give your hero autonomy, make a villain

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?

About anna cowan

I look around, and here I am - housewife and aspiring romance novelist. This seems unexpected.
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8 Responses to give your hero autonomy, make a villain

  1. Cheryl Nekvapil says:

    Yes, Marc Zuckerberg!
    But his story isn’t romance, exactly anyway — though in real life there is a romance. What about ummmmmmmmm . . . . . . . . just hold that thought and I’ll read some more and finish it another day!

    • anna cowan says:

      haha, what a strange pick for the autonomous hero! He definitely creates his own call to greatness, but I’m not entirely sure I’d call him a hero. I suppose his portrayal in the movie is almost anti-hero territory, but I think that anti-heroic quality comes from him having acted autonomously, so he illustrates my point more than disproves it. If he had been somehow “destined to create facebook” would be have had more sympathy for him? That’s an interesting question….

  2. londonmabel says:

    Hmm. It’s a very interesting question! But (without watching the TED talk cause I must be off to bed in a minute) I think the point might be a little off. The chosen thing in the symbolism of the hero adventure, as studied by Joseph Campbell when he looked at myths around the world, is supposed to just be “the call to adventure.” Meaning, you’re living your life and something comes into your world that spurs you to action–and you have a choice to take up that call or not. So, in an epic fantasy movie sense, yes Luke Skywalker has some mystical dude come calling for him, but he has the choice to refuse, and at first he does. And in fact, we see him trying to get off his planet and go join the rebellion earlier, but his uncle won’t let him–it’s only once his uncle dies that he accepts the mystical dude’s call to adventure. Sans mystical dude, he would have left Tatooine anyway.

    And because of him Leia and pals are kidnapped, and Han is carbonited etc. But they’re part of a rebellion, they all see it as part of the sacrifices they have to face. I don’t think it’s his being a Jedi that gives him a pass, it’s the fact that he’s fighting for a cause that they’re all fighting for too, and would willingly die for as well. You do see Luke struggling with that responsibility, though. (Do we not see Harry struggle with it? I read the books so long ago.) I feel like a good writer should show that. “With great power comes…” The good heroes have that dark side, don’t they? Because they wear that heavy duty? Isn’t that one of the great things about the Lord of the Rings books–that sombre rather depressing tone because the hero is so weighed down by the burden of this horrible quest he’s been given?

    Put this in real world terms… we all have calls to adventure come into our lives. Rosa Parks didn’t just refuse her seat on the bus; after she was arrested she was asked by an organization if they could use her case to take it through the courts as a civil rights course. She discussed it with her husband and accepted. I’d say she had a personal call to adventure on that bus–one that had to do with her soul, with the growth of her own person, in terms of no longer accepting this injustice; but it was one that others had done before her. The call to leadership came from the organization–that launched her to the nation.

    BUT. I didn’t listen to the TED talk. So maybe I’m way off base from that guy’s point and I should shut up now. But thanks for making me think about this it was a nice little thinkercise before I go to bed. Sigh. 🙂 I’ll be sure to come back and visit again. (Signed, A Betty)

    • anna cowan says:

      wow, such a thoughtful, interesting response! I love your idea that Rosa Parks’s call to heroism was something soulful/internal/personal. This is the kind of call to heroism I’m interested in, and what I think the TED guy meant by doing something “uninvited” – that you generate your own call to greatness. You don’t wait for something to come into your life that you can accept or refuse, you create your own path.

      I think you’re very right about the choice a hero makes once they’ve been called – and that they have to deal with the responsibility of being great. (I’m inclined to think Frodo might be an autonomous hero, because he chooses to take on an impossible task without being earmarked for it by anyone. But there’s still a sense of him being “invited” by the council.) Even within that choice, though, I think there’s always an inherent reluctance – a kind of coming to terms with a path they’ve been put on by forces beyond their control. I’m trying to imagine a hero who creates their own path (out of an internal calling – Rosa Parks is such a great example!) and then follows that through and is responsible for it. In a way it almost doesn’t allow for the same kind of struggle – they can’t indulge in guilt or reluctance in the same way. I think it would be a harder path.

      (As an aside, I was just re-reading a really early Lucy post about guilt, and I think what I’m getting at is what she was saying – that guilt is a way to trick yourself into thinking you’re morally progressing. “Chosen” heroes are in a position to indulge more in these kind of feelings than heroes who chose their own path with their eyes open.)

      I love your point about the Star Wars resistance, and how it’s something they would all have been involved in anyway. It seems like a really great way to construct a hero – as something larger than them that people have personal reasons to be strongly committed to. (My crit partner and I always laugh about the way teen heroes always seem to be winning wars single-handedly.)

      Thanks for dropping by – thought-provoking stuff! Oh, and the TED talk just says pretty much what I transcribed – I inferred a lot, lol 🙂

  3. londonmabel says:

    I’ll have to ponder the guilt stuff. This is suuuper interesting line of thinking, especially as I get ready to replot one of my books, and am still churning over a new book on my head. I think this is going to help me A Lot. Yays!!

    • anna cowan says:

      I was pretty blown away by the paths my brain started travelling when I started thinking this stuff through, so I’m thrilled it’s sparked something for you as well! I’m in the middle of massive plot meltdown and just starting to get some direction with it (I’m trying to remind myself that caterpillars turn to mush before they turn into butterflies. It sort of helps). Good luck with the plotting!

  4. Mini-Mike says:

    Wow, big discussion on this one and so much I could say!
    I watched that TED talk a wee while back as well, its a good’un!

    I think most of the ground has been covered in the discussion, it’s certainly something I’ve been thinking about for my ‘dying sun’ novel. Essentially one character is set to become a hero in a self-willed manner, while the other is the victim of prophecy, hehe. I like the idea of facing consequences… I think its helped me consider another facet to their relationship worth exploring.

    I think that perhaps the main reason the ‘Hero’ plot hasn’t progressed much in general, is because of the appeal of the concept of ‘destiny.’ I do agree with your point, Anna, for me, much of the pathos in these stories comes from ‘reluctant heroes,’ from the desire of these characters to live their own lives, those that fight tooth and nail to avoid doing what they know they must. Its a powerful thing, resisting something greater than yourself. (I think that’s why I like Vampire Hunters so much, Vampire-fanciers are just taking the easy way out. poofs 😉

    Anyway, you were talking about how there is far greater weight on the consequences of ones actions for those ‘heroes’ who make their own destiny. You also mentioned other media that reflects this, I think one of the most interesting examples of a film that illustrates this excellently is Luc Besson’s ‘Joan of Arc,’ which, if you haven’t seen, is certainly worth a look for its take on presumption of destiny and the consequences therein.

    • anna cowan says:

      I’m liking your reference to vampires! I guess the only kind of truly autonomous vampire hero would be one who embraces drinking humans to death, which doesn’t come across as very heroic…

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