Monday, December 29, 2008

The Hero Problem

I recently read Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, the first in the Doc Savage series. I thought it was pretty bad. In fact, I’ve never been a fan of the Doc Savage books. I’ve read maybe a dozen or so and while they often have interesting beginnings, and some rather cool concepts, I’m usually pretty bored before the end. So I started to wonder why, and I believe I’ve figured out a major reason.

I just don’t like the character of Doc Savage, mainly because he’s just too damn perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I like for my heroes to be heroic. I like to root for the main character in a story, and I don’t root for true anti-heroes, such as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But I like my characters to have complexity and at least some areas of gray.

Conan the Cimmerian, created by Robert E. Howard, is a good example of the kind of hero I like. Some call him anti-hero but I disagree. He certainly doesn’t always follow the rules of societies he finds himself in, but he clearly has an internal moral compass. He doesn’t betray a friend. And when he becomes king he indeed rules for the betterment of his people. He’s far from perfect, though. He was a thief when young. He’s ambitious, not above drunkenness, and has a weakness for women. These things make him far more human than Doc Savage and far more real. They also mean that he isn’t 100 percent predictable, as Doc Savage is.

There is one character who is pretty close to a true anti-hero that I do like, and that is Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane. But even Kane isn’t “quite” out for just himself. He has respect and liking for some people. He’s not just a vicious psychopath, which is how Hannibal Lecter was drawn in Red Dragon and through Silence of the Lambs.

I’d like Doc Savage a lot more if he ever had a lazy moment, or drank too much once in a while. Or, for goodness sake, what’s up with this “no women” thing? As I was reading this last volume there were several places where it talked about how Doc couldn’t allow himself to be weak toward women because he had such lofty goals. Reading it with today’s eye, I immediately thought, is he gay? Of course, many of these books were written in the 1930s and 1940s so they are dated in this way. But Howard wrote about Conan in the 1930s too and the character doesn’t seem nearly as dated.

A too perfect hero just doesn’t work for me. Give me a Conan type every time.



Heff said...

I'd probably like that character, although my internal moral compass is broken.

SQT said...

I don't like the Mary Sue type of hero either. People are flawed. Period. The hero has to have some quirk. Anything. A tendency to smoke when nervous, drink too much, read romance novels, kick the dog. Something. Otherwise they're too boring.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I tried one Doc Savage a year or two ago and didn't like it either. Yes, I think the "Doc is perfect" angle is an issue. Some of his perfection includes capturing criminals with some brilliant trap that the reader only learns about in hindsight. Lots of "show me, don't tell me" violations in the novel I read.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I doubt your compass is broken, it's just that your "compass" is always pointing toward Donna.

SQT, exactly.

Paul, I agree, there are other problems with the Doc Savage books. The writing is just that good, possible because he wrote so damn fast.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I liked the latest two Bonds because he was so flawed. Too perfect is too boring.

Steve Malley said...

Been years since I read one, but I seem to recall Doc Savage had a (to my modern eyes) strange penchant for lobotomizing folks...

TO be honest, my favorite thing about Doc Savage is the way he's painted by James Bama!

laughingwolf said...

i read that doc savage book as a kid, but could not put a finger on why i never picked up another in the series... nor gave it further thought, til now... thx, that explains it :)

not a big fan or heroes, or anti- for that matter... that's maybe why i really like your 'cold in the light', i identify with KARGEN, and his young son....

Sidney said...

I like Doc, but they don't read quite the same as an adult as they did when I was a kid, and the quality varies from book to book.

If I get in the right mindset, I can really enjoy them, though. There's a lot of slam-bang adventure.

Was there a defined target audience for Conan? They do see a little more mature than the Doc stories which I think were definitely juveniles.

david mcmahon said...

Creating a literary hero is difficult enough - imagine how the Creator must have felt when he drew up plans for the human race!

Charles and Lana, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you all the very best for 2009.

Britta Coleman said...

I think it's thought provoking that though you're not a big fan you've read about a dozen of the books. What hooks you to begin them, do you think? And to finish?

Interesting post, and happiest of New Years to you and Lana.

Charles Gramlich said...

Pattinase, I haven't seen those Bond films but that's definitely a point in their favor.

Steve Malley, yeah, the covers of those Doc Savage books are pretty cool.

Laughingwolf, Kargen was an anti-hero in some ways but I really wanted to humanize, or "whounize" him. I'm glad you liked the character.

Sidney, I bet I would have liked teh Doc Savage stuff much more if I'd started reading them as an early teen, but I didn't come upon them until later. Conan is often accussed of being directed at adolescent males but I think it's more complicated than that.

David McMahon, we did. Thanks. We had a great time just being together and relaxing.

