The Aspirational Hero is similar to, but not quite like, the Iconic Hero. Although the two resemble each other, mainly in what K.M. Weiland* refers to as the Flat Character Arc, they are not the same thing. They are, rather, two distinct archetypes that have largely gone out of fashion in the West. You are more likely to run into Aspirational Heroes in Eastern media than you are in Occidental fiction these days.
Before we continue, allow me to say a word about Flat Character Arcs. A Flat Character Arc, according to Ms. Weiland’s description, occurs when the hero of the story does not undergo a change of heart. The characters which fulfill the Iconic and Aspirational archetypes are not driven by Deep Psychologial Trauma™ to pursue a given cause, nor do they need to overcome some character flaw in order to reach their goal. As explained in this article here, the Iconic Hero remains the same at the end of the story as he did at the beginning. He may mature, but he does not experience a conversion or defeat a debilitating character flaw, for the simple reason that it is not required of him to achieve his objective.
In this much, the Aspirational Hero follows the Iconic model. Most Aspirational Heroes are driven by what the (post?) modern West would call “simple desires,” a fact best demonstrated by the rationale of several Eastern Aspirational Heroes. In the JRPG Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core*, for instance, the protagonist Zack Fair’s main goal is to become a hero. Van Flyheight’s ambition is to become the greatest zoid pilot in Zoids: Chaotic Century*. And in Black Clover, Asta’s desire is to become the Wizard King of the Clover Kingdom, despite his complete lack of magic.
Now Van does have some trauma driving his decision. The loss of his father, a well-respected zoid pilot and soldier, is part of what prompts his desire to become the greatest zoid pilot ever. He wants to be as good a man as his Dad was, and so he chooses a life that will allow him to honor his father at the same time it will give him ample opportunity to spend time with the mechanical beasts he loves.
On its face, Asta’s dream of attaining the position of Wizard King is preposterous. He has no magical talent whatsoever; in fact, his power comes from a devil and is known as Anti-Magic. When a magician attacks him he can simply drain their magic and use it to feed his own power, borrowed as it is from the demon inside his grimoire. Nevertheless, he retains hold of his dream and has reached a position of power in the Clover Kindgom’s army of Magic Knights.
Zack’s wish to become a hero is perhaps the most abstract and apparently childish aspiration on this list. What is a hero? Why does Zack even want to be one? He wants to be a hero because of the exploits of a great man, whom players of the original Final Fantasy VII game know will eventually lose his mind, killing many innocents after having fought so nobly for so long. Isn’t that the height of foolishness?
According to many Western schools of creative writing, Zack’s goal is folly, both for him and for the writer. He lacks the Psychologically Traumatic™ motivation that lends weight to Van Flyheight’s choice of life, which may be considered thin by modern writers in the Occident, but at least it is there. If Zack Fair were a character created by a Western writer, it is likely that critics would say that he is deceiving himself and the author is misleading the audience.
If that is true, then there are a great many Final Fantasy VII fans throughout the world who want to have the wool pulled over their eyes. Zack regularly beats the protagonist of FF7, Cloud Strife, in fan polls in Japan. Many Western fans also find him at least as engaging as Cloud, if not more so. Given that Strife begins the story as a broken, traumatized man and has a tendency to brood overmuch in media related to the game, one would think modern audiences would be more attracted to him than to his best friend and mentor. Cloud is, after all, very close to the standard espoused by present day schools of writing in the (post) modern West. His victory here should be a cinch.
Yet it is Zack Fair who walks away with the most fan admiration and love. Zack’s cheerful, optimistic personality and aspiration to become the ideal hero is even more attractive to audiences than Cloud’s desire for an identity he can accept and believe in. This does not mean that no one likes Cloud Strife – fans of the game do appreciate him. But Zack wins more respect for a reason, and authors would be wise to investigate what that reason is, since it has bearing on stories in both the West and the East.
Audiences find confidence attractive. Zack, Van, and Asta’s certainty that they can achieve the career and/or ideals they strive for, no matter the odds and the pain they must endure, is appealing for that very reason. We all want to accomplish some goal in this life, to prove our courage and our strength, to ourselves if not to anyone else. Seeing characters we love do the same thing gives us hope that, perhaps, if we work hard enough and hold on despite the pain, we will attain our goals as well.
