Our Archetypal Hero

I want to try to recapture the essence of a conversation over dinner at 4th Street Fantasy before any more details seep away. (I call on dinner companions Jen, Steve, Nicole, Aliza, Lydy, and Skyler to supplement if I miss something important or get this horribly wrong.) If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Skyler White, one of the things you should know about her is that she asks the most interesting questions.

Here’s the basic premise: different ages invent and popularize different archetypal heroes in relation to fears and values within the context of their times. Take, for instance, Sherlock Holmes: emerging into the public consciousness at a time when our understanding of science fundamentally changes along with the philosophy of rational thinking after the Age of Reason, Sherlock gives us a hero who can use science and deductive reasoning fluently. Moreover, in a time becoming increasingly centered in cities and crime rising accordingly, Sherlock applies skills and mindset unique to his time and place to solve societal problems particular to that time and place.

So the question, then, is what is our archetypal hero?

I submit two archetypes for consideration.

The first is the conman-as-hero. They’re all over the place these days, in our books (for instance, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch) and our TV shows (“Leverage,” “Burn Notice”…). I could list contemporary examples forever. What conmen are doing specifically is manipulating identity. In a fast-paced, rapidly changing, increasingly surveilled world, conmen-heroes can change their public identity as needed while still maintaining a firm sense of self, private and separate from their public personae. And they use this ability to fight the powerful on behalf of those abused by power with no viable (legally, financially, etc.) recourse. (I trust I don’t need to elaborate on why that problem resonates in our culture?)

The second archetype I propose is the tech-savvy (cool/hipster) nerd. These are the characters (like Hardison on, again, “Leverage,” or Tony Stark, or let’s not even get me started on SFF book examples) who are hyper-competent at using technology that the general populace is surrounded by but doesn’t really understand, anything from robotics to coding. These tech-savvy heroes navigate technology adeptly and successfully for largely the same reasons as the conmen-heroes: subverting power. In the wake of increasing awareness of how technology is abused and used to infringe on our rights by our own government and massive corporations, the notion of being able to use the tools available to us to protect our date and our selves also really resonates.

What do you think?

Dinner at 4th Street



  1. I love the idea of the conman as playing with identity. More generally, if we want to pull it back a step, I would submit that fantasy in general is dealing with the question, “What is the role of the individual in a world where individuals are powerless.” In practice, that immediately brings us to what you said about playing with power. That’s one reason so much fantasy deals with big stuff (world-shaking change and threats to civilization)–and, conversely, why it is we so enjoy it when fantasy deals with little stuff.

  2. Yes! I think in terms of the hero’s journey, what we’re essentially doing is building, defining, and testing a hero’s identity against established power. And in so doing we get to examine why an individual identity matters — on a cosmic scale, when people seem small and insignificant in comparison, and why it matters in the day-to-day, when the /events/ seem so small. Fantasy’s toolkit is uniquely well-adapted to demonstrating individuals’ power, too: that’s one of the things magic can be really good for, externalizing that power as well as internal struggle into something people can easily visualize and swallow.

  3. I agree with Steve’s comments, and would add the following: fantasy describes emotional reality far better than a strictly realist telling would allow. Magic describes that feeling; of power, of love, of hate, and of the character’s reaction to these feelings as externalized by magic. (I added this, because it is possible to tell a huge world-changing story without including fantasy or magical elements–consider history or historical fiction/secret history.)
    As to the hero’s journey, I think archetypes wear “cultural clothing” depending on context, but they’re by and large the same throughout history. What about Odysseus? You could argue he fits somewhat into the mold of the ordinary man who uses only his wits to overcome forces that are far beyond his control.
    I’m also interested in cultural relativism–are heroes in other cultures consistently lionized for the same traits? I don’t have a background or big enough sample size to expand on this, so I will leave it out here for someone else to jump in on.
    And, for further thought, do heroes in these stories have a sense of the stories that came before them? As in, are they aware of and informed by the likes of Robin Hood or Edmond Dantes or Loki or Aladdin–to name a few. I think that they are inevitably influenced by the stories their society tells and how they are told. (Steve noted recently on Twitter that the hardest thing about a Sherlock Holmes TV show is pretending that we live in a world where Sherlock Holmes isn’t known.)

    1. Sorry about the delayed response! Totally agree re: magic. Magic gives us a lot of room in stories to externalize or distinguishes conflicts — either internal, like emotional conflicts, or incorporeal, like conflicts of philosophies. Not the only way it can be done, of course, but I think the distance provided by packaging in magic helps people approach ideas more easily.

      I find Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey useful for analysis rather than story construction, and even then it’s only one type of journey. In theory it spans across cultures, so I like it as a starting point, but when I start going deeper into particular cultures’ canons interesting differences star to emerge. But there’s a difference between an archetypal hero and an archetypal hero’s journey, and I think in broad strokes the journey often bears more similarities in terms of narrative structure (call to adventure, try/fail cycles, coming into their power, the return, that sort of thing) than heroes’ characteristics, since those are more variable by specific cultural values. And of course those cultural values shift, too; a hero from Japan’s Heian era is very different than a modern shounen manga protagonist =D. (Which is, in turn, very different than, say, a modern epic fantasy archetypal hero.)

