Heroes in SFF

A post by Molly Templeton at tor.com: Holding Out for More Heroes

I always like Molly Templeton’s posts, and of course I’m always happy to see a post saying that you know what, heroes are great, but I am just a little taken aback by the tone of this post. Here is how the post begins:

If there’s one kind of question guaranteed to make me roll my eyes, it’s one about guilty pleasures. You don’t need to feel guilty about the art you enjoy. There are things in life about which a person should feel guilty … but liking a particular kind of art or story or character or movie or song is not, generally, among those things.

And yet there’s a thing I love that I’ve been feeling squirmy about. I don’t feel guilty, exactly, but I feel self-conscious and dorky and then feel guilty about feeling those ways, which maybe transforms into a feeling that’s a cousin to a guilty pleasure? It’s in the same general vicinity, at least. I found myself forced to admit that I love paladins. And I really feel like I’m not supposed to say that in public. I could not feel more uncool for confessing to this. It feels like announcing that I’m a boring person who only likes simple, happy stories, when that is the furthest thing from the truth.

I … do not feel like this at all. I mean, at all. I had to pause for a moment to contemplate this.

It’s not that Molly Templeton thinks that the notion that a story centered around good guys are always simple, happy, boring stories. She adds:

But I don’t think a do-gooder has to be simple, or plain, or a stick-in-the-mud

And, honestly, I think the apologetic tone is creeping out again here. Let me rephrase that:

A do-gooder does not have to be, and usually is not, simple, plain, one-dimensional, flat, unbelievable, or boring.

There is no need to say cautiously, “I think” or “in my opinion” or “it seems to me” in front of that assertion. It is just obviously true, and one could list off a thousand examples without the slightest difficulty. The example Templeton uses here is Maia from The Goblin Emperor, always an excellent (very excellent) choice. One could add Thara Celehar from the second and third books set in that world. Celehar is also not simple, plain, one-dimensional, unbelievable, or boring. He is overly self-effacing and passive, which is none of the above, but is a big reason I have not read the third book.

Celehar is also totally different from Maia, which there you go, look, two genuinely nice characters who are totally different from each other. Not that this is surprising, because that’s how it works when you are doing a solid job of characterization, which is absolutely for sure no more difficult with characters who are nice than characters who hover on the edge of being bad guys.

Templeton asks for suggestions for fantasy, specifically fantasy, where the protagonist is a genuinely nice person trying to do good things. I am happy (VERY HAPPY) to see that TUYO is mentioned multiple times in the comments, and thank you all very much! I recommend dropping over to that post if you would like to see what other books are mentioned in the comments, but I will mention the ones that sprang to mind for me. Some of these also appear in the comment thread of the linked post; other’s don’t; all of these leaped to my mind waving their virtual hands in the air going Look! Look at me! Nice do-gooder character who is not boring so one-dimensional!

1) Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion, which is mentioned in the comment thread

2) Penric, obviously, and that is also mentioned in the comment thread

3) Cassandra in The Touchstone Trilogy, which isn’t really exactly fantasy, but, I mean, sort of?

4) Medair, in the Medair duology, because THAT really is fantasy, but also

5) All sorts of important characters in And All the Stars, which I grant is not remotely fantasy, but once I started thinking of AKH, what was I supposed to do? Trying hard not to say too much about the specific character I have in mind here, but I will add that this book contains possibly the single most amazing plot twist I have ever encountered.

6) Kit, in From All False Doctrine, which I am indeed re-reading now.

7) Cliopher in The Hands of the Emperor, another one mentioned in the comment thread at the linked post.

8) Paksennarian, obviously, also in the comment thread

9) El, from the Scholomance trilogy, and seriously, you cannot think of both El and Cazaril and then declare that all good-guy characters are the same, because ha ha ha, wow, no. El refutes that notion NO MATTER WHO she is compared to. Any other do-gooder character in the ENTIRE WORLD of books is going to be wildly different from Galadriel Higgins.

10) Frankly, Daniel in the Death’s Lady trilogy is the single nicest person I have ever written.

Okay, I will add that I have picked up a few books from the comment thread at the linked post and maybe soon, this month even, I will close my laptop for two weeks and read a whole bunch of books, including these.

