Reluctant Heroes (A Balticon 2022 Panel)

While I didn’t get the chance to see a lot of panels live at Balticon 2022, my membership included a month of viewing the recorded panels (after they went up), so I started my rewatch with the titular panel.

The panel description was as follows:

Not every protagonist wants to be the hero of the story. How do doubt and hesitation develop heroic characters, and how does reluctance change over the course of a narrative?

The panelists were: C. J. Cherryh, John Wiswell, Jay Smith, Doc Coleman, and Lezli Robyn, with Beth Morris Tanner as moderator.

Reluctance doesn’t always mean cowardice

While cowardice is often the first accusation when a would-be hero demurs, it’s often not the real reason at all. Some motivations for wanting to avoid that call to adventure?

  • the protagonist’s actual health (mental and physical) or capabilities
  • contentment with their current situation
  • societal norms or expectations
  • a certainty that someone should do something! Someone who knows how to fix this.
  • self-doubt and anxiety
  • the fact that stepping forward is going to cost them something — reputation, safety, time, money, relationships, or all of the above

What makes a reluctant hero relatable?

  • When they show their self-doubt and emotional hesitation
  • When they’re just trying to do their jobs, but things keep snowballing
  • When they face insurmountable odds… and are shocked and thrilled to have survive!
  • When they have the big failures… and pick themselves back up
  • For the hardball protagonist, often they have trauma in their background and they step up because they don’t want anyone else to suffer like they did

Do they need to lose their reluctance?

In most stories, especially novels, the characters change through-out the story. Does reluctance get old?

  • While they need to have emotional growth, they don’t need to lose their reluctance
  • If their reluctance is their conscience, definitely not! (Unless they’re going to go down a dark path…)
  • Often, their skills and competence grows, but so do the challenges

Favorite Reluctant Hero Tropes

  • One more job before retirement
  • Mentor whose mentee isn’t ready to take up the reigns
  • Hero dies and the sidekick has to take up the mantle
  • The unexpected hero
  • The humor injecting everyman (Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Bob Howard from the Laundry Files)
  • The coward (Shaggy and Scooby Doo)
  • Selected a by magical creature and thrust into the hero role (Dragon Riders of Pern)
  • Pacifists who aren’t forced to violence

Closing thoughts:

The best reluctant heroes often model that shoving through the problem is usually the wrong solution, and that good thinking under fire can save the day.


  1. I always loved this idea, going back to Star Wars. Imagine my surprise at finding out there is a long literary tradition in this trope…and um, that Star Wars isn’t considered “literary.” Jokes, (sorta) aside, the line that drove the point home for me was in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, “…happy men do not volunteer.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating. I hadn’t considered my series through the lens of “reluctant hero”, but it’s all there, just from a little different perspective. Mind blown. Now who’s going to rock me to sleep tonight?


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