The concept, not the TV show.
We are all confronted by the enduring image of the hero within whatever storytelling we’re exposed to. One of the most powerful stories that I came across during my formative years was Star Wars and this story looked at the clarity of the white hats and the black hats in the clearest possible way.
Luke Skywalker wore white and Darth Vader wore black.
In stories throughout history the protagonists are often shown to be relative caricatures of real people, all twirling moustaches for the baddies and lantern jawed surety for the goodies, and we’re utterly clear on where the boundaries are drawn for what that person will do.
But Star Wars gave me my first glimpse of something that was more than just the black or white. It was my first experience of mighty sacrifice that wasn’t seen as that mighty, and the prevalence, in a world of clear black and white, of the grey character.
I’ll start with the grey character as it’s the easy one.
Han Solo is the quintessential grey. Does the right thing but does it in a bad way. Does the wrong thing but does it for the right reason. What a hero he is.
Growing up we’re all told that we have to behave, follow the rules, tell the truth and any number of other commands that are placed on us from parents, society etc. We are brought up in clearly defined parameters which deal in this dichotomy. You have to be good or you’re bad. White hat or black hat.
The grey was mind-bending.
How could the grey do the bad things? That meant he was a baddie. But how could he make the right choice if he was a baddie? What kind of witchcraft is this?
As we all know, the real world is far from being clear cut and each and every one of us lives in the mucky bit of the continuum between the poles. It’s that struggle to do what’s right that’s vital to us all, meaning we can empathize with the grey. The grey breaks the rules, just not the really big ones. All in all, we want to be that grey.
Can we be relied upon to do what’s right? Even if we could lose out or be placed in harms way by doing it?
For me, the grey isn’t what I wanted to focus on when discussing heroes. I wanted to look at the ultimate sacrifice which is so powerful and resonates so strongly throughout the rest of the trilogy, indeed being somewhat repeated in Return of the Jedi.
I’m not referring to the death of Obi-wan Kenobi, heartfelt as it was. I’m talking about the death of the leader of the squadron of X-wings which attack the Death Star.
Here is a man who, when faced with the realization that he isn’t going to survive, tells those coming to his aid not to bother, no point risking anyone for a lost cause, but also meets his demise with a huge cheering smile. It’s only later on in life that I realized that there was a difference between the grey hero, the sacrificial gesture of the sage hero and the actions of the relative nobody.
The grey hero is a level of wishful thinking. We all want to be that hero, living life on the edge, playing by our own rules and all the other clichés as well. Han Solo became popular due to so many reasons but, as kids, everyone wanted to be Han Solo when we all played at Star Wars in the playground. Thinking of Obi-wan, the death of one of the main characters in any story is accompanied with the swelling score, the soaring vocabulary or the crushing music which tugs at the heart strings and makes the tears flow freely as we witness the most purely selfless act.
But was it truly selfless?
For me, the death of Red Leader in Star Wars is more powerful than that of the aged Jedi.
This was someone who was going down swinging. His crippled ship having done all the damage it could, finally bows to the inevitable and gives a final slap in the face as it crashes, the pilot truly giving everything. It’s easy to say Obi-wan was deep in a calm euphoria when he was struck down but think about the two deaths.
Would Obi-wan have been quite so serene if he hadn’t known that he was able to maintain some form of existence following his death? Would he have been just as ready to close his eyes if he’d been acting without the net? Possibly but possibly not.
On the other hand, the roaring pilot doesn’t have any way of continuing. He’s plunging to his death fully aware that there isn’t any hope for him. He’s gone. He will never see anything else. No more family or friends. Everything that was ever him is about to be lost. And he’s cheering his way out.
To me, that is much more heroic.
That is the act of true heroism.
I understand that in terms of the two deaths, it could be easy to see them from the other side of the glass, through a reversal of the power dynamic, as being martyr deaths of different kinds of zealot and I understand that I’ve spoken about power previously on here, but that just shows how important the writer is in creating the hero.
In the real world the hero’s aren’t always the ones we see with the rousing score and sobs all round. The real ones are so often never heard about. When I try to put together heroes that fit into the story I want to tell, I try to make sure they all contain that hint of the grey, that little twinkle of possibility to turn anywhere, but also that small kernel of knowledge that they are strong enough to make the hardest choices when they have to.
Hopefully this is more resonant as something heroic to the reader rather than just relying on the colour of the hat.