This thought was groundbreaking stuff when I finally got there, so stick with me as I reason my way to it.
A compelling criticism of the bodice-ripping sex-scenes of 80s romance novels is that women have no autonomy – and no responsibility. They get to have the sex they truly desire, without having to chose it, or ask for it, or acknowledge that they want it.
(My favourite place this is argued is in the delicious Consuming Passions, which the BBC made to celebrate 100 years of Mills & Boon. I’ve added the trailer for your enjoyment – that’s just the kind of host I am.)
The romance genre has, for the most part, dealt with this. Modern heroines have to face themselves and their desires – they have to look them head-on and have the courage to choose them – before they get their happy ending.
I recently watched a fantastic TED video, the antidote to apathy (see below), and one of the speaker’s points went ping in my head. He says:
“Heroes are chosen. There’s a prophecy. Someone came up to them and said, ‘You have to save the world’ and then someone goes off and saves the world, because they’ve been told to, with a few people tagging along. This helps me understand why a lot of people have trouble seeing themselves as leaders, because it sends all the wrong messages about what leadership is about…As long as we’re teaching our kids that heroism starts when someone scratches a mark on your forehead, or someone tells you that you’re part of a prophecy, they’re missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within, it’s about following your own dreams uninvited, and then working with others to make those dreams come true.”
I remembered that old criticism of romance, and came to this conclusion: Romance has moved on, but the Hero Story hasn’t.
Cat and I started to talk about this. What would a fantasy epic look like if the hero wasn’t “chosen” (i.e. got to have his epic destiny without any autonomy or responsibility)? What if some farm boy (because they always are farm boys, right?) looked around himself and decided to do something about what he saw; to act autonomously, and to be responsible for what he caused?
The first thing that occurred to us was: They wouldn’t get away with nearly so much. What if Harry Potter was just any other kid, but he’d decided to stand up to You-Know-Who. In the process he gets Cedric killed and cuts up Malfoy. How much more culpable would he look if he alone was responsible for those actions, and not some Destiny that’s marked him since he was a baby?
Would he still be a hero?
Which is where we got to thinking: Villains are the characters who act autonomously. They look at a situation, make their own decisions, and are held responsible for their actions.
The movie Thor is the perfect example. Thor kicks off a war with the gods’ ancient enemies and gets cast down to Earth as part of his father’s masterplan. He is “chosen” for great things. Loki creates the only scenario where he can kill the king of their enemies and stop his irresponsible brother from sitting on the throne, but is cast out forever, because he is not “chosen”. He is responsible for his own actions.
So now I’m unbearably curious: Is it possible to have an autonomous hero who doesn’t turn into a villain?