An Autopsy of a Hero

Last night, I was listening to ThrillerCast, one of my favorite webcast radio shows (with host/authors David Wood and Alan Baxter) and they were interviewing Sean Ellis and talking about the differences between heroes of the Golden Age of pulp adventures with those of today (you can listen to the show here: Anyway, their discussion really got me to thinking about heroes in fiction, what different types of heroes there are, and what are the components that make up a really good hero. Rather important when thinking about books…after all, without heroes, our fiction would be kind of boring, right? 
As many of you know, though I consider myself a professional writer/publisher…let’s face it…in this stage of the game, I need something to pay the bills. So I do this by working as a forensic death investigator. That’s right…I work crime scenes and participate in autopsies for a living. So I thought, “What better way to take a closer look at our ideas about heroes than by performing an autopsy on them?” And that’s what we’re going to do in this week’s post!
An autopsy is a pretty complicated thing…but it’s comprised of only a handful of categorical observations: an external examination, where the body is examined on the outside for exterior injuries, flaws, marks, and other clues; the chest, where most of the vital organs are located; head, that’s pretty obvious; and the extremities, i.e. the arms and legs. It is with these things in mind that we’ll begin our autopsy.
Heroes have been around for centuries. As long as humans have told stories, heroes have inhabited the realms of the imagination. The larger than life champions of justice and good have followed human civilization through the centuries. Hercules, Perseus, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. Later, Sherlock Holmes came onto the scene with his modern, analytical mind replacing brute strength. Then came the pulp heroes…Doc Savage, the Spider, the Shadow, and many colorful others that led to the comic book superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. In recent years, heroes have become much more complex…dramatic and flawed. Some would say hyper-real (I’m thinking of the heroes from the remake of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Universe here more than anything…they’re just a perfect example of this kind of hero). So what does this mean in our autopsy? Well, it’s important, in an external examination, to identify the various things that are observed. In our discussion, I think it’s essential to identify the different kinds of heroes. 
The HEART — Examining the Super-Man
The Super-Man is the perfect hero. He is brave, strong, and smart. Always says the right things and never does wrong. His decisions are always guided by the heart…or a pristine moral compass…and the reader can always depend on him to save the day…while never having to compromise his ideals to do it. Examples of this kind of hero, unquestionably, would be someone like Doc Savage and to a lesser extent, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt.  The classic 1980s action movie hero Jake Speed would fall somewhat into this classification. “When you’re good,” Jake said, “nothing can happen to you.” The golden and silver age Superman would also fall under this category, though that character has gone through some major revamping in recent years that causes the classification to become a little more gray. 
Many modern readers complain about these kinds of heroes. They label them as one dimensional. Boring. Unrealistic. I’ll admit…I’ve been one of those naysayers myself. But as I’ve grown older, and a bit more journey weary, I’ve discovered something wonderful about these heroes…they are probably needed more today than at any other time in our history. At a time when morality and acting selflessly has been pigeon-holed into relativistic shades of gray and ambiguity, we need these heroes to serve as beacons of light…of role models…of someone for us to aspire to even when the world says, “It’s impossible to be that way.” 
The ARMS — Examining the Brute

Sometimes, we just need a hero to punch the bad guy’s lights out. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the villain get his just desserts, even if his punishment isn’t what we would consider “good”.  These heroes can’t always be classified as “good”. More often than not, they just don’t care about what’s right or wrong. They just want to SMASH! Hercules would be a classic example of this kind of hero…though basically good, he had a dark side. He allowed his passion and strength to outweigh his sense of right and wrong at times. Heck, he just wanted to pound things into the ground from time to time. The Hulk would be a modern example of this.

Last night, I watched the remake of the classic Universal Studios The Wolfman and was really impressed. But a strange thing happened while I was watching…I found myself rooting for the werewolf. Found myself quite pleased as he tore into the throng of doctors and scientists that had treated him so poorly in the lunatic asylum. Cheered for him as these arrogant “know-it-alls” got their come-uppance. Then, the werewolf escapes…runs onto the streets of 19th century London…and no one is safe. Cops, street vendors, criminals, women, children…they were all food for this salivating dog-man. And suddenly, my cheers and good wishes for this strange hero became something of an embarrassment. Yet, as the scene passed, I continued rooting for him.
No, though the Brutish hero does not always do the right thing…the offer something else for us readers. They allows us to participate in things we would never consider doing in real life. They allow us to vent our frustrations and release the pent up feelings of helplessness in a world that seems so much more powerful than ourselves.
The BRAIN — Examining the Intellectural

Perhaps my favorite of all heroes. Those that fall into this category are somehow, just a bit more than average humans. They are machines. Computers. All too often, they are unfeeling…unsympathetic. Only the “problem” matters to them and without a puzzle to solve, they quickly become inferior in some ways. The Brain thrives on the hunt…on logic and reason…on the contest of wills between he and his opponents. 

