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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
Really, the UHB isn’t a hero. They’re a sociopath in a costume, meant for pandering, and still freaking annoying.
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 is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.