Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wishing on a Star

By Dave White

There are days I wish I was Spenser. I wish I could drink a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, eat a doughnut, run five miles, shoot a bad guy, drink some beer, snap off a joke or two, and then make a gourmet dinner.

There are days I wish I was James Bond. Traveling the globe, shooting at bad guys, getting every available women, and again with the jokes. (The movie Bond, anyway. Fleming's Bond was rarely funny... and when he tried to be... he still wasn't.)

I've been thinking a lot about my favorite characters lately, in movies, books and TV, and there seems to be a common theme that runs through them. Indiana Jones, Spenser, Bond... they're all typically the same person, gruff, tough, funny, confident. They're not the everyman. They're the ideal man. They're the code hero, not the Hemingway hero. They get up.

When I sit down to look at my characters, very few of them have this thread going through them. They're not happy people, usually. And when they are happy, that happiness is taken from them in a flash.

My characters are a bit more realistic, I suppose, but I'm not sure they have the staying power of Bond or Spenser or Jones. They don't often stick with you months after you put the book down. My characters are dark heroes. They do their job, but they're never better for it.

I tend to like both types of characters... but I write about what I think I do well. I'm not sure I could come up with a Bond type character. The never lose your cool kind of guy. I don't see much tension there.

But these are the types of characters people love. These are the characters I'm drawn to over and over and over again. I still read Spenser... I still see every Bond book. I can't even bring myself to hate Crystal Skull.


Probably because it's what we can't be. And it what we want to be. So they watch this characters and imagine they'll have the same witty line, the same grin, the same cool under pressure.

It strikes me, that when you look at these popular heroes... the code heroes...They stick out because we, the audience, is the Hemingway hero. We're, in a way, jealous that these guys can keep getting up and up and up.

Deep down, we know we'll stay down.

So, dear reader, what's appealing to you about the code heroes? And why do we still enjoy reading about the Hemingway hero at times too?


Jay Stringer said...

Damn good question.

(I'm such an Indy geek, that i would argue a big difference between Indiana Jones and the others, but that's for another time)

The superhero Bond is the one i'm least interested in, but there is a lot of truth in what you say and, lets face it, sometimes we all want to see that guy.

In comic books we have characters like Batman, Green Lantern and Daredevil who embody what i look for in a 'hero' quite well. DD is the very best example of the guy who keeps getting up. Death, loss, nervous breakdowns...he keeps getting back up off the mat. Green Lantern, the Hal Jordon version, has the ring because of his fearlessness and willpower. Batman is interesting for the very reason that many people say he isn't. He has his one rule -that he wont kill. In the real world, that surely could not happen. He'd have to break the rule within seconds. But it's interesting as a literary character to push around by that rule, to test him and stretch him.

All these guys, as you said 'get back up.'

Basically i think it's all about consequences. We live in a world that has them, and most of the time (imo) art should explore that. But occasionally, just occasionally, we want to see a world without them.

The crime fiction PI is a great example. Marlowe and Spenser could drink and laugh and joke. But Matt Scudder drank and became an alcoholic. The latter is more rewarding, for me, but the former is good fun.

There's also an element of nostalgia too. It seems every generation manages to find some point in the past when heroes were true, and long for that. Film Bond was part of Hollywood's attempt to hold onto a pre war idea of masculinity, before things got complicated. Indiana Jones grew out of the 70's, when there were no heroes or authority to respect after vietnam and Watergate. So he was created out of a longing for a time before the 70's, when things were less complicated. The Indy type has seen a resurgence this decade, when again we long for that mythical time when things were less complicated.

Ironically, some of the best fiction and film comes out of these 'complicated times.' The 40's and 50's, the 70's, Now.

And there's also an element of rose tinted glasses to the audience, too. For instance, we look back now and see John Wayne as the embodiment of the hollywood western tough guy, the red white and blue hero.But if you go back and look at the characters he played, they were quite often assholes. but we just remember the hollywood punches and the happy endings.

So basically.....why did i start rambling for so long? Dave clearley found something here for me to latch onto. Consequences and compromises. We live in a world where they are essential. We sometimes want to forget that for an hour or two.

However I think the most compelling of the mythic kind of hero is the one who succeeds DESPITE their situation or powers rather than BECAUSE of them.

Dave White said...


I would agree that Jones is very different from my other two choices, but at their core there are a lot of similarities.

Dana King said...

Good post, and a way of viewing this I hadn't thought of.

Hero types is a sore spot with me. I wrote some PI stories that were intended to show how a decent, relatively ordinary man with the issues all of us have responded to finding himself in a succession of violent situations, gradually becoming more violent himself. less inclined to walk away, looking for excuses sometimes. The writing was well received, but the standard rejection line was that he wasn't interesting enough, which, after comparing rejections, I understood to mean he wasn't damaged enough.

So it appears readers can be drawn to the two extremes: superheroes and heroes with flaws greater than the reader's. Someone too much like us need not apply.

Jay Stringer said...

Dave totally agree. But i can't talk to much about Jonsey without starting an essay...

Dana, very interesting idea. Maybe, just as we sometimes want to see the kind of hero we could never be, we also want to see the kind of person we SHOULD never be. Seeing ourselves is very uncomfortable.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And yet a lot of the newer movies/books but especially films feature men that are not overly strong, resilient, smart or brave. Perhaps your code man will be left behind in the 20th century, with its emphasis on wars, and make way for more realistic types for a new era.

Scott D. Parker said...

An interesting post considering Sandra Seamans and JT Ellison (link below) have written about women in fiction and whether or not they have to damaged. Personally, when I was reading only Lehane and Pelecanos and Hard Case Crime, I wrote damaged protags. Later, as I broadened my crime fiction scope, I realized that normal people (i.e. not so damaged) can still be interesting. Speaking to Dana's comment about rejections implying a character is not damaged enough, I think the natural outgrowth of that is all the sub-genres we have in crime fiction: cats, quilters, bookophiles, chefs, etc. In order to make a character interesting, it seems they need to be (a) damaged or (b) so unique so as to be unlike any other. Like JT wrote in her blog, a character with some sort of damage is a writer's shorthand for 'depth.' Sometimes it works great (Lorenzo Brown in Pelecanos' Drama City) and other times (my own protag as she is right now) it doesn't.

Our heroes: Indy is a personal favorite of mine b/c we both have a passion for history. An interesting note, so obvious I missed it until someone pointed it out to me, is this: in Raiders, Indy fails at everything. Perhaps that's why we like him (and that Raiders is the best of the films) so much.

Batman is great b/c he has no superpowers. Theoretically, we could become him. Plus, there's the facade of Gotham as the 'real world.' Sure, it's got some weird-ass villains but, on the surface, they're only after wealth or power. The myriad of aliens that land in Metropolis are after Superman and the city is their battleground. It's not local.

Ramble complete. Next.

John McFetridge said...

Great post.

For me it has been simple. When I was young and had very little life experience I liked the bigger than life heroes. James Bond saving the world from the bad guy.

Now that my concerns have more to do with my own life - now that I understand what twenty-five years of small frustrations and failures can do to someone I look for a different kind of "hero." The guy who can deal with the crap in his life and still get on with it.