Of course, now that we have this definition of an Aspirational Hero to work from, one has to wonder how Western Aspirational Heroes differ from or resemble their Eastern counterparts. If one considers the example of Indiana Jones, one will find the two methods have more in common than some might think.
For one, Indy does not pursue a career in archaeology to spite his father, to avenge a deceased relative or friend, or to fulfill some need abiding in the depths of his heart. He studies archaeology and goes on adventures because he enjoys both these things. He wants to go on treasure hunts; he wants to see these fascinating historical locations himself, and he wants to protect these artifacts from those who would misuse them or abuse them for their own selfish ambitions. Perhaps most significantly, he desires to pass on the love his subject to his students, so that they may be inspired to “go, and do likewise.”
Louis L’Amour* once said – and this may be a paraphrase of the original text –that it “takes powerful little to satisfy a man.” Indiana Jones’ “simple” desire does not mean that he is a simplistic character, anymore than Asta, Van, and Zack are one-dimensional heroes. Though we receive most of our information about Indiana through the texture of the story rather than his direct thoughts, what we are given by these means proves that he is a complex hero. While confident of his abilities and ideals, Indy remains a man, a human being with faults and weaknesses along with virtues and strengths. So when bad things happen he reacts in a believable, human manner.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark*, when Marian appears to die, a grief-stricken Indiana finds a table and a bottle in an effort to drown his sorrows. Later on we see that he bears a grudge against his father for the other’s nigh obsessive search for the Holy Grail, and it is made clear that he is not above being tempted to take vengeance on someone who has wronged him. This differentiates him from the Iconic Hero mold without violating the basic tenets of his character or archetype. And so, like Zack Fair, he remains admirable to viewers because of his confidence in himself and his cause – something he does without being or becoming a one-dimensional character.
Luke Skywalker is perhaps the most obvious model of the Western Aspirational Hero, as he confidently decides upon a career and a set of ideals to pursue in tandem. While he starts out as a callow, sheltered boy yearning for more than the endless sand dunes of his homeworld, this is exactly what makes the audience invest interest in his character. Everyone has been an inexperienced tenderfoot at one point in his or her life. Many among us know what it is to desire a life beyond the familiar refuge of family and place, while others whimsically wish they had experienced such a warm upbringing.
Furthermore, despite his relative poverty and severe disappointment with his uncle’s restrictive protection – or, more accurately, because of these things – Luke has had an appreciation of virtue, beauty, and truth imbued into his soul. He does not want to leave Tatooine just to get away from home. If that was all he wanted, then he would have left long before the film opens. Since Luke did not do that, we understand that he has a set of ideals with which he will not break, among them respect for his elders and a belief that his uncle cares for him. He may care more than Luke would like, but Owen does care. And that matters enough to his nephew that he will not simply run away from home to do what he wants.
When Luke does leave, it is to honestly pursue his ideals on a grand scale. He feels sure he can affect the galaxy for the better somehow if he is not kept tied to one well-known place. As the story progresses he is proved correct, though that confirmation comes at great cost, starting with the loss of his home. The disappearance of his best friend at Cloud City is another price he has to pay for his vision. And the moment where he learns that the second-most evil man in the galaxy is the father he never knew but always admired is a revelation that exacts a penalty he has to pay to move forward with his aspirations.
Instead of falling into despair and letting these events scar him irreparably, however, Luke learns from and builds upon them. He does not surrender to despondency but uses these trials to gain a better understanding of his principles and to firm his desire to achieve them. This inner struggle to mature reaches its spiritual and physical fruition in his duel with Vader aboard the second Death Star*. Giving into blind rage for a brief time, Luke only stops his assault on his father when he realizes they both have a mechanical right hand.
