Okay, we knew that "creating heroes" was a big topic, a topic that undoubtedly has underpinned dozens (hundreds) of careers in sociology, anthropology, folkloric studies, modern literature, and psychology. We'll call this recounting of the workshop with Will Alexander and Kekla Magoon: "Heroes: Discuss" because it brought up many interesting ways to frame thinking about a "hero" for classroom discussion.
As Will noted in his introduction ". . 'hero' - we all know what it means and none of us agree."
Types of Heroes
Will divides the hero world into three basic flavors - the trickster (a hero with agency but no power), the badass (a destructive hero, they break things, they're cathartic entertainment - like most comic book heroes) and the superhero (who builds things, renews, is a culture hero).
You can think of these types of heroes in terms of rites of passage as well. Tricksters have little to no externally derived power or respect and they're not physically powerful either, similar to children. They rely primarily on their wits. The badass is more or less an adolescent fantasy (as a side note, I looked up a more-classroom-friendly synonym for badass and the online thesaurus included "Vladimir Putin"). And a superhero would be the "best kind of grown up."
Will writes about trickster heroes and observes that middle grade fiction is primarily focused on this type of character.
Hobbits are an example of the trickster hero - they're middle aged and frumpy, and lacked heroic tendencies until they found themselves in the middle of a hero story, learning to navigate a world they didn't understand. Children identify with these power dynamics and the need to learn to navigate the world (although perhaps not so much with being middle aged and frumpy). The trickster stories also tell an important flip side of the coin - how to best handle power when you do have it. . . a lesson sometimes taught by counterexample as the heroes encounter powerful villains. As children grow older they're navigating not only the dynamics of possessing limited power, but of changing amounts of power - culturally, intellectually, and also physically.
In Will's books, Rowny in Goblin Secrets is a young, powerless child who doesn't have possess the direct power of casting spells like a Harry Potter character, but rather exercises an indirect magic conjured through masks, performances, and influencing others in that way.
In Ambassador, the protagonists are (as the title suggests) ambassadors, but they reside relatively low in the power structure. They don't have authority to break rules, they can only move around them. But it is very important that children be Ambassadors between worlds in this science fiction novel. As one can observe in ever-popular Unlikely Friendships series, interspecies friendships always begin between juveniles. This structure gives the children important responsibility even if they don't have a large amount of power.
There are some murky hero waters. For example, is a hero defined by the situation or by inherent talents? Superheroes in comic books have inherent powers used for good. Hobbits don't have inherent powers, but are heroes due to situations they were forced to navigate. Katniss in The Hunger Games eventually emerges as a hero, but in the first book most of her actions after stepping forward to save her sister were focused on saving herself - she had the goal of surviving the games, not of challenging the power structure. She wasn't out to Do Good in a broader sense, but her actions and what other people made of her actions led to greater good.
Antiheroes and reluctant heroes don't start off with the expected hero qualities of wanting to bravely fight for an important cause, but they may find themselves in that situation over the course of the book. The protagonists' characters usually develop along with their actions to assume more heroic qualities. What if they didn't? Would the actions be enough to qualify?
Heroes Who Develop Across a Series
Reluctant heroes like Katniss can develop across books in a series. The first book of Kekla's Robin Hood retelling, featuring Robyn Hoodlum, just came out this fall and in it the protagonist doesn't yet own her identity as a hero, even though some hero-like actions have come about from her adventures in Book 1. One way of looking at the arc of Robyn Hoodlum and other heroes who develop over the course of several stories is 1. they develop their hero qualities 2. they take ownership of their role as hero and 3. they fully enact their heroism and achieve a major victory for the cause of Good (whatever Good happens to be).
Heroes Aren't Always Great Role Models
Hero and role model aren't synonymous. As Will puts it "Is Batman a good person or even remotely on an even keel?" Not really. Destructive, bad ass type heroes offer a smash-things-up sort of catharsis without representing great life choices. They let readers play out in their imaginations all kinds of possible, and also impossible, actions and their consequences. They're faced with larger than life dilemmas, up to and beyond threats like the entire Earth being exploded by alien invaders. Will would argue in favor of readers of all ages letting these scenarios play out in their minds via the written word.
Are Protagonists Always Heroes?
Lots of protagonists aren't heroes, but in books where Stuff Happens and there's a fair amount of action and overcoming of obstacles, it's hard not to apply some hero framework to the characters. Many children's or YA books have storylines that lend themselves to heroic protagonists.
Kekla tries not to write about heroes. Her early books set during the Civil Rights movements of the last generation focused on average citizens, not the big name heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. who we learn about in school. It's the people who showed up to listen to the I Have a Dream speech, not the person who delivered it. That begs the question whether these characters still count as heroes? We have a cultural understanding now of "everyday heroes" and popular culture highlights the concept of aggregating lots of very small actions from thousands of people for large impact.
In Kekla's book How It Went Down she tells one story from 19 perspectives, which takes away even the structure of a single main character to navigate the story. But each of those people has their own story, with its own arc, and actions and consequences.
In another book, X: A Novel, Kekla writes about Malcolm X before he was a popular hero. He made a lot of bad choices - it's a hero origin story when the hero comes from a somewhat dubious origin. She wanted to strip away hindsight and show a time when Malcolm X had no way of knowing how his life would turn out, and hero status seemed very unlikely. It makes it clear that he wasn't born into his role, like Superman was born to be Superman, but rather arrived there through a complicated life path.
Heroes in the Classroom:
Will and Kekla's talk offered several ways to examine fictional characters in classroom books. Here are some of the points they brought up, in question form:
- Is this main character a hero?
- Where does the main character's power come from? Compared with other characters in the story?
- Does this character begin with an inherent heroic quality? (Like secretly being a wizard)
- Does this character acquire heroic personal qualities across the course of the story?
- Is this character's heroism defined by actions? What actions and what choice led to those actions?
- If you think this character isn't a hero, what changes would make them a hero? How would that change the story? (Not necessarily for the better, since presumably the author wrote it this way for a reason)
- What about the characters who aren't the main character in the story, what if they became the main character? Would they become heroes? (In the new book The Rest of Us Just Live Here Patrick Ness does this with characters who would otherwise be "extras" in a Chosen One style story about battling supernatural evil)