Though this type can be considered a hero in the classical sense, they are often misunderstood. Their actions are unorthodox and like the Brute, they are not always guided by a rigid sense of morality…right and wrong really do not matter to these heroes. 
Sherlock Holmes, of course, would be the quintessential Brain. He has been described as a calculating machine. At times, after solving the crime, he has even let the culprits go free. After all, he is not a law enforcement officer…it is not his duty to apprehend the villains of the world. To him, it is the problem that drives him forward in his investigations. He is cold. Calculating. In none of the stories, despite what you might think of Irene Adler, he never once demonstrated any romantic tendencies toward any other human being. 
The closest modern equivalents to Holmes that I can think of would be FBI Special Agent Pendergast and the Batman (though the Dark Knight could easily fall into the Brute category from time to time as well). Both are strange, eccentric, and dark. Both have huge intellects that transcend the mediocre minds of those around them. And both have problems with people understanding their actions and motivations. They perpetually think outside the box…they think three, four, even ten steps ahead of everyone else…and no villain is capable of alluding their problem solving skills for very long.
In a world where mediocrity seems to be applauded…where mindlessness and shallow pursuits are lauded, the world needs these heroes now more than ever. Through them, we can learn the power of the mind. We can discover that there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved if we put on our thinking caps and really think things through.
The INJURIES — Examining the hero’s flaws

No autopsy would be complete without documenting any injuries, trauma, or other defects on the body. The same must be true for our autopsy on a hero. For you see, some of our greatest fictional heroes have some major flaws. They are what make these heroes so interesting…more real…and provide something greater for us to root for. We want these heroes to overcome those flaws in order to save the day.

It’s why Superman was given kryptonite. Sherlock Holmes was addicted to cocaine. Charles Xavier and Ironside were confined to a wheelchair. Batman was just a bit psychotic. It are these traits that bring the heroes down to something identifiable…something that we can grasp in our own lives. And in many ways, be used to inspire us to greater action. After all, if our heroes can overcome these things, then so can we, right?
The LEGS — Examining the hero’s determination
Like our examination of the hero’s flaws, this one is a little different too. It doesn’t refer to a particular classification of hero. On the contrary, actually…it is a single characteristic that all heroes should share. The legs. The feet. What do we do with them? We travel. We move forward. We ambulate toward a particular goal. There is no such thing as a hero without a journey. No such thing as a hero who sits idly while the world passes him by. Recently, there has been a commercial playing for Direct TV (or something similar) in which a large metropolis is in chaos…crime is running rampant…and the city’s resident superhero is shown sitting casually on his couch with a remote control in his hand. To that particular city, the superhero in question is completely useless. In fiction, the same would be true.
But thankfully, this is not the case. Hercules went on his twelve tasks. Odysseus, his odyssey. Frodo Baggins traveled to Mordor carrying the One Ring to rule them all. 
You see, without legs…the willingness to push ahead no matter what happens…a person cannot be a hero. They must have determination. They must have perseverance. They must push forward and make the sacrifice…no matter what that means. That is the characteristic of a TRUE hero. They can be as strong as Superman, as intelligent as Sherlock Holmes…they may be able to move mountains and turn back the hands of time by flying counterclockwise around the earth…but if they do not act when they are needed most, they are nothing. 
I think this is the greatest hope that heroes give us. It is their greatest gift to us. The inspiration to act. They give us the courage to move against injustice and strength to tear down walls that keep us in check.
I hope you have enjoyed this week’s look at heroes. I know it’s a little different than what I normally do on this blog…but personally, I thought it was a lot of fun. Of course, I have only scratched the surface of the subject. Only highlighted some of the most obvious observations. If you have something to add, please leave a comment. Who are some of your favorite heroes? Why? What makes them so special to you?
Perhaps soon, I will perform a similar autopsy on villains. They are, after all, infinitely more fun to discuss sometimes than heroes. Joker, anyone? 🙂

1 thought on “An Autopsy of a Hero”

  1. Lee Child's Jack Reacher is one of my all time favorite heroes. He's intelligent, strong, fearless, flawed and definitely always moving forward.

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