What makes a hero heroic? In many cases, it’s about heroic deeds which no one else is able to accomplish or a quest that only a hero could complete, as no one else can. Other times, it’s because the hero is a shining light of decency, assertiveness or moral clarity in a world of corruption, idiocy and cowardice. David Brin scored a palpable hit on me with this piece on his blog, critically examining this way of framing a narrative.
In it, he excoriates the trend (in fiction and in life) of painting all institutions as essentially corrupt and incompetent in the service of giving the hero something to do.
Hence the Iron Rule: Society never works. Along with its corollary: Everyone is stupid. By making these twin assumptions, you can prevent your hero from getting any of the help that would dry-up all the drama. You can blithely and easily keep your protagonist in danger until that final satisfying explosion sets the credits rolling. [emphasis in original]
Experts are never expert, the authorities are never authoritative – they’re either corrupt, incompetent or just plain unprepared for whatever it is that drives the plot of the novel which requires *ding* The Hero to throw themselves in the middle and (by virtue of their exceptional hero-ness) save the day.
This point came up to me as I was ruminating on Twelve by Jasper Kent. It nicely bridges horror and historical fiction, taking us back in time to Napoleon’s eventually disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. At the beginning of the novel, however, things look dim for the Russians. The protagonist, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, is part of (for want of a better term) the Czar’s Black Ops unit, there to conduct any form of espionage or commando action that may slow the approach of the Grande Armée. One of them hires a shadowy group of mercenaries, the Twelve of the title, whose lethal prowess in hit-and-run tactics are legendary, in order to harrass the advancing French forces.
Long story short, the Twelve are vampires (voordalak) from Romania (who would have thought?) and are shown to be not only mercenary, but gleefully amoral in service of animal hunger. These are not graceful or aristocratic vampires, with nary a sparkle or a single long speech about the lonely burden of long life. Instead, painted as near beasts whose role is that of primal predator, to feed and to enjoy feeding.
Imperial Russia is sketched in vivid glory, as is the desperation of a people under threat of invasion. Danilov’s four comrades and love interest are also fully fleshed and realistically written, with foibles and characters which do stand in their own right without being just foils for the hero to emote off. The fellow members of the squad are especially well written in that they’re not portrayed as bosom buddies and boon companions, but comrades (in the pre-October revolution sense) who share a mission and a sense of professionalism and honour.
Whilst not defined well as individuals (with one curious and entirely satisfying exception), the voordalak are also well written, with the scenes of them collectively “at work” being wonderful writing examples of terrifying efficiency. One of the really positive things about Kent’s work is that he doesn’t mash the standard tropes of vampirism repeatedly in the reader’s face, allowing the reader to be informed gradually, at the same rate as Danilov. The effect is unsettling, rather than shocking which gives the reader a creeping sense of horror, which I found very effective.
Placing this intimate, personlised narrative under the gloomy shadow of invasion, occupation and retreat is a very effective move, giving an overall impression of death and the destruction of normal society (another traditional feature of vampire fiction). Also a positive is the use of socio-political themes of the era, with ideas of liberty, comradeship, revolution and the backward nature of 19th century Russian society unobtrusively woven into the narrative and characters. I usually fictionalised historical background well-used if its presence in a novel makes me want to go out and independently research it for myself.
However… (yes, you could sense this however coming, couldn’t you?), once the big reveal comes (“OMG! They’re abominations against the natural order! Kill them! Kill them!”) the book becomes a far more standard revenge fantasy / heroic journey. Danilov takes it upon himself to singlehandedly kill the Twelve. Victory grows more improbable with every kill, until he is a one-man wrecking-crew that cannot be stopped.
I found this deeply unsatisfying. Despite after all the painful work showing that they are terrifying creatures of inhuman ability, Danilov dispatches his prey with a sense of inevitability, occasional outbursts of swashbuckling style along alternated with gritty ruthlessness. Kent seems to realise how grating this is, as he runs a parallel late-novel narrative concerning a threat to the narrator’s love-interest from the Twelve. This is somewhat crudely executed, but at least provides the reader with some form of emotional investment, given that Danilov’s lone-wolf-vigilante-in-defence-of-normative-humanity really doesn’t feel like it has any stake to it rather than Danilov’s feelings.
To circle back to my main point, what if Danilov had instead used the Russian army to hunt down the Twelve. What if he had demanded an experienced squad of cold-blooded killers to hunt down infiltrators, knowing full well that he would be taking some to their deaths (as his comrades had already been killed)? What if he had masterfully used intelligence, brains, luck and the resources of the army (then pursuing a <spolier> miserable, frozen, half starved French army back across the countryside) to track down and kill the cunning and desperate undead? What if keeping his new squad alive had become his focus, saving them in a way he had been unable to save his own comrades? If he forced himself to take on the voordalak’s own methods of teamwork to hunt and kill their prey…
Personally, I would have found that a more interesting path to take rather than one man riding over the Russian countryside single-handedly taking on a group of physically superior and morally absent inhuman monsters (even with the “personal threat” sub-plot).
If the only way you can make your hero heroic is by contrast with his unheroic surroundings then you’re really taking an easy way out. A more challenging way is to make your hero heroic by their reaction to adversity, renouncing glory for effectiveness and using every resource available to them.
In my own work, I’ve tried not to make the organisational structures too corrupt and bureaucratically idiotic. From personal experience, there are always pockets of this, but there are also people of intelligence, judgement, experience and skill. Biases and stupidity exist, but I’m not writing a dystopia, so don’t have any functional need for a world of broken people and broken institutions. I’ve tried to design the challenges of my plot in a way that these people react normally, and if they get it wrong, they get it wrong for rational reasons rather than because they need to provide the hero with a reason to impinge on the plot.
The title of this post is a reference to John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, in which the main character sees himself as the shining light in a world of corruption. The novel is entirely worth reading, and perhaps provides the best possible satire of David Brin’s target in existence.