Why I Don’t Build Heroes

Yet more for RPG Blog Carnival. I need to take prompts more often.

My characters do not begin their games as heroes.

They’re the kinds of people who might make decent protagonists, sure. Many, but not all of them, are technically good. In some way, they might even be exceptional.

But by many definitions—and most importantly, both by my definition and by whatever internal definition they use—they’re not heroes as they start out. Sure, I’ve had a couple who have done the “keep the world from harm” thing from the beginning, but more often than not because it was their job, and it was usually a secondary goal compared to, say, do something about the slowly doomed hometown, or use the ability to hear power use as music as a way to eventually create subliminal propaganda (other than that, she was the nicest girl I’ve ever PC’d), or take care of the bizarre crowd of trainees under their wing. Many of them were driven by the need to prove themselves (or just to show off), or revenge, or sometimes both; those that weren’t were often chasing knowledge in some form or other. One was devoted to helping people—but that was partly because she was a very nice person and partly because if she could demonstrate she did only good for the world then maybe her mother would be less interested in killing her. (Najam had a rather interesting family life.) I had two paladins, in my time, but one was rather local-oriented, only just out from under her mentor’s wing and in a game where every PC was a paladin, and the other was one of the lowest-leveled members of that particular game group and very determined to prove herself. Some, on the other hand, were downright rotten—an ice-hearted career manipulator, a gourmet cannibal working for an organization trying to take over the world, a mad shapeshifter.

That doesn’t mean they don’t get there. Heck, that happens to me a lot, and one of my favorite characters went from one end of the main-character spectrum to the other over the course of game. But it isn’t the plan.

Why not? I suppose it seems too typical. Or perhaps it’s that I don’t want to try to write a backstory with the kind of epic tone and hyperbole that the natural hero tends to get. It might be that I prefer to watch them grow over seeing them at their peak, to try to figure out what gives them the self-sacrificial streak a mile wide, the battle chops to back up their determination to stand between the big conceptual thing and the powers of darkness, or the like. It’s fun to watch selfishness subvert itself until the best way to the goal is just “stop this thing that shouldn’t be happening”, or vicariously enjoy the thrill of realizing that maybe this little amount of power is capable of making a difference and should be used accordingly.

I suppose it might also be that the people to whom it both naturally falls to have the self-sacrificial attitude and the skills to back it up and keep it from being fatal never seemed quite human to me, and I love most of all the most human of my characters.

Regardless of the reason, conventional heroism may be the end of the road for some of my characters, but it’s pretty much never the beginning.


  1. Michael says:

    It seems to be fairly uncommon in fiction as well — I think you’re right about it being more interesting to watch them grow. Seeing how the ordinary person grows to become a hero can make it easier to identify ourselves with them. I can think of a couple of examples, though: David Gemmell’s “Legend” and Brian Jacques’s “Mossflower”. I’d argue that “The Phantom Menace” is a genuine example as well; the prequel trilogy as a whole is Anakin’s story but Obi-Wan is the protagonist of the first film.

    However, moving outside fantasy and on to a different kind of hero, in detective fiction it seems to be more common than not that the hero is already an established hero when we meet him (and often his first case is told at a later point in the series, since writers have figured out we’re always curious about it). And perhaps this is because we don’t tend to identify with the detective so often, but usually with the sidekick character?

  2. UZ says:

    @Michael – people talk about “character development”, but what is meant by this term is ambiguous. If we look at the standard Lone Peasant type, they usually start with nothing, and then (rather unrealistically in some cases) develop into Big Dang Heroes. Normally we wouldn’t expect someone who reached their teenage years with no combat training to become a great warrior in a short time, but this is normal for these stories and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the medieval concept of Trial at Arms. But, that is a *digression*.

    Short story, these characters “develop” by changing. On the other hand, if you look at someone like (since you mention detective fiction) Sherlock Holmes, he doesn’t change a whole lot. With Holmes his character is “developed” by having his complexities explained by circumstances of convenience over time.

    In one case the character is what grows, and in the other case our perception of the character grows. These are both called “character development”, which I personally find a bit confusing…

    So it depends on the story. Are you dropping a character into an unfamiliar environment to watching them adapt? Or are you using a character familiar with the environment to explain it to the reader?

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