Want some mustard on that Hero?

You know what an “earworm” is, don’t you? One of those tunes that get stuck in your head, and you can’t seem to not hear it.

On the Northern Alliance Radio Network show on Saturday (the second act, featuring Mitch Berg from Shot In the Dark and Captain Ed from Captain’s Quarters), they used up valuable radio time playing Frankie Valli’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” in its entirety. I’m still not sure why. I think it might have been an oblique comment on something Nancy Pelosi said.

In any case, it’s been my off-and-on earworm all week, and it’s a weird one. Strangely fascinating, though repellant, like seeing Mickey Mouse in a Tennessee Williams play, or watching a man dancing the tango in clown shoes.

I wrote the other day about the problem of villains in books (or any storytelling medium). Villains, being villainous, generally wish to dominate the world, and they definitely want to dominate your story.

The thing about villains is that they do stuff. They get out there and mix it up. Unencumbered by concern for the comfort and convenience of others, they disrupt lives and systems and whole nations in order to get the bright shiny things they covet.

Your hero, on the other hand, is probably heavily encumbered. He’s nice. He’s not going to break down anybody’s door to find out what nameless evil is looming in the shadows. He’s got a job (probably). He’s got responsibilities.

To put it bluntly, he’s kind of dull. He might be nice to have as a husband or a friend, but he’s not very interesting to watch.

This, I suspect, is why many popular heroes are a little nuts. Sherlock Holmes, besides his drug problem, is bipolar, antisocial and narcissistic. Hercule Poirot is narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive. James Bond is a charming, psychopathic satyr.

But you can only take that so far. Make your hero too proactive and he becomes a busybody or a bully.

So the usual solution is to get him into trouble. Bring the villain to him, let the villain do something he can’t overlook, then let them mix it up. Make the villain formidable, give the hero lots of failures and set-backs and close misses to overcome, and you’ve got a story.

But the whole thing’s unsatisfactory to me, as a Christian writer. I believe that good is not essentially quiescent (I’m not a Buddhist). My Lord was contemplative when it was appropriate, but could be extremely proactive when faced with evil. He even picked fights (rhetorically), and once used a whip on some guys (or at least their livestock).

When I created my favorite character of my own, Father Ailill, I had the idea of a mad Irishman coming to live among a lot of dull Norwegians. It might have been good if I’d done it that way, but I came to feel that I’d be able to write him better if he were more like me. So I made him an essentially brash and aggressive guy who’s been broken (I know all about being broken). This added a Flashmanesque element of cowardice (although Ailill is less cowardly than he thinks). I believe it worked all right (I’m not fishing for compliments, I’m just telling you how I dealt with the problem).

But I’d like to figure out a way to build more proactive heroes.

Shoot, I’d like to figure out a way to be a little proactive myself.

8 thoughts on “Want some mustard on that Hero?”

  1. I don’t know Lars; the bible is full of heroes; from noah to joshua to paul. I don’t see any poverty of heroes. (The history of christianty is full of heroes. ie. john knox.)

  2. Ailill is one of the best characters I’ve ever read. So many unforgettable moments. (Yes, I know, I know. You weren’t fishing for compliments.)

  3. I’d say that Columbo is an example of an interesting hero with an ostensively dull life, puttering around in a way that looks meek and mild on the surface, then stunning everyone with an irrefutable piece of evidence – kind of like Pr. Haugen from the theological faculty you work with.

  4. I don’t know how anyone can say they’re not a Dylan fan. A slow train coming? “You’ve gotta serve somebody” “When you gonna wake up?” “I believe in you.” “Precious Angel” “When he returns” “Slow Train” (This is on friggin’ album.)

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