Meanwhile! Favorite book that hasn’t yet been mentioned where the protagonist is a good person trying to achieve good things. Doesn’t have to be nice, does have to be a do-gooder, any other book spring to mind? Oh, I just thought of another, which I will mention in the comments if no one else gets to it first.

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27 thoughts on “Heroes in SFF”

  1. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor? Because Lazlo Strange is a really good person. Also the romance is really sweet.

    Yet another different one would be Martha Wells’ titular Murderbot. (Yes I know it says all it wants is to be left alone to consume media. It rides to the rescue an awful lot for someone who actually means that.)

    And last but not least would be Rowan from Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books (technically not fantasy). Also one of the best-drawn scientists ever.

  2. Pretty much all the main characters in Greenwing&Dart by Goddard (Jemis, Perry, Hal…)

    Moon and the other Raksura by Martha Wells.

  3. Tamora Pierce was mentioned in those comments a few times, and she’s who I initially thought of. And, Ilona Andrews’ characters sometimes try to pretend they don’t care to hide under the radar, but none of them are ever able to turn away from someone in need.

  4. Rowan, I REALLY need to read Strange the Dreamer one of these days.

    I completely agree about Murderbot. Also, yes, basically most of Martha Wells’ protagonists, though … maybe not Nicholas or Tremaine, exactly. Though in another way, both of them also count.

    Rowan is an interesting choice. I should re-read those. She is most certainly one of the very best scientists in SFF, I completely agree. The Steerswoman gets my fervent vote for “series I would most like to see finished before I die,” but I’m not very hopeful.

  5. I really liked most of Strange the Dreamer, but found the end & setup for the next book off-putting enough that I didn’t follow up on the series. Your mileage may vary – maybe I should try revisiting sometime.

  6. I stopped reading Strange the Dreamer when I realized who the unnamed character in the prologue was.

  7. I think “do gooder” describes the protagonists of most of the books I read. It’s probably easier to list books where the protagonist isn’t that way.

    I read the Vlad Taltos series recently, and although Vlad is far more trigger happy / violent than I’d like him to be, he still tries to make life better for the people in his life, and makes massive personal sacrifices at various points to do so. Maybe I’m looking at “do gooder” too liberally?

  8. I’m pretty sure you’ll love Strange the Dreamer. Maybe read it as a reward for getting all that proofing done on Tasmakat?

  9. Robert, this is not making me less curious about Strange the Dreamer. But it is making me want to ask questions when I start it …

  10. Rowan, could be, heaven knows I need to line up ten or thirty books and actually dive in …

    Kriti, actually, I agree. I would tend to define the term pretty broadly and I think we do see characters like that pretty often. Molly Templeton was specifically saying that this kind of character is more difficult to find today, and I suspect that is probably true. Quite a few examples were published some time ago, including Vlad, whom I agree leans in the do-gooder direction … although, you know, killing strangers for money is kind of something you need to stop doing before you get to wear a white hat.

  11. Since she mentioned paladins, I was thinking of Rusty & Co., the webcomic, where commenters have been known to exclaim, “I love this paladin — what, what am I saying?”

    Order of the Stick also has nice paladins, once you get past Miko.

  12. The two main characters of Melissa Scott’s Astreiant books count as do-gooders, I think. Especially Nico.

  13. Oh, Melissa Scott’s Order of the Air has very good paladin types! Id forgotten that!

    And I meant to say, Murderbot was the one I had in mind, and yep, very first comment.

  14. Wei Wuxian from the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation.
    Artemesia from Vespertine.
    Sam Vimes from Discworld.
    Number 10 Ox.

    I’m way behind on reading currentish stuff, but I can’t think of much that’s come out recently other than Rachel’s work (which I am up to date on reading, that has unapologetic good people. Other than Vesperine, and GoDC.

    oh, Alma Boykin’s main characters in her Familiars series, Leila Chan and her eventual husband Andre .

    not a book but I thought of Lelouch vi Britannia of Code Geass (originally an anime), as a possibility. He is not good exactly. He is certainly not a paladin-by-definition. But … he feels like one. Even if his record is objectively awful – I think he commits every type of ‘..cide patri/fratri/soro… etc possible in one way or another. All to bring down the evil empire that rules the world and he is the twelfth prince of. And not to put himself at the top, although he does wind up there for a while.

