No Real Heroes

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Americans say they love heroes. It’s obvious that’s a lie for too many Americans – we hate heroes and want false ones.

Real heroes are messy people because they’re real humans with flaws and problems. We idolize them but can’t tear our eyes away from the feet of clay every idol has.

Real heroes are creatures of time, of a particular era. As we’ll all too aware, those we admire become less admirable in time. Real heroes are ones we too oft grow out of as persons and as a culture.

Real heroes are a challenge to us because of their reality. Their very existence is a reminder we can do better and be different- while being flawed. If someone with flaws can do great things, why haven’t we?

Real heroes have real results, but also messy results. The extraordinary actions of heroes challenge us to do better. The mistakes and flaws of their choices require us to confront uncertainty about people. Heroic efforts aren’t clear-cut and morally simple, and they force us to think.

Real heroes don’t have the signs of success we want. They may not be rich or good looking, or charming. Doing the right thing doesn’t always pay well, and people who get their hands dirty don’t look clean.

Real heroes don’t fit our template. Real heroes aren’t always the gender we want, the age we want, and or the ethnicity we want. Real heroes remind us that heroism isn’t confined to people like us.

There are many admirable people with us and passed on, but their lives challenge us. To sort the good from the bad in a person is an effort, and when we do so, we confront ourselves. Our simple images of a hero don’t survive contact with history, nor do the images of ourselves.

We hate real heroes, so we often seek false heroes. We find some person who has the right pose, the right words, and follow them instead. We worship the fakers, the actors, the deceivers, and the grifters.

Fake heroes are clean. They present the way we want, act the way we want, say the things we want. There’s no moral ambiguity – unless you look at their actions.

Fake heroes often have money and fame, and the right looks. They have all the worldly things we want, and we decide that’s heroism. The image is there – as long as you don’t ask how they got there.

Fake heroes don’t have any apparent ambiguity because they lie about it or cover it up. Fake heroes are an act, and we don’t have to deal with moral complications because we buy into it. Fake heroes are so much easier.

Fake heroes fit all we expect. They’re the right age, right sexual preference, right skin tone, etc. Fake heroes are a confidence game that looks just enough like us that we’re confident in believing in them.

We so prefer fake heroes in America. They’re so much easier, and the internet and media will help us find them or turn them out for us.

This presents a challenge in a troubled time. But we need to rise to it or drown in false heroes and false faith. We need to know who to trust.

The hero might even be us, flawed as we are, temporary as we are.

Steven Savage

Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – The Deadly Hero

Death Reaper

So we’e talking heroes and villains. Usually at some point we’re talking conflict and outright violence in this case, even if its not physical. However when it gets physical, I want to address a rather poorly handled archetype which I call The Deadly Hero

The Deadly Hero is that character who is a killing machine who leaves a wake of bodies, but is also considered the hero (if only by the author and fans). Now admittedly if said bodies are soulless killer robots and such, probably no harm no foul, but usually they’re living creatures and sentients. Oddly, in much writing it doesn’t seem to matter.

You know the story. It’s an FPS game come to life as enormous amounts of corpses pile up and the character is still considered the hero, still perhaps considers themselves heroic, still acts the part. After a while however something seems wrong, seems off . . .

It is. The Deadly Hero kills worldbuilding as well as legions of people.

The Crux of The Conflict

So what’s the problem? The good guy kicks backside and wins? That’s how it works? So why does this seem . . . off in our worlds?

Beyond gore, gratuitous action, and so on I think the Deadly Hero who acts without repercussion or affect grates on our senses of continuity. After a while the bodycount is like a videogame score, and there’s just no fallout from it.

The world doesn’t matter, the setting is unreal, and the Hero all the moreso for the contrast.

Just consider the impact of violence in our real world.

