Brin Jackson, Fantasy writer & daydreamer

The journey of writing, craft, and of connection.

The Human Beneath the Hero


Great post by Tristan Gregory

The Human Beneath The Hero

by | Character Development

Ellen Ripley

Ripley with Newt

A common trait of beginner fiction is that its protagonists are all – to use the technical term – “total badasses.” They have no appreciable sense of fear, pain, apprehension, or doubt. They take multiple drastic wounds without slowing down, are threatened with all manner of terrible fates without flinching, and always seem to know the right thing to do.

When we are young, we might mistake the lack of obvious signs of these emotions for the lack of the emotions themselves – few of us possess enough discipline at an early age to conceal fear and pain, and thus have trouble understanding the concept. As we grow older, though, we realize that other people feel these things as well – even the ones who rarely show it.

To Fear Is Human…

These emotions – fear, pain, doubt – are part of the human condition. If your hero is impervious to them, it is harder to understand them and harder to imagine ourselves as them. The vast majority of readers experience these emotions on a regular basis just going about our daily, boring lives. We cannot bridge the gulf from being terrified by the possibility of missing the bus in the morning to facing down hordes of orcs with nary a twitch of the eyebrow.

… to Persevere, Divine

The lack of these emotions doesn’t make someone strong, it makes them inhuman. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from Terminator II – he’s a robot, and has none of our squishy human weaknesses. He’s fun to root for, but we do not empathize with him because he isn’t like us. He’s not really a character – he’s a spectacle.

Characters who display weakness at appropriate times are easier to relate to. Characters who triumph over them are easy to admire. An excellent example is the character of Ellen Ripley in the movie Aliens. The heroine is obviously terrified most of the time, but goes on anyway. She needs to fight on through that terror in order to save a small aquatic amphibian. She never really manages to conquer her fear – we see it break through over and over and over, right up to the end of the movie. Ripley, though, never lets it get the better of her. She deals with it and keeps running, fighting, and punching giant aliens in the face with a robot suit.

Pain Hurts

In addition to lack of emotion, the seeming inability to feel pain is a hallmark of the juvenile fantasy and science fiction hero. Putting aside the fact that an endless stream of absurd action movies has trivialized injuries that in reality are life-threatening, half the time our flesh robot of a hero doesn’t even seem to notice his wounds. Even long after the action is over, when every bodily process that normally helps us ignore pain (adrenaline, focus, etc) has worn off, the guy with several holes punched in him pays them no mind.

Show Us A Better Version of Ourselves

My friends, let your characters feel pain. Let them fear and doubt and hesitate. Then show us how they overcome these things through struggle and focus and discipline. Not only will they seem more human, but they’ll seem more like heroes. They will be people we look up to and wish to emulate, because we know that underneath the strength and the courage lies a human being who is frail and frightened – just like us.

Do you have a favorite hero from movie or literature that shows real, human weakness? Let us know in the comments!

You can find Tristan’s eBooks (including his recently published epic fantasy novel, TWIXT HEAVEN AND HELL) at Amazon and Smashwords.

See Also:


Author: brindle808

I'm old enough to know better, and young enough to want to learn. I am a reflexologist, fantasy writer and daydreamer.

2 thoughts on “The Human Beneath the Hero

  1. Okay, my favorite topic after books…movies. Raising two sons, I fear I saw every action movie made, some over and over. I often sat there with my eyes rolling when after falling off a ten story building, then getting run over by a car, then getting shot, the hero would brush himself off and run after the “bad guy”. Now, taking a minute to think about this, I am remembering that my favorite was “Die Hard”. I used to think it was because Bruce Willis looks good without his shirt on!!! But, the reality is, throughout the movie, he did display many emotions. Intense drive to save his family, worry about the other people in the building, at one point a desire to give up, regret over his broken marriage, and, most touching in the end, an amazing bond of friendship which developed with a policeman he had never met, just by communicating over the phone. So, yes, in the end, it is our human frailites which connect us.

    Great thought for the day. Write on, Brin!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s