But, I Don’t Want To Be A Hero (A DisCon III Panel)

In December of 2021, I had the opportunity to attend DisConIII. Many of the panels recordings were also available for attendees for a limited time. Here are my other DisCon posts.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Alan Smale, Elle E. Ire, Fonda Lee, Nancy Kress, and Patricia A. Jackson as moderator.

The description was as follows.

The reluctant hero is a solid staple of fiction and comic books. Panelists discuss how to write the heroes who never wanted to be, what motivates them, how to maintain their reluctance throughout a whole series, and how to make them relatable to readers.

What is a Reluctant Hero?

A reluctant hero has several traits.

  1. Someone who takes a large risk – can be emotional, physical, or both – on behalf of someone (something) else.
  2. When there is a choice between helping and not, they choose to step up, out of more of a sense of duty than the desire to be a hero.
  3. Without the expectation of the reward.

The heart of every reluctant hero story is the scene in which they weigh their choices, and decide to do the “right” thing. Without the struggle, the reluctance is hard to establish.

Some heroes are inspired by mythic heroes, but for most writers, it’s more from cultural absorption than an intentional choice.

What Qualities — Negative or Positive — Do You Seek In Your Reluctant Heroes?

The panelists had a variety of answers, for what they like to see.

  • Choosing the heroic action cannot be a foregone conclusion — but hints of that side of their nature must be already established (i.e. Save the Cat)
  • The reluctance and humanity of the characters can’t go away once the choice has been made — think Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
  • Even if they achieve what they initially set out to do, it shouldn’t be achieved the way they intended to
  • What they want changes — maybe they achieve their new goal, or maybe, even if they achieve their original goal, that’s no longer what they want or need
  • There should be both a benefit to others for the heroic act and a consequence if they don’t

What is the Difference Between a Reluctant Hero and an Anti-Hero?

Often, the anti-hero doesn’t get to make the choice for themselves, and if they do make the choice, it’s for selfish benefit.

And a hero who doesn’t answer the call to duty? The heroism can be passed to whoever did answer the call, or that potential hero can become a villain — it depends on the consequences of failure, and who is available to stand in their place.

Suggested Reading/Viewing

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

Speed of the Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Xena and Joxer in Zena

Closing thoughts

While most heroes are constructive, heroes can sometimes be destructive — if they need to tear down what’s broken before they can rebuild.

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