Britta, sometimes I find one that isn't too bad. Plus, the titles and ideas just "sound" so cool that they attract me to the book, but it's like a moth to the flame most times. I feel like I got burned.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think you have defined a new category of characters we love to hate. The TPTL, or Too Perfect To Live hero/heroine. The TSTL is worse, though, hands down.

Randy Johnson said...

I agree and disagree with you on Doc.He was a little too perfect, though that was the kind of thing the target audience at the time liked. You might try some of the stories published during WWII.
Doc changed a bit and was even "scared" now and again.

Chris Eldin said...

The perfect 'imperfect' hero to me was the guy who played in the movie "The Crow." Remember that movie? It was dark, but I really liked it.
Now I'll try to think of more. Never heard of Doc Savage.

laughingwolf said...

i REALLY look forward to your series with kargen's son, and other whouns... i can even see films with those characters, in my head :D

Angie said...

I agree that even heroes need some humanizing characteristics. I want my protags to be people I'd enjoy hanging out with. Especially for a character who stars in a humongously long series, that'd better be someone I'm comfortable spending a lot of time with. I can stand a less compatible character for a short story, or maybe one book, if the writing and the story line are sufficiently absorbing, but for a series it'd better be someone I'm ready to be buddies with.

Aside from the fact that a character with no flaws or weaknesses is just plain unrealistic and unbelievable. Heck, even Superman has kryptonite. [wry smile]


David Cranmer said...

Charles, I believe not liking Doc Savage is blasphemous in the pulp world! Seriously, I enjoy the dated aspects of Savage and find stuff like his lobotomies or "a delicate brain operation" a hoot. Interestingly, Savage was based on a real life man named Richard Henry Savage whose real life travels rivaled his literary counterpart.

Scott said...


I think the last time I read a Doc Savage book was when I was a kid. I remember liking them , but I'm not sure they'd hold up. I too prefer 'heroes' in the Howard mode, like Conan and Kull. Hell, even Superman loses his cool once in a while.

Greg said...

well said. predictable heroes are no fun to read. one of my favorite heroes is Arthur Dent in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series. hapless, but not hopeless, and definitely not perfect.

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, yeah, I always wanted to define a new category. ;)

Randy, I have generally liked the later books I've read in the series better than the first ones.

Chris Eldin, the very fact that you've never heard of Doc Savage may be a clear indication that you are female. Lol.

Laughingwolf, I heard from someone else today who really enjoyed Cold in the Light.

Angie, yes, if you're going to live with someone through a long series you better like them.

David Cranmer, I know, I know. Maybe that's why I keep trying more volumes in the series. I feel like I should like them much better than I do.

Scott, I probably would have liked Doc Savage a lot more when I was young.

Greg Schwartz, I don't mind a bit of a bumbler as a hero, as long as it's not too much.

Shauna Roberts said...

I've never read any Doc Savage either. I guess that reveals me as female as well.

I don't mind a too-perfect hero. I do mind if the hero makes decisions too easily and there's no fallout from the decisions. A perfect hero in a lose-lose situation could be pretty interesting, I think.

eric1313 said...

Very true. I like a hero that occasionally causes his own worst problems. Much more realistic.

And the poem you posted was great! Ever since I learned it from my old prof, the method of tying the beginning to the end to form that perfect circle feels formulaic at times, but I still love writing them that way and put it to use in my own poems all the time.

Erik Donald France said...

Right on, though what about even more ambiguous types like Blondie "The Man With No Name" Clint Eastwood kind of character, or James Bond? I like these kinds very much. And how about Tuco/The Ugly? One can empathize with how he got to be such a bandito, even sort of like him from afar, while one would not want anything to do with him in real life. Angel Eyes/The Bad is more like Hannibal, I suppose -- a bad, bad dude with no redeeming features.

Fascinating stuff to ponder, all of it.

Mary Witzl said...

I like my heroes flawed too -- it makes me care about them and root for them when they're in trouble. And if they're flawed, they're more apt to get in trouble, and that's also more fun than the perfect sort who know how to stay out of it.

One of my favorite heroes is Robert Parker's detective Spenser, who is close to perfect but constantly tempted by food, drink, and women. The fact that he has these tiny failings makes me not mind so much that he's a fitness freak who can beat the pulp out of all comers.

Sam said...

Oh I so agree, the perfect hero is Boring. I never read Doc Savage books, but there have been a few fictional heroes I'd've cheerfully pushed off a cliff because of insufferable perfection-ness.


the walking man said...

"...I ate his liver with favah beans and a little Chianti..."

I don't know Savage or even Conan but I do know Lechter. His character made me want to explore just how evil I could make one of my own.

