H is for heroes and why I read about them

Author: Anne

Date Published: Oct 4th 2017, 9:42am

I first wrote this blog a couple of years ago but I stick by what I said. I do enjoy complicated literary fiction and all sorts of other books but for sheer enjoyment give me a book with a main character who is standing up for right and overcoming barriers - and I am delighted to say that many more of them are women now ....


We need to hold out for a hero Bonnie Tyler tells us as she lists his best qualities. “He's gotta be strong, And he's gotta be fast, And he's gotta be fresh from the fight”

In fact if you listen to her song he’s got to be a very unusual person – which is probably why the Stranglers lament that there are no more heroes any more.

We have two meanings for the word “hero” in fiction. Firstly, we use it to define the main protagonist, whatever his attributes may be, but we also apply it to people in the Bonnie Tyler tradition which is what I want to talk about here. Fiction is full of larger than life characters who do great things and heroes abide. They are most evident in the fantasy tradition (think of Aragorn, Harry Potter, Belgarion, Harry Dresden, etc.) but also in thrillers where people perform great acts or give their lives for a principle (Jason Bourne is one who immediately comes to mind but I would also include Mark Watney from “The Martian”). Where people in real life are fuzzier morally with a fine selection of flaws, fiction is the home of the true hero, a larger than life character who rides in on his white charger and makes things right..

I’ve always seen a hero as more than the obvious though. I define them as a person who stands up for what is right against great odds. They don’t have to be a physically adept person but one of stamina and consistency. People like Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Frodo” in “Lord of the Rings”. They may have physical or mental barriers to overcome but they fight on, in whatever way necessary, to the end.

All our heroes have to be flawed in modern writing – no more comic book, one dimensional characters will satisfy. Philip Marlowe, for example, is a man addicted to women, booze and sarcasm but who might be defined as a hero. All other hero detectives seem to have broken homes, drink problems, family trauma or serious illness to overcome and it can be an effort to see them as any different from the villains. Are these world worn, slightly sleazy characters still heroes any more – does the writer intend for them to be seen that way ? Maybe that’s a question for a book club discussion.

What I want to read about is real people who overcome obstacles and stand up for what is right irrespective of their flaws. I invest emotional energy in these characters because they are the people that I really wish that I was. I like to think that when faced with adversity and challenges I would rise above them, take a stand and make sure that right prevails – I am, of course, deluding myself but it is what I like to read and dream about and having an heroic figure at the centre of my story gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Of course, I don’t just want to read about heroes. I want to read about strong women characters too. Not heroines in the sense of women at the centre of a book just waiting for a man to fulfil them. I want women characters who can be as strong and heroic as the men. For years these have been rare in mainstream or genre fiction but things are beginning to change, especially with the advent of urban fantasy and delightful characters such as Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, Kitty the werewolf and Mercy Thompson. There’s a way to go with female centred literature but I do think that soon we will have many more novels when our hero is really a girl. I am looking forward to them too.

I need a hero

I'm holding out for a hero 'til the morning light

He's gotta be sure

And it's gotta be soon

And he's gotta be larger than life ……