Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Time wounds all heels

I’m toying with a new theory about heroes. It’s really more from the Eng. Lit. student side of me than the writer side, but I reckon there’s something in it. I set to wondering about the Achilles Heel. The tragic flaw of the hero that either brings about their downfall or makes life very difficult for them. With Superman it’s kryptonite; with Scarlett O’Hara it’s her futile love for Ashley Wilkes; with Achilles it’s his heel. (Or is it? More on that soon).

My theory, or proto-theory, is that the hero’s apparent main weakness is actually the source of all their strength. Rather than the thing that hinders them, it is actually what drives them to do what they do. Without their flaw, in other words, they might survive, but they wouldn’t be heroes.

Let’s start really highbrow: Superman. His weakness is kryptonite. No it isn’t. It’s not a specific enough weakness; I’m vulnerable to knives and large planks of wood, but they don’t qualify as my Achilles heel. No, Superman’s big weakness (as General Zod points out in Superman 2) is that he cares. He cares about humans. So he can be manipulated by anyone who doesn’t care, and who would kill or hurt them to get at Superman. Kal-El’s weakness is precisely what makes him Superman as opposed to just a very strong man who can fly.

Achilles’s Achilles heel is not Achilles’ heel. Try saying that fast after a bottle of retsina. Again, like kryptonite, it’s superficial. In the Iliad, what finally gets to Achilles is the death of Patroclus. He can face any hardship or indignity, but not the grief of losing his best friend/lover. That’s what finally motivates him to get medieval (or should that be pre-Classical?) on the Trojans and whup Hector good. And it also leaves him vulnerable to Paris, who shoots only his ‘apparent’ Achilles heel: his heel.

And in Gone With The Wind, which I’m reading now, the one thing that keeps Scarlett going through grinding hardship is the very thing that makes her so foolish: her futile, selfish, doomed love for Ashley Wilkes. But she ends up being ‘heroic’ countless times as a result of this very unheroic passion.

I think there’s something in this. The best heroes have one major central flaw; and that flaw is what drives their heroism. But my essay-writing days are over, so I’m just content to float the idea for now… with all its flaws.


Lee said...

It's the retsina ... you really shouldn't touch the stuff.

Sara said...

Yes. Flawed or not, I'm with you on this theory, Nick. And I'm wondering how you came to pick up Gone with the Wind (for the first time?)

BTW, didn't I see at Big A, Little a that Cat Kin was on an awards list? Aren't you gonna blog about that? Aren't ya? Or do we all need to bug you 'til you do? :)

Nick said...

Lee: I don't!

Sara: My wife was reading Gone With The Wind and kept saying it was the best book she'd read for years. So I ignored the horrid Mills & Boon cover on our edition and picked it up. And it is extraordinary. It makes me glad when my train is late so I can carry on reading.

About that awards shortlist... I'm superstitious talking about it! I suppose I should put something up.

Anonymous said...

hi nick - reading through your backposts since i've just discovered your blog.

i'm fascinated by heroes. at our critique group the other day, we were discussing how one of our members could strengthen a rather pallid character.

give the character a power, i thought. not necessarily a super power, but a special strength. and then give the character a weakness.

there you have it! a more interesting character!

thanks for your thoughts on this.