Faced with the possibility of becoming the very antithesis of what he believes and holds dear, Luke pauses to breathe. He knows he will survive if he kills Vader and joins the Emperor, but will the price be worth it? Will throwing away the sacrifices he has made, the pain he has endured, the love of his friends and family, and the maturity he has gained be worth an extended life in this galaxy? His father chose the “quick and easy” path, and look where it got him. Will Luke make the same mistake, or will he take the harder path, and set aside physical security for the sake of his soul and his beliefs?
The moment where Luke casts aside his lightsaber and declares “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” shows just how much he has matured. By far, this is the hardest battle he has faced, and it is one which Luke wins by holding to his beliefs and aspirations. This is the duty of the Aspirational Hero: he is not meant to be weighed down by Psychological Trauma™, to slowly pick up the pieces of his life and psyche as the story progresses. Neither is he an Anti-Hero who must leave the darkness in order to serve the light.
He is not an inherently flawed person, nor even a moderately damaged or imperfect one. The Aspirational Hero is a man who strives to become the best he can be in a career of his choice. Whether that career is a hero, a zoid pilot, an archaeologist, or a Jedi Knight matters little. All that matters is that he chooses his course, holds to it with confidence, and faces his trials without losing sight of what made him want tot become what he is in the first place.
Another illustration of the Aspirational archetype is John “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team*. Hannibal is a man who likes to live on the edge, something implied by the various statements and actions he takes during the course of the series. He specifically says in one episode that he enjoys “flush[ing]” the villains down the toilet “just to see what kind of sound [they] make” on their way into the drainage system. When he is fighting bad people to protect good people, then that is when Hannibal is most content.
So when he and two of his commandos, Templeton “Face” Peck and B.A. Baracus, are accused of a crime during the Vietnam War, people who know Hannibal know he and his men have been falsely accused. With no way to prove that they are not the true culprits, the three escape from custody, where they must survive outside the law while hoping to somehow clear their names. Their choice of livelihood is an odd one; rather than lay low out of the public eye, they work as “soldiers of fortune.” With the aid of their fourth compatriot, H.M. Murdock – who is not considered a criminal because he appears to be clinically insane – they hire themselves out to desperate people who cannot go to the authorities for help.
Some might see this as a counter-productive method of proving one’s innocence. It certainly does not appear to be the smartest way to avoid the military police. Yet, when one considers Hannibal’s character, it makes perfect sense. He and his men possess survival and hunting skills that set them apart from the average civilian. And since they are already on the wrong side of the law, fighting dangerous criminals or corrupt law enforcement officials will do them less harm than it will everyday citizens. They are perfectly situated to act on behalf of those who, for whatever reason, cannot gain the law’s aid.
Hannibal, who craves the challenge of the hunt and despises those who abuse their power, is only too happy to do just that. It is a simple plan that pleases him, benefits his men, and lends assistance to the helpless. Already a mature person, Hannibal does not grow much over the course of the series. He loses his temper, gets hurt, and is otherwise less perfect than an Iconic Hero would be, certainly. But his pursuit of his aspirations and his confidence that he can accomplish his goals no matter the obstacle placed in his path are what make him an Aspirational Hero.
Far from being a childish fantasy, the Aspirational Hero is a powerful archetype any writer ought to be proud to carry in their portfolio. It is not for nothing that this model is so popular in the East; once upon a time, it was equally prevalent in the West. There is no reason why it cannot become so again – if there are authors ready and willing to bring it to the page and the screen once more.
So, will you create Aspirational Heroes who believe in themselves, are confident they can get through any crisis, and are still human beings with human frailties? Or will you follow the trend of breaking such archetypes beyond repair? There is a choice, future writers.
If you feel attracted to the Aspirational Hero model for your lead character, then there is no reason not to write about him/her. More than a potential career you may have as a novelist is on the line with this decision. An entire archetype just might be relying on you to bring it back out of obscurity and into the light.
Do not be afraid. Aspire for something higher. See where it leads. You might find the view from that height is not so frightening as you were told it would be. 😉
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. If you liked this post and want some other examples of Aspirational Heroes, check out Declan Finn’s A Pius Trilogy*, Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark* series, or Richard Paolinelli’s* ongoing Star Trek fan fiction story, available for free on his website here. Order or click on them today to find out more about this vanishing Western archetype, readers!