Damage: Compelling heroes have problems

“Gorgeous women do not go to medical school. Unless they’re as damaged as they are beautiful. Were you abused by a family member?”

“No!”

“Sexually assaulted?”

“No.”

“But you are damaged, aren’t you?”

“… I have to go.”

— House and Cameron, House, M.D.

When we think of protagonists, the first word that comes to mind is hero. More than a word, actually; an archetype, universal and vast in its meaning. But what is that meaning? Taken at its everyday face value, a hero is “good”, which in turn means, in its simplest and most primal sense, someone who does the right things for the right reasons.

The idea of an unlikeable protagonist seems a hard idea to get over for some. How can you write tens of thousands of words about someone who’s an ass? How can you read hundreds of thousands of words, watch hundreds of hours of shows, when the central character is a jerk?

How can they be legitimate heroes? How can they have readers or watchers? Isn’t that somehow… wrong?

Ah, but heroes were never “good”. Not even in the blandest of mythologies, not even in the most hero-worshipping religions.

Heroes are different.

They are above and beyond the common man. They are the crazy people: the ones who have the strength and the will to walk down that dark and twisting path that Campbell calls The Hero’s Journey.

It’s by no means any easy feat.

You only start down that path with damage, and every step of the way burdens you with more damage, and in the end that damage stays with you–even if you don’t die. Wisdom at the end of the journey is contextualized as the idea of straddling the two worlds, but that’s really a euphemism for damage: a self split between two incompatible worlds, irreversibly rent.

And is it not so that wisdom is only gained through hardship–gained through damage?

When we look at successful unlikeable characters, in particular the ones around which circulate the adulation–if not admiration–of sizable audiences, what we are looking at is a human fascination with damage, the ability to survive it, and the strength to manage to give the world more than what was taken in the first place.

Being nice comes nowhere near it. Giving the world what it needs, rather than what it wants, in fact is often considered not very nice.

Why be fascinated with these damaged souls?

As human beings, whether we think of ourselves as heroic or not, we acquire damage throughout life. We know that damage does not usually leave us with beatific smiles, immeasurable patiences, nor guileless innocence.

Should we think we’re weak because we let damage get to us?

No. Even retreating into a halo of virtue means that damage has struck upon our soul, caused us to change, stirred the mercurial temper of our beings–left an indelible mark on our hearts. We are never pure after we are damaged.

The damaged hero is a human one.

Gods save us from undamaged heroes.

“… you knew he was dying when you married him. Must have been when you first met him. And you married him anyway. You can’t be that good a person and well adjusted.”

“Why?”

“Because you wind up crying over centrifuges.”

“Or hating people.”

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2 thoughts on “Damage: Compelling heroes have problems

  1. I can think of very few Protagonists who I read or write about who are honest-to-god good guys. I LIKE the brokenones. SOmetimes they’re innocent, and somtimes they’re well-meaning, but heroes? Nah. Maybe later, maybe in the end. House is a character study, like Sherlock Holmes, in that we’re not only interested in the character, but we’re following the rest of the world, which revolves around him (it can’t help it, it bends around him; there are people like that in real life too)The best book you can read, when considering heroes, is “Hero of a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. Should be required reading for all writers.

  2. Got it, read it. Campbell is my first resource on a lot of things.I wasn’t just a lit student… I was comparative lit. For that, you need toolboxes like Campbell’s :)

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