Who are your favorite fictional heroes?

July 29, 2011 at 15:16 (Misc)

It’s not every mom who emails you asking a question like that, but I was certainly neither taken aback at the question nor reticent in answering it! By the time I finished, it had become clear to me that my response was going to double as a blog post. The emphasis was on characters from my favorite fantasy and sci-fi books, movies, and video games. Considering that prompting, I didn’t exactly each very far outside of super-mainstream IPs, but so it goes. Unsurprisingly, this post contains mega spoilers for most of the works of fiction it discusses, particularly the Dark Tower books and Final Fantasy X.

Books first. When it comes to Tolkien, I’m partial to Aragorn. Even though in a sense he’s born into this great destiny, in order to really realize that he has to internally come around to it and become the sort of person who can be a king; I think that’s something we can all relate to, even those of us with no weighty birthright. There is also lot to love about Gandalf. Certainly, he’s more “awesome” – definitely the best character to play as in the Return of the King video game! (Underrated game, by the way. One of EA’s more engaging movie tie-ins.) But I guess it also makes him less relatable: he’s just always-already perfect, he doesn’t have to grow into it – he lacks these human struggles with feelings of self-doubt, anomie, or inner conflict. Gandalf is probably a better hero aspirationally, for a lot of the same reasons that I will list for another character in a few paragraphs. But the fact that he’s really a numinous divine entity sort of lets him coast on God-mode in the character development department.

In the Harry Potter series, I’d say my favorite character is Luna Lovegood : unconventional, kind of socially marginalized, and yet completely earnest and kind; she just has no use or capacity for guile, and gets by completely fine without it. There’s just something remarkably good-hearted about a person who can endure that kind of social ostracizing and never even feel tempted to be a bitter person. In a way, her very existence indicts the standard justifications for feeling upset with one’s lot in life (“it motivates you to remedy things and then you end up doing better for yourself”). But I think the character to admire most, actually, is Hermione, for all the reasons listed in this fantastic article, which is a clever alternate history of what the series might have looked like if its protagonist weren’t Harry.

I couldn’t leave off the Dark Tower books: yeah, Roland Deschain is a hero’s hero – grizzled, wise, consummately skilled. I love how his heroic traits are in both constant tension and unexpected consonance with his human ones: indeed, the thematic linchpin of the whole series is, arguably, how he reconciles his single-minded pursuit of the Tower with his human relationships – to kith, kin, lovers, and strangers in need. He’s caught, like all of us I suppose, in this dilemma about where to find the meaning and value in his life – from his quest to secure this all-important holy grail of sorts, the central defining project that makes him who he is, and to which he has sacrificed so very much? or from the people and things he comes to care about along the way? – a dilemma further complicated by the fact that the world’s survival is at stake in his quest, and yet if he dedicates all of his being to pursuing it, what kind of world will he have saved? He’s deeply tragic, too, since that dilemma is forced into sharp relief by the cruelest of circumstances at every turn; thus his path to the Tower is strewn with the lifeless bodies of nearly everyone he holds dear, his hands always a little tinged with their blood.

Moving on to film … this one is entirely self-indulgent, but I will always be a huge fan of Ulysses Everett McGill. I know, I know, he’s so vain and arrogant and manipulative – and, most unfortunately, seriously patriarchal – but that silver tongue of his! He’s just so crafty and clever, and even if in a sense he’s out to assert ownership over his wife and daughters, ultimately I’m willing to see it as a narcissism-mangled and culture-distorted expression of the fact that he really cares for them deep down. He grows a lot as a character over the course of his odyssey, and he exhibits this steadfast commitment not only to what he’s seeking, but ultimately, eventually, to his companions Pete and Delmar, even though that relationship is fraught with missteps at first. On the basis of those, I can forgive him all his awful character traits – and it’s good to acknowledge that even somebody with deep and condemnable flaws can be a kind of hero at times.

