My post about the omnipresence of the Hero's Journey in contemporary American screenwriting set me to thinking about the concept of the hero.
Most people today think a hero is someone who wins, takes on any and all opposition without fear, and triumphs thanks to superior might, smarts or charm. The hero comes out of the conflict as the clear winner and gets what he wants.
But that's not what a hero is.
A hero is, quite simply, someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.
A single mother working three jobs in order to feed her four kids and provide them with a good education? A hero(ine).
A firefighter braving a blazing building to rescue trapped inhabitants? A hero.
A suave superspy, risking life and limb to save the world from the machinations of insane master villains with a penchant for conquest? A hero.
A loveable guy, breaking up a happy marriage because he falls in love with one member of the couple? Not a hero. No matter how engaging the character might be developed or interpreted.
The most perfect example in cinematic history: Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Giving up his romantic desire and his one true love for the good of the Allies and free people everywhere.
And this also gives us the perfect definition of the anti-hero: an anti-hero is a protagonist who won't sacrifice him- or herself for others. This doesn't make them evil or inferior - to many, it makes them more relatable. But one thing they do not do is inspire.
That's one reason why we're so fascinated by stories about heroism - whether of the 'super' or the everyday sort: they show us what humanity is capable of at its best.
On the other hand, modern western society has evolved to a point where (self)sacrifice is far less common and admired than before. Not-so-enlightened self-interest is the order of the day.
So that explains a) why traditional models of heroic behaviour are less popular or at least less convincing to modern audiences and b) why we've evolved to a model of storytelling where somebody wants something and gets it (to quote Earl Pomerantz again) is the most repeated storyform. The modern audience member is constantly reassured that IF they are willing to sacrifice something, manna from heaven will be their immediate reward. It's all about immediate gratification, whereas the message of Christianity was that suffering in this life would be rewarded by eternal bliss in the afterlife...
This is a specifically western (and largely American) message though. In many Chinese popular stories, the hero dies, sometimes even in vain. But there the act of the heroic sacrifice itself is what's considered meaningful and inspirational, not the reward the hero gets at the end of his labours.
And of course heroism isn't always rewarded - as in Sergio Corbucci's shocking spaghetti western The Big Silence. At the end, heroic gunman Jean-Louis Trintignant, his hands broken, rides out to face villain Klaus Kinski in order to save a group of farmers Kinski holds hostage. Trintignant is shot in cold blood, and the farmers are massacred. It's a truly stunning moment, as it runs counter to both genre expectations and our feelings of justice. And it's undeniably true to life.
Which doesn't really bring me to my point, but anyhow...
Let's have more heroes.
Let's inspire people again.
And let's, slowly but surely, try to get the point across that the hero is willing to sacrifice all without being rewarded for it.
It may not do much for making the world a better place. It may not do anything at all.
But I'm sure we'll get some great stories out of it.