A recent post over on Superversive SF about Men With Screwdrivers And Men With Magnifying Glasses got me thinking about classifying fiction on the basis of those attributes which are required from the protagonist in order to resolve the plot. Not what attributes any given character may possess, but those without which the plot would not have come to a satisfactory conclusion.
That’s a non-trivial distinction, and I think an investigation of the issue may shed some light on modern trends in fiction.
A character does not become a hero simply by possessing a collection of virtues–a character becomes a hero by possessing the story specific set of mission critical attributes. Bravery does not a hero make, if bravery is not what is required to resolve the plot.
For example, take the X-Men films. (I know, I dump on the X-Men a lot, and I am sure that Bryan Singer cries himself to sleep every night because of it. I feel bad about that, honestly.) There are characters who have particular virtues among the protagonists–wisdom, self-control, courage, ingenuity, and so on. However, none of them mean bupkis because the Mutants solve their problems by being Mutants. They are born that way. All of Charles Xavier’s wisdom or Logan’s compassion would mean nothing if they hadn’t been born superhuman. The films are Evolutionary Calvinism–the Elect prevail because they are predestined to prevail. Either you’re born a Mutant or you’re not, and if you’re not it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to face off against a guy who can shoot lasers from his eyes.
They are what might be called Tales Of The Elect, a story in which the critical attribute is some supernatural gift bestowed upon the character through an accident of birth. No matter what the characters may do throughout the story, what is important is that they are the Chosen Ones.
Then you would have Tales Of The Skilled. These are stories in which the characters prevail through training or education or their own independent study. The scientist who figures out that a bomb made of cream cheese will destroy the giant wasps is using Skill to save the day–but then so is a soldier, spy, or detective. So one could break down this category further: Tales Of The Scholar, Tales Of The Warrior, Tales Of The Mechanic (Apollo 13, anyone?) and so on.
The third broad category would be Tales Of The Virtuous. What is required of the hero is a particular virtue, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and the like. Again, though, it is not possessing any given virtue that is significant–it is possessing the one that is needed.
Consider Meg Murry, the heroine of A Wrinkle In Time. She was courageous and intelligent and justly proud of it, but those things did not save her and her brother or rescue her father. It was her “faults”, as given to her by Whatsit. Against the Brain of Camazotz her intellect was powerless. Trying to match mind for mind, hate for hate, availed her nothing. Meg triumphs when she learns that embracing her womanhood and her fierce irrational love for her family does not make her weak.
Obviously there is going to be a great deal of latitude in these definitions. This outline is intended to begin a discussion, not end one. However, I think that if one considers the critical narrative moments in most stories one can describe them in terms of The Elect (and I would consider deus ex machina and random chance in that category), The Skilled, or The Virtuous.
As always, I invite comments and discussion.