  15. How about all the paladins in T Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series? Actually – many of her books have people trying to do something good.

  16. Oops – should have gone over to read the original post BEFORE I commented. T. Kingfisher is all over it! Then I thought of MCA Hogarth, especially her Dreamhealers series and characters. And finally, Wen Spencer. Her very first series, Uriah Oregon was very much a modern paladin like character. And Tinker and Oilcan are both about making the world right.

  17. +1 agree with most of the above.
    I would add most of Susan Dexter’s heroes
    and Patricia Wrede’s heroes (did you all see that she has a new book out?)

  18. Ooh, a new Pat Wrede! It’s not quite out, I see: dropping September: The Dark Lord’s Daughter. Wow, I REALLY feel this should be a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, which of course it is not. I’m going to have to make an effort not to expect griffins.

    Thanks for the pointer, definitely happy to see a new one from Patricia Wrede, griffins or no griffins.

  19. I’m a big Wen Spencer fan, although I’m holding off on reading the last installments until they’re both out. I think it’ll be the first time she actually finishes a series? I loved the Ukiah books, but she acknowledged she sort of wrote herself into a corner there.

  20. The Tinker/Elfhome series is her current one – realized I was ambiguous there. Ukiah doesn’t completely have a proper ending, but I’m not mad at it.

  21. Rachel, that makes sense. I’ve noticed myself avoiding most SFF published in the last decade or so, I didn’t make the connection to not having as many “do gooder” protagonists.

    I did a Secret Santa type thing last year where I got a bunch of new SFF and you’re right, the ones I read did not have protagonists who wanted to make the world better (in this case of Iron Widow, she actively wanted to burn the world down and I did not finish the book).

    Also Vlad is still being published! Tsalmoth came out only a couple months ago, and Lyorn is coming out next April, with two more books to come after that.

    Since you mentioned Dark Lord of Derkholm, I assume you’ve read Year of the Griffin? I read it for the first time a couple of days ago (I’m making my way through Diana Wynne Jones’ canon currently) and it was great! Even more griffins than the first book. And definitely fits the “nice people trying to make the world better” theme.

  22. Strange the Dreamer is absolutely worth reading and absolutely requires Muse of Nightmares to be right beside you when you finish it. The duology goes to some gut-wrenching places (that prologue is a good indicator) but it all actually ends up okay, in rather mind-boggling and wonderful ways. I love Laini Taylor—and yet her books definitely aren’t comfort reads. (Except for the short story Night of Cake and Puppets: that one is just utter charm and loveliness unmitigated by gut-punches.)

    Haven’t read the original post yet, but has Sherwood Smith been mentioned? Inda only wants to do good. And all the main characters of Phoenix Feather are delightfully determined to fix all wrongs and save everyone.

    How about Bren in Foreigner (which I have finally read!)?

  23. Kriti, I have to say, IRON WIDOW is the exact opposite of the kind of story I like. It is, from what I can tell, a rather vicious revenge fantasy and (sorry! but it’s true!) also not at all well written. I was genuinely startled it made it onto the ballet for the Astounding award. Here’s the post where I look at the opening of this novel.

    I know we’re still seeing Vlad novels. Tsalmoth is a prequel, I saw, and I’m honestly not as thrilled as all that because I tremendously dislike how Brust handled Cawti and anything with Cawti in it is much less appealing to me than anything without. I think Lyorn should move forward in time rather than back and I’ll be very happy to grab that one! I might read Tsalmoth when Lyorn comes out.

    Yes, I loved Year of the Griffin! So many things to love about that book! I enjoy school stories anyway and this one was top notch. Honestly, griffins always make every story better!

  24. HOW could I not think of Phoenix Feather? That is a GREAT example, Kim. And Inda’s not a bad suggestion either. I’m slowly re-reading those and I’m on the third book. Tragedy is about to strike, which is slowing me down.

    Totally agree about Night of Cake and Puppies, which is indeed purely delightful.

    BREN, YES! How far have you actually gotten in the Foreigner books?

  25. Have only read the first Foreigner so far: still a little daunted about how many are ahead of me, but I guess I won’t run out of good reading for a while!

  26. Oh, you’re going to really enjoy watching Bren turn from a minor court functionary to a serious badass diplomat! Great stuff in front of you!

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