Previously, I have mentioned the term “Iconic Hero.” Some of you might be wondering what that particular expression means. Once upon a time, this author would have been confused by it, too. However, I came across an article defining the “Iconic Hero” many moons ago. This article described the archetype and went on to say that this protagonist category is often misunderstood – or abused, depending on the case in question – and is therefore little used by authors these days.
From what I recall of the article, the Iconic Hero is a fictional protagonist who does not change during the course of the story in which he appears. He does not “grow” – that is, he does not overcome some major character flaw(s) to become a hero and save the day. The Iconic Hero is either already at the peak of his character development, or his story does not require him to change at all as it proceeds toward its conclusion. While he effects change on his surroundings, his friends, his enemies, and his world throughout his adventure(s), the Iconic Hero himself does not change.
The example used in the post where I first read about the “Iconic Hero” was James Bond. Bond never has to confront a personal character flaw during his adventures; neither, from what the writer said, does he strive much for a particular personal goal. He appears onscreen and saves the day, leaving the satisfied audience waiting for his next adventure.
While I understand this other author’s point, using Bond as the only example of an Iconic Hero rather irritated me. I have never been a fan of James Bond, nor have I really watched any films starring the character. So while he certainly fits the mold, he cannot be the only or even the best model of this hero type. As the writer for that article mentioned, Bond has something of a sociopathic outlook on life. He does his job, not because he cares for anyone in particular or even for humanity in general, but because he enjoys it.
There are many different Iconic paradigms to which the novice can turn for inspiration, readers. We will be looking at several today, but before we do that, it must be stated that the examples below are all, in some measure, “perfect.” The reason for this unity of type in this article is because such ideal heroes are often considered bland, boring, or ridiculous. While it is true that an Iconic Hero who is mishandled by the writer can be all of the above, it IS possible to have an Iconic protagonist who is almost perfect, but NOT bland, boring, or outlandish. This will be explained as we begin looking at the list below:
The first and perhaps best illustration of the Iconic Heroes mentioned herein would be none other than Sir Galahad of the Round Table in The Legends of King Arthur. Galahad is the perfect knight, the only one capable of sitting in the Siege Perilous. All others who try this feat are burned to a crisp; even his father, Sir Lancelot, cannot lay a hand on the Siege without being scorched by it. Galahad alone can seat himself in the Siege without harm, which is why the Holy Grail is revealed to him and no other. Each of his fellow knights has at least one character flaw, one fatal sin, which prevents them from completing the quest. Only the perfect paladin – the faultless Iconic Hero – can succeed in this quest.
Wait, back up, some of you say. Who wants to cheer for a hero who doesn’t have to struggle with himself during a tale? Who will root for a protagonist who does not have to overcome some spiritual wound or deformity throughout his adventures? Aren’t authors supposed to write stories about men overcoming their demons along with their enemies?
Yes….and no. Remember, James Bond may be regarded as an Iconic Hero, and he never suffers from any serious interior conflict during the course of his films. Despite this, he is a very popular character beloved by audiences around the world. So we can see that having a “faultless” Iconic Hero is not what makes such archtypes “boring.”
This is a valid point, however; when mishandled or oversaturated with “excellence,” Iconic Heroes may rightly be regarded as tedious. Two such protagonists whose “perfection” seems to irritate some audiences and writers these days are The Lone Ranger and Superman. Those who may now control the rights to these Iconic Heroes have shown in their recent media an unvarnished contempt for these characters and their histories, believing something is amiss in modern audiences’ perception of their characters. While this realization on their part may seem good, the owners’ attempt to compensate for their heroes’ “dull” and “perfect” personalities has been either lackluster or downright insulting to their audience.
Superman/Clark Kent is the clearest and easiest case to make. Though there have been films which skate close to treating him as a joke, the latest movies (Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman) make this paragon of virtue out to be a nihilist. Gone is this hero’s belief in and dedication to “truth, justice, and the American Way.” In order to make him interesting, his owners have made him a Nietzschean. Because of this, the audience that once cheered for Superman now mocks, ignores, and/or derides him.