  1. Violence is unpredictable. A running battle of spells in a crowded city is going to have civilian casualties – having violence be super-surgical and precise seems wrong, and the more there is the less believable (unless you go out of your way to address that).
  2. Violence produces reactions. I don’t care how heroic you think you are, that huge pile of cadavers might make me wonder if you’re the good guy, and I can’t see their badges that indicate they belong to Evil Inc. until the autopsy.
  3. People assess risks. The violent, even the good, may make us wonder if they’re safe. If you’ve got super battle psychic powers that may be well and good, but the secret organization you work for is going to notice the levels of death and maybe wonder if you’re safe to work with . . .
  4. Violence affects people. Ask anyone who has been in a fight, gone to war, killed. Read a biography. Study PTSD. Violence affects us personally, and the person who commits violence is affected as well.
  5. If you’re not affected, something may be wrong. A character who kills without mental and emotional repercussion may be insanely dangerous -or just insane.
  6. Violence takes effort. I mean if nothing else you have to rest, recharge, and buy bullets.

The Deadly Hero, I think, rubs people wrong as it’s death without repercussion or even lip service. A story without repercussion is a story without a working world, and the hero feels abstract and removed from the setting. At that point it’s just a list of things happening against a meaningless backdrop.

Also the Deadly Hero way too often is just a form of wish-fulfillment. The badass without repercussions is a form of pandering – and a sadly obvious form of pandering at that. Poorly written is bad enough, but outright pandering really means your worldbuilding is for naught, its just setting up targets.

I recall once someone talked lovingly of ‘The Punisher” comic. To which I noticed that, realistically, the character would inevitably kill a lot of innocent people (if only by accident) and that everyone who showed up dead would not necessarily be a known criminal and thus upset the public.

They didn’t get it.

Avoiding The Trap

The Deadly Hero is a trap that’s a bit too easy to fall into, and I’d credit the prevalence of this kind of story in the media. There’s also media that veers into this territory but doesn’t go all the way – but following in the footsteps of said media means you may veer all the way.

But if your world and a realistic setting are important, you want to avoid the trap of the Deadly Hero – and a common one it is. Here’s a few pieces of advice

  1. Make sure violence has appropriate repercussions.
  2. Make sure the hero’s reactions to violence are appropriate.
  3. Make sure other characters in your world react appropriately to violence.
  4. Make sure the cost of weapons, armor, repair, etc. are worked into the story.
  5. Think of what a hero is. If you are wrting an admirable character, you’ll need to explore their reasons and reactions to violence – which is a fascinating experience as a writer. You’re poorer if you don’t – why would someone kill, and for what reasons is a great part of a tale and a world.

In short you avoid the trap by making sure the world works and functions appropriate, diving in to the repercussions and richness of the setting and character. In time, this makes not just a believable story, but a better world and characters.

A Side Note: The UHB is still annoying

When I first wrote this column I noted a character I really was tired of was the Uncaring Heroic Badass or UHB. The UHB is the grim, deadly, antisocial, unlikeable character who is the hero that the author wants us to root for even though they’re an a-hole.

My opinion hasn’t changed. The UHB is really a power trip consisting of:

  1. I’m tough and can defeat anyone. Don’t you want to be me?
  2. I don’t care about anyone or anything. Aren’t I cool for not caring.

Really, the UHB isn’t a hero. They’re a sociopath in a costume, meant for pandering, and still freaking annoying.

Fallout From The Flareup

Writing a violent and deadly hero is totally possible – as long as you understand the repercussions of violence and the character. This requires deep thought – and avoiding tropes.

If anything, I’d say tropes about violence are some of the worst challenges we face in writing (along with sex, religion, and politics). It’s almost like we get invested in them, and we need to overcome them.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at

Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – I’m With The Agency

Wild Dive

So let’s talk Heroes and Villains and your world.

I should note that when I talk Heroes and Villains I’m using that to pretty much mean the same thing as “Protagonist” and “Antagonist.” Why? Because it’s a hell of a lot easier to write “Hero and Villain” and sounds a tad less academic. I’ve got enough trouble going academic as it is.

So for the duration of my digressions, I hope you’ll forgive the simplicity.

But hey you have your main character(s) right? They’re the heroes and villains, correct? They’re the ones you focus on, right? The hero, especially, is the main character, right?

Not necessarily.

You may have a main character but they may not be a Hero. Oh there may be a Hero, but it’s not your main character.