If I hadn’t started off with books, but rather had gone in order of top favorites from any work of fiction, the very pinnacle of this list would be Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi. His portrayal by Ewan McGregor almost singlehandedly made the otherwise-weak prequel trilogy worthwhile for me. I’d say he’s my favorite hero in the aspirational sense of wanting to be like the guy: an incredibly patient, even-tempered, reasonable, and caring man who somehow simultaneously excels at everything while remaining effortlessly humble in a way that is completely free of sanctimony. Despite his incredible prowess in battle, he nonetheless defaults to diplomacy (picking up the sobriquet “The Negotiator”), and one gets the sense that he is immediately disposed to deal in a respectful and honorable way with friend and foe alike. What I find especially cool about Kenobi is that as a character, he has the rare quality of being a model of masculinity who is both alternative and positive: he is, in a way, the anti-Rambo, existing in simple untroubled defiance of the notion that a male hero must be aggressive, or reject a fundamental commitment to peace and coexistence, or be out-of-touch with his feelings. Instead he’s a character who is masculine by way of being empathetic and self-sacrificing, who chooses quiet, principled bravery over brashness, and whose masculinity is not impugned by his expression of genuine heartbreak at the betrayal of a pupil he loved like a brother. I’m even a big fan of his swordplay: as the prequel films progress we see him set aside the acrobatic, high-pressure style of his late mentor, in favor of a measured, highly defensive form premised on “enduring rather than overcoming.”

Finally, a few from video games … one of the first to come to mind is Yuna, from Final Fantasy X. She’s a fantastic character in my opinion because (spoiler alert, not that you were about to go and play the game), in the first place, she sets out on a pilgrimage that she knows will claim her life, and yet never bemoans her fate or even brings it up (until the dramatic plot reveal halfway through), because her sacrifice will provide the people of her world with several years’ respite from being terrorized by a destructive leviathan. But what really sets her apart is how she responds to the eventual discovery that the pilgrimage tasked to her is a sham, designed to perpetuate the dominion of a mad deity. Faced with the weighty decision of whether to make good on her promise of bringing about “the Calm” by complying with the religion she has centered her life around, or to risk everything, including all the people of a world on whose behalf she was ready to die, in a desperate rebellion against this pernicious cycle of enslavement, she resolves upon the latter, and succeeds. I guess there’s something about the kind of person who can discover that the project around which she centered her life was a fraud, and go on to put so much on the line to overturn it for the hope of a better tomorrow, that is really inspiring; she’s a woman of quiet determination, whose terrible fate doesn’t prevent her from experiencing laughter and love as she journeys. Bonus points because, after her beloved vanishes into nothingness in the wake of their victory, she basically wills him back into existence at the end of the second game.

One character I find compelling not so much for his traits but for his situation is Roxas from Kingdom Hearts; long story short, he’s “not supposed” to exist – he’s kind of this spiritual doppelganger of the series’ main protagonist, who sort of pops into existence unexpectedly and by accident and ultimately has to be snuffed out in order for the protagonist to be revived and complete the whole story arc. And while he exists, all these various characters and groups try to use him for their own purposes, and all he really wants to do is figure himself out and be his own person. But of course, it’s not in the cards for him: and there’s something really gripping about coming to view this character as a hero in his own story, but when the curtain falls, he’s not gonna be the guy who gets to go on and change the world or even find himself, and all his struggling against “going gentle into that good night” is ultimately so sadly futile.

Finally, I’ll throw Dante from the Devil May Cry games in there, not at all because I like his characterization (minimally fleshed-out as it is – he’s a cocky jerk), but because he’s sort of the apotheosis of the “vampire hunter” archetype, in the tradition of trench-coat-clad, guns-a-blazin’ characters like Van Helsing or the Belmont family from the Castlevania games. No deep analysis on this one, just awesomeness of character design and combat aesthetics.


1 Comment

  1. Kathy Lollock said,

    Great read as usual, Roland! This has got me thinking now….Who are my favorite fictional heroes/characters? You will be the first to know, too.


    PS I do tend to lean toward strong females from Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice to Clara in The House of The Spirits. May I add that NOT ONE OF THEM will ever be from an Ayn Rand novel! My favorites have a strong MORAL fiber. Oh, and these characters would probably be unsung heroes. Like me. Just kidding.

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