While the writers’ reactions to the alleged “blandness” of the Lone Ranger and Superman’s personalities are wrong, they are somewhat understandable. Both these heroes are vessels rather than people; they are virtue personified. The Lone Ranger and Superman are Romanticized molds of men who, in their early incarnations (and some of their later ones), do not struggle against temptation. They do what is right without a second thought and without the slightest hesitation. Cheering for them seems like cheering when the hands on a grandfather clock make a complete twenty-four hour circuit; there was never any doubt the hands would follow that path, meaning that there is no excitement in watching them make their revolution.
Here we also see another defect in Blind Romanticism. While the original creators of these characters had good intentions, their prolonged execution was far from perfect. Rather than creating characters who behave virtuously in spite of personal pain, they gave virtue form. Unlike men, virtue cannot be tempted; it cannot struggle with the enemy, it can only overcome him. Thus, when audiences knock on the hero’s statue as Justinian did, they find an empty shell where there should have been a substantial figure made of gold.
This is why authors today call such Pure Romantic heroes and heroines who simply “do the right thing” automatically, without serious struggle, Mary Sues and Gary or Marty Stus. To incarnate virtue in an Iconic Hero properly requires recognizing that, despite his/her spiritual advantages, the Iconic protagonist must still “wrestle with the devil” in the dirt. For the better one becomes, the farther he has to fall, and the story should reflect this fact of life.
Therefore, let us now look at Iconic models who still qualify as “perfect” individuals, who wrestle with temptation, and who perform on a much lesser scale than Superman or the Lone Ranger. The first of these is the lawyer Perry Mason. Perry Mason is a popular Iconic Hero in part because he is the embodiment of the legal paradigm: he believes in and practices the American principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty; he desires justice; he holds to the belief in the primacy of truth, and he wishes to see evil punished. He is, in essence, the perfect lawyer. Nevertheless, Perry has not (yet) suffered the fate of the Lone Ranger and Superman. Why is this?
First, in contrast to Superman and the Lone Ranger, he has a demonstrable temper. If Perry feels he has been lied to by a client, he will become angry and harsh with them. His temper will also flare when he is cross-examining or questioning a witness on the stand. However, despite this, Mason’s temper never reaches the level of a flaw. It is, instead, a true and just reaction to the evil that has been committed within a given installment of his series.
Second, though Perry is the ideal lawyer, this does not mean he is not tempted to leave a client to fend for himself during the course of a particular trial. Each time a defendant’s innocence is called into serious question, Mason becomes unsettled. He truly wants justice and right to prevail, which means that he will not compromise his honor by defending a murderer. The idea that he may have, finally, chosen to argue a case for the wrong person makes him instantly cautious and suspicious. So while he works hard on behalf of his client(s) by looking at other suspects, he rarely scratches his own defendant off the list before an episode reaches its climax. Every time this temptation arises the audience cannot help but wonder if this will be the time that Perry abandons someone. And every time he does not succumb to this temptation, allowing the audience to breathe a sigh of relief because virtue has prevailed despite human frailty.
Is this an unbelievable way for a human being to behave, future writers? To a degree it is, but not in a way that induces the scorn of the audience. Our next example, Constable Benton Fraser from the crime comedy Due South, elucidates the reason for this. Unlike the tales listed above, Due South is a farce first and foremost. This means that Fraser’s “perfection” is often played for laughs. But what makes Due South a success instead of a failure is the fact that, while Fraser ends up in comical situations, the writers never mock the qualities he embodies.
Yes, the Mountie is utterly naïve and a “babe in the woods,” and that is where a good part of the fun lies. Fraser is innocence incarnate, which is utterly impossible in this world, and that makes the audience laugh. However, what they never find amusing is his recognition of – and willingness to fight – evil. They do not laugh at this primarily because they want to see vice defeated by virtue. But another reason why they do not consider this aspect of Fraser’s character amusing is because it is shown that, like us, he is still susceptible to temptation. While he shows us that it can be overcome, he demonstrates that this task is not easy for any member of the fallen human race. While he is possessed of much goodness, Fraser is still weak and can be tempted.