For some writers, this is a problem, and it brings up an important issue in telling the stories of your world.

A Critical Definition

As noted earlier, when you’re writing, your Main character(s) of your story are essentially viewpoints on the world. In a few cases if you use a first-person writing style, quite directly so. But just because the story is from their perspective it may not mean they’re the Hero or Vllain.

When I try and define Hero and Villain, Protagonist and Antagonist, one thing that is critical is that the Heroes and Villains have effect. If your Hero is the main character the story is told from the perspective of someone affecting the setting. A Villain is the same way.

They may be morally different, but both are rather active, even if reluctantly or reactively (in the case of some Anti-Heroes).

In a way, Heroes and Villains are defined by a sense of Agency, of the ability to act and direct and change things. It may not be in a good way, or an effective way, or a competent way. They may fail, but their activity upon the environment is what makes them Heroes and Villains as much as their motivation.

You could be exceedingly evil, but if you’re in a coma due to your last drug binge in your lair of evil, you’re not really an Antagonist. You’re more an After-School Special for supervillains.

You could be exceptionally heroic, but if that results in no direction and activity, then you’re not really the Hero, are you? Yes you may be a nice guy, but you’re not really the Hero, you’re a well-meaning victim of circumstance.

Sense Of Agency, Sense of Story

Thus when you are deciding on your story, if you’re telling a tale of Heroism and/or with villainy, Heroes and Villains require agency, initiative and direction. If they do not act, they are merely acted upon and at best responding, and even then poorly.

This is a critical definition, as a few things happen to those who make tales that can ruin the sense of Agency.

  • We focus so much on worldbuilding, our characters bounce round like pinballs. Ever read a book that seemed to be an exercise in tourism? You get the idea.
  • We conjure up characters to tell the story or have it happen too. The Hero is there so stuff happens and things get done, but they’re not a character, not part of the world. They’re a camera with legs, making your tale the equivalent of a found-footage movie.
  • We spend too much time inside the Hero’s head we forget to make them a person. You don’t notice how unfurnished a room is if you keep looking out a window.

Now in a few cases if your Villain is a phenomena like a plague or something, then the Villain can lack agency in a human sense. Their “agency” comes from pure brute force and circumstance. But if you’re writing from a hero’s point of view and they have no initiative they’re no Hero.

You’ve probably read stories like above. Someone gets all the hero trappings but never does anything, never shows any initiatives. Never does anything. It’s boring – you find yourself wishing for a Mary Sue/Gary Stu because at least they’d do do stupidly overblown stuff.

(And if you can write a story where the Hero is a faceless force and the Villain has a sense of agency, I want to talk to you.)

However sometimes your main character doesn’t always have a sense of agency. In a few cases, this is actually OK.

The Narrative Character

If a main character is not a hero, not a person with a sense of Agency, then in many cases that can be quite lame. It’s not interesting to read about someone bouncing around. It’s annoying to just watch things happen to someone in a world, even if the world is well written.

Except in some cases, I do think this is a valuable form of storytelling – if done consciously.

Sometimes the main character isn’t a Hero, it’s what I call a Narrative Character. A Narrative Character is someone who relates what is happening but has little role in shaping what is going on. That may not sound interesting at the start, but I believe it can be done well if handled properly. Thus, I think in cases where this is deliberately chosen, this is a legitimate form of storytelling.

Now I should note that I think truly Narrative character, the victims of circumstance, are relatively rare. Usually they’re on a scale between Narrative Character and Hero. The exceptions are usually narrative stories, where someone is reiterating what’s going on.

But it’s a legitimate choice if you do it right.

I feel some of the best examples of Narrative Characters are often found in horror stories, especially those about people in the grip of unfathomable evil. Their narrative ability both explains the horror but also communicates their sheer overwhelming sense of being trapped. Lovecraftian tales often do this quite well.

Though I wouldn’t limit the idea of the Narrative Character just to horror.

Make Your Choice and Move On

So when writing and picking perspectives, remember that Heroes and Villains have a sense of Agency. If your main character lacks suck, there’s either a flaw in your choices, or you’re really writing a Narrative Character.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at