      As for a sense of the stories that came before them, I think that’s at least partially dependent on genre? Like, in a secondary world fantasy (so, not including portal fantasy / alternate universe, etc.) there isn’t a historical Robin Hood or Aladdin. But I love when world-building takes that into account and gives us a historical hero in that invented world’s history: most recent example I enjoyed was in THE GOBLIN EMPEROR and how our protagonist struggles with how different he wants to be than his revered ancestor. It adds a level of plurality and awareness I enjoy. TNG actually used it to advantage in episodes a few times, and it was really cool. Layers and layers =). I think it can be a fine line to walk between becoming excessively meta or (as with Sherlock) killing suspension of disbelief if that recognition isn’t there.

  4. I’m *so* glad you wrote this up! Thank you. I still need to go through the notes I took at 4Th Street. So many wonderful conversations!
    Mind if I ask a follow-up or four?
    What’s the shadow side? Holmes with his Age of Reason powers of deduction is a drug addicted misanthrope. The conman with his Information Age flexibility of identity is what? And do shows like Lost and True Detective where the nature of the story world itself are at least part of the mystery to be solved tell us anything interesting in the way Agatha Christie mysteries show the shadow side of the Victorian stiff-upper-lip, skeletons-in-the-closet ethic?
    Is interest in identity manipulation / creation peculiar to Americans, and what do the popularity of Facebook quizzes say about identity and presentation? Is the focus changing from deduction— the secret to understanding the world and solving mysteries — to self-creation, or just self-absorption? And does it say anything interesting about gender? There’s a kind of baked-in misogyny to Holmes’s rationality. Is working in identity more gender-neutral? Could a good conman take on a female identity convincingly?
    Finally, is there something even deeper going on in such a protean archetype? Holmes thinks people can’t help but give their secrets away, who you are shows on your shirt cuffs and shoes. People *are* a thing that they try to conceal. Does this challenge that idea? Is the suggestion that we are whatever we can convince people we are?

    1. “Four” might be an understatement =P. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this! Crazy couple of weeks.

      My first inclination is to say the shadow side is that forming deep connections with other people becomes incredibly problematic. If they’re constantly shedding and rotating identities, it’s hard to build connections long-term, which then leads to becoming totally detached from basic human concerns and emotionally stunted. Another possible shadow side is that it becomes impossible for the conman to distinguish their “real” self from their identities, losing track of the very sense of self they’re trying to protect and what matters to them. So maybe that’s actually the same shadow side.

      And I think this actually directly ties into your last questions — that the hero may believe we are whatever we can convince people we are, and the core question becomes whether there is any difference between self and identity. (I think it’s fascinating when you see someone who interacts totally differently on internet forums than in person — which is “really them”? Is there any way to tell? People will say that someone who’s obnoxious on the internet but nice in person that either the internet-identity is their real self coming out, and others will say that it’s separate from their self.)

      Okay, I haven’t seen Lost or True Detective, but extrapolating from what you wrote above, I wonder if this can tie into identity, too? With easy access to information it’s easier than ever to see how much we don’t understand about how our world works (for instance, the economic crash and responses to it revealing how little people collectively understand about economics, how broken our political system is, etc.). As children we spend all this time being taught how the world works, and then we come to understand that it’s not a simple or logical system, and I wonder how much about those stories in which the world is part of the mystery is an extension of a human need to make sense out of the chaos, to try to give it an identity so that people understand the best way to interact with it, only to find that that identity is malleable (and thus defining their own identity in relation to that world is going to cause problems). Does that make any sense?

      Ooh, changing from deduction to self-creation. I like that. As far as self-absorption, maybe that’s another possible shadow side? Or rather, I feel like that’s what happens when someone crosses the line between being aware and active to obsessed and passive (dwelling on themselves rather than making choices to define themselves).

      And oh, internet quizzes =D. I think that goes back to people trying to make their selves in relation to their world, and to obsess rather than do, but which quiz results people choose to share say something about what they value and how they would like to identify. I don’t think interest in identity is something that’s limited to Americans (speaking after living in Japan for a couple of years, where I saw related trends), but I would say it’s a defining trend in this country. But context has a lot to do with that: where we are in our history, politically and technologically, and how identity can be used to trap people.

      It could say something about gender — especially in virtual spaces where there is no body involved, it would be easier to present as any gender, and as people move from gender assumed as something a person is born with to thinking about it as identity, there’s a lot of space there. I don’t want to draw any conclusions about what it could say, though, especially since I’m not sure I’ve seen gender taken into account in relation to this archetype. I think that may be another panel =P. Do you know of any books/TV shows I could look up that are working with this?

      …I think that was everything? If not or if I make no sense, please tell me. And thank you for the questions!

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