Virginia Lady said...

I have to admit to having missed the Doc Savage books. Now I know not to be sad about it. I dislike the perfect characters as well. Everyone has something they aren't good at and some quirk that's downright annoying to someone.

BernardL said...

Even as a kid, the Doc Savage books didn't do it for me, and the no women thing was the cause. Conan may not have been Errol Flynn, but he at least had an eye for romance in the novels. He saved the woman rather than the gold and jewels a few times. :)

Miladysa said...

I like my knights with tarnished armour too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, now that would be interesting. Doc Savage in a situation where he was bound to lose on one hand. I could see that.

Eric1313, your comment makes me think of Spiderman, a character I like quite a bit.

Erik, good commentary. Angel Eyes was certainly pure villain in that one. I think it's the only way to really have an effective anti-hero, is to put him against another villain who is much worse. Thomas Harris tried that in Hannibal to a large extent. And Blondie is a bounty hunter who hunts really bad guys. We can root for Blondie. I was rooting for Tuco largely until I saw him rob the old guy when he got his gun. Sometimes it's not easy to decide who to root for though.

Mary Witzl, I like Spencer pretty well and yes he is always shown as being conflicted about certain things, making him more realistic.

Sam, that's a danger with a series especially. YOu can follow a pretty perfet hero through one book, but if he continues in that line it can become insufferable.

Mark, Lecter is a great character, at least in Silence of the Lambs, but I never rooted for him. I found him fascinating but after he kills the cops you know he's never going to become a hero in my mind. I think Harris tried to redeem him in later books, though, and did an article about it for a book called "Dissecting Hannibal Lecter."

Virginia Lady, I do wish I'd read the Savage books when I was younger.

Bernardl, after I'd turned 12 I think the no woman thing of Doc Savage would have always been a problem.

Miladysa, It's an interesting concept. Maybe I'll have to try to blog further on it.

ivan said...


Greetings from Alpha Centauri.

Lost in cyberspace, probably never to come back.

I agree with SQT.

"The hero has to have some quirk. Anything. A tendency to smoke when nervous, drink too much, read romance novels, kick the dog. Something. Otherwise they're too boring."

Also throw away your plot and character, as you have no doubt thrown away your dictionary and thesaurus.
It is my opinion that stream of consciousness is the only way to go, breaking it up into chapters and paragraphs later.
FL*ck the characters. They are all in your plot.

And yes, SQT, "tendency to smoke when nervous. drink too much...kick the dog."
I say again, plot is character.


Crushed said...

I do like Conan, thing is the original stories often have a slight racist tinge which can be disconcerting.
Great stories though.

Cloudia said...

I agree: Connan seems a more fleshed-out character than the one-dimensional Doc. Thoughtful, well written post, Charles. aloha & Happy New Year to you & Lana-

Merisi said...

Oh, those saintly "no women!" heroes,
if only there were no women out there, tempting them, they all would accomplish even greater deeds! I wonder about their creators. *giggle*

Note to Dr. Savage:
Give me a true-life hero whose life was not enhanced by a true woman! ;-)

laughingwolf said...

happy new year to you and yours, bro :D

writtenwyrdd said...

"plot is character" Interesting concept. I'll have to ponder that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, I don't think I can agree that STream of consciousness is the way to go. It can produce some interesting results but it sure can meander at times too. I've done it with short stories but I don't think I'd ever try it with a novel.

Crushed, I didn't find any racist elements in the Conan stories. In some of the horror stories Howard wrote about the south there are occassional racist "characters."

Cloudia, hope you are enjoying New Year's EVe.

Merisi, I agree. to ignore the need for relationships, diminishes a charcter to almost inhuman levels, to me.

Laughingwolf, and to you, my friend.

Writtenwyrd, I'm not sure I totally agree with the "plot is character" idea. but it is intersting to consider

Miladysa said...

Happy New Year Charles :D

Barbara Martin said...

I prefer my heroes, even anti-heroes to be imperfect with their own unique slant on life. Perfection is doomed to die an early death in any book.

Dal Jeanis said...

"Plot is Character" is either tautology or meaningless.

Characters demonstrate their character by what they do, which then affects the world and becomes plot.

Plot is what happens to the characters to make them show who they are, and change them.

Any part of a character that doesn't actually affect the plot is just set dressing. Any part of the plot that doesn't affect a character is - well, hellifiknow - exposition?

Anonymous said...

it's a wonder that Bob even wrote the Conan stories as they were, in an era when there was a clean cut vision of hero/bad guy attitudes and motives. Think if he would have lived to try it during the 40s and 50s, an age of Captain Marvel, Superman and Tom Corbett; all clean cut heroes, with a predictable agenda.