like Parsifal or Galahad.

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Blandcorp 16 May 2017 at 21:36  
If the OP is seeing too many heroes these days who are "not-very-much-more-likeable-nor-nobler-than-the-villains-they-face".... to me, that sounds more like just the glut of schlock-based contemporary Hollywood writing; bad screenplays and awful adaptations. It doesn't sound to me like an argument that we should revert back to impossibly pure heroes like Parsifal or Galahad.
The OP also presents an "aspirational" argument. The impossibly pure heroes are put forth as standards to reach for.

I've been a reactionary in terms of my take on anti-heroes for a long while, and regulars here have probably gone bored of me chiming in on every thread about characterization and how it depends on flaws, saying that flaws are irrelevant for a character. So here we go again

My position is meant as hyperbole, but only slightly. Several great characters are really about their archetypal perfection, and if they have flaws, those are not what make the character enduring. My go-to example here is Sherlock Holmes. He has poor social skills, has difficulty showing emotion, and is a drug addict— all of these are in Conan Doyle's original text, and have been amped to 11 by recent reinventions House and BBC's Sherlock.

But seriously, does anyone even remember the OG Holmes was addicted to cocaine? What makes Sherlock Holmes great is not that he's a flawed human overcoming his own weakness. It's that he's an archetypal force of nature, logic and reason incarnate.

Captain America, Superman, the already mentioned Parsifal (AFAIR)— these are heroes strong of brawn AND backbone who can be trusted to do the right thing, regardless of the cost to themselves. At their best, they are not human beings. They are, again, archetypes.

Not all characters should be this simple, of course. But just like in the visual arts it helps to have a few regions of striking simplicity to bring your composition into focus, a few simple "one-note" characters here and there will help, rather than hinder.

And as to the more complex, flawed but struggling protagonist— basically, I like people who tend to do the right thing, and I'm really not a fan of the dark and edgy for its own sake. The reason is, the universe is a thermodynamic amoral mess, and more often than not trying to do the right thing is a much more complex, interesting decision than a moral compromise with the natural flow of chaos.


Susieq 18 May 2017 at 04:54  
Dark heroes are, I think, a phase. Something that's popular at the moment, so there's a glut. It will pass and something else will take it's place.

I do, however, agree about Battlestar Galactica. I, too, watched the original but passed on the remake. For me, the gold standard for flawed characters is Londo Molari from Babylon 5. He was complex in a way most authors don't know how to write. Admirable, endearing even, in his actions toward one person, a terrible villain to another, and overall, a tragic yet noble figure. When I look at B5 as a entire work, it becomes clear that, in spite of the ensemble feel of the series, the story really belongs to Molari.
Suzie Q
Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference. ― Mark Twain

Jongoff 18 May 2017 at 06:16  
I agree. It's Molari's story, his descent into darkness, and in the end his attempt to undo all the evil he's done. He and Jakar have such a complex, fluid, and interesting relationship. The story revolves around these two.
Susieq 18 May 2017 at 08:18  
I agree. It's Molari's story, his descent into darkness, and in the end his attempt to undo all the evil he's done. He and Jakar have such a complex, fluid, and interesting relationship. The story revolves around these two.
His descent into darkness, but also his redemption as he accepts that he must pay for his past sins.

Suzie Q
Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference. ― Mark Twain

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