Thus we see here a “textbook” Iconic Hero used to inspire humor without deriding the qualities he incarnates. This is what is necessary to make such a hero “fun” while winning an audience; the situations which the Iconic hero/heroine enters during the course of a story may be uproariously entertaining. But if the virtue(s) which this protagonist enfleshes are scoffed at in any way by the writers, the majority of the audience will instinctively recoil from the authors, the characters, and the story.
This leads us to the final examples of the Iconic archetype in this article. While the movies rarely do him justice, the Autobot leader Optimus Prime is an Iconic Hero – one who seems to be suffering from the Superman Syndrome. In the original stories, Optimus Prime was an incarnation of the virtues of gentleness, truth, justice and, to an extent, the American Way. The fact that he embodies kindness is not a throwaway piece of information, since it is often skipped over in “modern” fiction. The original voice actor added this quality to Optimus’ character at the request of his older brother, giving audiences yet another good feature for the model of the Iconic Hero.
Unfortunately, the people who own the Transformers franchise seem to think that this makes Optimus an unrealistic protagonist. This shows most clearly in the franchise’s films, where Prime behaves in a far more aggressive manner toward humans than he does in most of his television incarnations. It is a disturbing change for the simple reason that it is so out of character for Optimus Prime, whose normal deportment on television – even in anger – was far less intimidating.
This raises the final question authors should consider when creating a “perfect” Iconic Hero: Is it possible to preserve him across various media? For that answer, we turn to Captain America/Steve Rogers. In many ways, Cap is the zenith of the modern Iconic mold. He stands not only for justice and truth but explicitly for “the American Way,” demonstrating as he does a gentleness at least equal to Prime’s. This becomes poignantly clear when a boy recognizes him in the Smithsonian exhibit in The Winter Soldier. Instead of walking away or trying to intimidate the child, Cap smiles and holds a finger to his lips. The quiet, kind gesture makes the boy’s day, as he now shares a personal secret with his favorite hero.
Although many reviewers regard him as stiff and inflexible, the films show us that this is not true. Cap welcomes genuine humor; he cracks jokes and smiles easily. He has perfect humility, as shown when he takes the good-natured ribbing his friends give him. He even joins in the teasing from time to time, making fun at his own expense. Cap can laugh not only at his enemies or at something truly funny – he can laugh at himself. This means that he can fulfill Fraser’s role of poking fun at the Iconic model without mocking the virtues he espouses on behalf of the audience.
Cap is also an “excellent” Iconic Hero who avoids becoming a Gary/Marty Stu. From The First Avenger to Infinity War, it is made abundantly clear that Steve must wrestle with the temptation to take the easy way out of a deadly situation, just as the audience does every day. This inner conflict is what adds weight to the physical and moral confrontations in which he participates; the audience always fears, subconsciously or not, that Cap may “fall from grace” when the Dark Side calls to him. But as the films take pains to show us, Steve is good enough that he can always refuse the siren song of evil, though on occasion he comes terrifyingly close to succumbing to it.
So, future writers, we return to the question in the title of this post: is the “perfect” Iconic Hero impossible to create, maintain, and believe in – or not? If he/she is mishandled, then the Iconic protagonist will certainly become unbelievable. But if you avoid the mistakes made by those who created and continue to write for the Lone Ranger and Superman, any “perfect” Iconic Heroes who enter your tales will likely appeal to your audience. Having tried this formula for some of my own stories, I have been encouraged by the results, which should please you down the line as well.
In closing, I suggest that you may want to try creating a hero or two like those listed above in your own works, future writers. We could do with a few more Iconic Heroes these days, especially “perfect” ones. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk….
But then, so is all of fiction writing. 😉