Heroes, Descendants of Heroes, and Your Everyday Joe

So a favorite author of mine died a few days ago.  I don't know how many of you have read anything by Diana Wynne Jones, but she's the brilliant author of wonderful stories like Dogsbody and Howl's Moving Castle, both of which I enjoyed immensely.  She's the reason I know anything about Guy Fawkes Day, in addition.  The deaths of both Ms. Jones and of Brian Jacques makes this an extremely sad year for me and my childhood/adolescence.  Christopher Chant and Sophie and Mariel of Redwall will live on forever in my imagination because of these brilliant writers.

There's more, and less depressing stuff, after the break.

My friend linked me to this brilliant essay about the nature of heroes, a lecture Diana Wynne Jones gave nearly twenty years ago now.   You can read the whole thing here, but here are a few salient points that I really liked:
It dawned on me that tennis stars were perfect models of heroes – all kinds of heroes – folk tale, myth, comicbook, and above all modern fantasy. And I found myself attending closely and thinking very hard indeed.

For a start, they all had that larger-than-life quality. They stood out among other people even if you didn’t know that one was the star – and this is very like the way everyone follows the hero of a story, even if he or she is only designated The Prince, or The Youngest Sister. And though they defeated the villain on the opposite side of the net, they didn’t save the world, they simply won a tennis match. It is very unidiomatic to consider that a hero saves the world.
Later on, she makes the point:
We respond to heroes, I think, not so much by identifying as by following, partly as disciples follow and partly by cheering on the sidelines. Watching the crowd at Wimbledon, I concluded that people’s response to heroes is a muddle of these two things, and it gets more muddled when we talk about a narrative rather than a tennis match. Perhaps this gets easier to see if you think about following the fortunes of a hero who is of the opposite sex from your own. You can never assume this hero is you, but you follow him/her just the same.
And finally:
Another thing that made me very indignant was their way of talking as if a tennis star was playing on his/her own. If their unfortunate opponent was not a star, then from the way they talked you’d think the hero was playing against a wall! In fact, on reflection, I saw the commentators had got this one right. Heroes are like that. Heroes of stories strive, fight, suffer and maybe conquer. But whom they conquer or the reason for the fight is never so important. You remember the story for the hero, as if he/she carries the events of his/her heroism sort of in a cloud round them, like a nimbus. I think this is why there is always such a demand for another story about the same person – look at how many Robin Hood stories there are.

She also goes into the psychology of writing a male or a female hero (which was fascinating to me because it took me until my fifth or sixth book to write in the POV of a female protagonist, and oddly enough, in that case, my protagonist was more of a narrator than anything else with the arguably less interesting arc than her best friend). So I recommend giving the whole thing a good read, especially if you write. A lot of it might resonate with you.

And go check out Howl's Moving Castle, if you get a chance. It might blow your mind.


PS - Still working on Fates, I promise. And still alive, even though there hasn't been much activity on the blog lately. Just a bit behind.


  1. Anonymous2.4.11

    Interesting lecture, although I don't know, from a reader's or watcher's perspective, if I agree with the idea that "the Hero, the protagonist, is the story," or that we "feel much more sympathy for the hero, and so does everyone else," necessarily as strongerly as she does. I almost always find the characters around the hero more interesting than the main protagonist themselves. While I do have several books in which my favorite character is the main character, Chuck is one of the few TV shows or movies, where this has been the case for me. Often times it feels like the main character become stuck and it’s the other characters that end up being more dynamic.

  2. Devastation. I'll never forget going to buy Howls moving castle (for the third time as it's the kind of book you loan and never get back) and having the young kid behind the counter have no idea what I was looking for. I was gobsmacked that the post twilight adolescent fiction market had squashed her work out of my local bookshops entirely.

    Her work is absolutely amazing. I have always counted her books as a pivotal part of my childhood and I spent days living in her incredibly detailed alternate realities.

    Sad day today.


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