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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

April 30, 2006

Heroes with Scars:
The Dilemma of Characters who "Grow"

Character growth is kind of at the core of good storytelling. We like a story where the character ends up in a slightly different space, emotionally, at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. Oh, sure, that can’t always be done. In the pulp stories we enjoy here at P&D we can’t always expect writers to work in some profound character development in among fighting Nazis, monsters and wizards. But character growth can be represented by something as casual as a romance -- man and woman meets as strangers at the beginning of the story and are lovers by story’s end. Growth!

It allows us to feel the story is more than just the surface action.

Okay -- quick digression. I say character growth is one of those accepted pillars of storytelling, but like so much else -- I could be wrong. A few years ago I was watching a news show where the host glibly made fun of character growth as something out of a Hollywood movie (Hollywood, in his mind, being synonymous with “crass” and “low brow”) -- the inference to be drawn being that sophisticated literature doesn’t dirty itself with such obvious things as character growth (which could explain those pointless literary novels I’ve read that just make you go, “huh?”). But the joke to me was how people can parrot terms without necessarily thinking about what they mean. Because this guy then cited “Forrest Gump” as an example of this Hollywood formula…yet one of the reasons I never much cared for Forrest Gump (if memory serves) is because the mentally handicapped hero doesn’t grow -- but remains largely untouched by everything around him.


So character growth can be a good thing…but can it go too far?

I remember thinking this when I saw “Hercules and the Amazons”, the first of the four Hercules: The Legendary Journeys TV movies (which then spawned the successful TV series). In it, Herc and his buddy, Iolaus, encounter some Amazon women at war with some local men. As the movie begins, Herc and Iolaus seem a bit, well, sexist. And, I’ll admit, I didn’t quite like them. Bare in mind this was the early 1990s, and it was still quite possible the filmmakers saw sexism as perfectly acceptable (the world -- at least on TV -- has changed rather dramatically in the last decade or so). Anyway, so I watched this movie, not entirely liking the sexist hero battling the Amazons…and gradually I realized: that’s the point! Herc is supposed to be sexist at the beginning, so that he can grow into a Liberal, non-sexist hero by the end, which he does.

It’s character growth!

But it was an awkward way to introduce the character -- yet unavoidable. They had to do that movie first, otherwise he would’ve had to be sexist throughout a couple of movies. And if he were Liberal from the beginning, his behaviour in Hercules and the Amazons would seem out of character. But the result was, as a viewer, you’re kind of squirming, thinking you don’t really like the hero and are tempted to turn it off. (Okay, I didn’t turn it off, obviously -- I watched it to the end, hence why I can write this).

Another example that stuck in my mind was an episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation -- “The Measure of the Man”. The Next Generation, as you no doubt know, was embraced by many as the smarter, more sophisticated Star Trek compared to the original series -- a view I didn’t share at the time, and nothing in the ensuing years has caused me to rethink my position.

Anyway, in this episode, the heroes’ bosses have decided, for reasons that apparently seemed reasonable to them, to have the android crewman Data disassembled or something. A hearing is held and, if my memory serves, Captain Picard is assigned to argue on behalf of Data who, when it comes to being disassembled, would rather not (as a certain 19th Century scrivener might say). Picard would just as soon not see Data disassembled, as would others in the crew -- but no one’s that worked up about it. After all, I guess, orders are orders. But Picard mopes about for most of the episode, seeming to feel vaguely that Data shouldn’t be disassembled, but unable to put his finger on why. Eventually he has a chat with the bartender, Guinan (or whatever her name was) played by Whoopi Goldberg.

(I think P&D founder Jeffrey Blair Latta put it best in an earlier essay in which, touching on Star Trek, he said the difference between Picard and original series’ hero Kirk was that when Picard needed advice, he went to people who were paid to sit and listen to him -- a counsellor, a bartender -- whereas Kirk had something better…he had friends!)

Anyway, Guinan puts it all in perspective for Picard -- can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it had something to do with slavery and inalienable rights and all that. Now fired with conviction, Picard returns to the hearing and argues for Data and wins and Data isn’t disassembled and all’s right with the universe.

But the question is…should it really have taken a whole episode, and a talk with a bartender, for Picard to realize what the viewer knew from the beginning -- that there was something immoral about disassembling one of his crew? Shouldn’t a hero start out with certain understandings of right and wrong?

Doubt misunderstand. The search for truth is a great narrative hook. A character struggling to do the right thing, but unsure what the right thing is -- a moral dilemma -- can make for great drama, more so than a character who knows right from wrong from the get go.

In the right circumstances, that is. But some dilemmas are more clear cut than others.

The founding fathers of the United States wrote about certain truths being self-evident.

Superman once said: “In this world there is right and wrong…and that distinction isn’t hard to make.”

Some would argue that having the character grow allows the audience to grow, too. In the case of Hercules, by having him start out sexist, maybe they were suckering in all the sexist viewers who would identify with Herc and then, BOOM, share in the epiphany that sexism is bad at the same time Herc does. Maybe. But for the rest of us, protagonists who have trouble grasping simple moral truths make for awkward heroes. Besides, by having Herc entertain sexist thoughts, or Picard be ambivalent about Data being shipped to the chop shop, the message sort of backfires…suggesting that such things, though wrong, aren’t that wrong.

It reminds me of all the Batman comics written over the years where Batman psyches himself up to killing someone (usually the Joker) only to relent at the last minute. The writers would claim such stories allow them to argue against murder…but really, such stories actually justify murder, because such stories say that even a hero like Batman can contemplate it. So though it might be wrong…it clearly isn’t very wrong. After all, Batman doesn’t “contemplate” molesting Robin, or even cheating on his taxes. Some thing’s are clearly wrong-wrong…and some thing’s are only sort of wrong.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more lately, as the idea of ambiguous heroes -- heroes whose actions are less-than heroic -- are more and more popular. Particularly in the recent revival of TV’s Battlestar Galactica, most of the characters have at one point or another been guilty of War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity and a few other, shall we say, questionable acts. Fans of the show say the point is, it’s not about right and wrong -- it’s about moral grey areas. The characters are growing, they are changing, they are learning. We don’t have to agree with their actions or think they did the right think.

(And I really, really, want to get back to the new Battlestar Galactica more in depth -- but that’s for another editorial).

But I guess my point is: character growth is good. Characters who evolve and become better people by the end of the story than they were at the beginning can be intriguing. But maybe there’s a limit, too. Because a hero -- according to Webster -- is “admired for his achievements and qualities” In order for us to want to watch a character’s growth, we have to still sympathize with the character enough at the beginning that we want to stick around to see him grow. And that means there are certain moral “truths” that maybe he should see are self-evident.

Or put another way…in the classic western, “The Magnificent Seven”, characters are seeking to recruit worthy gunfighters to help defend a village. When one points to a gunslinger as a likely candidate, he says (words to the effect) “He has many scars. He must’ve been in many fights -- we should hire him.” To which the other says, “No -- we don’t want the man with the scars…we want the man who gave him those scars.”

And maybe, for a hero, we don’t want the guy who has acquired moral scars -- we want the guy without the scars to begin with.

D.K. Latta, editor

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