Fiction used to be filled with competent heroes. They knew stuff. They struggled against outrageous odds without complaint. They had a huge tool kit of skills to draw upon. They were the best of friends and the worse of enemies. They’d win the day and get the girl too, or if they were women who got the guy. Think of the Heinlein heroes.
Then somewhere along the way that sort of hero fell out of favor. Perhaps it was a change of reader. A lot of men started reading science fiction during and right after WWII. That generation had been called upon to do heroic deeds and they stepped up. After the war it was hard to settle down to the day to day life of the 50s.
There was a huge demand for pulp novels where the good guys beat evil and had amazing adventures. It was also the age of Men’s magazines, the “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” stories. Things like, “I Rode with the Outlaw Power Boaters.” It wasn’t great literature, but the stories were a fine diversion for a generation that had settled down to mundane life.
Somewhere along the way life got less black and white. WWII was clearly a war against evil -and the good guys clearly won. Yeah, that’s a simplification, but life is full of narratives that we live by. That was a powerful and clear one. Then we had Korea. At first we kinda lost, then we won, then we sorta split the difference. Vietnam was a particularly troubled time. The good and bad narrative didn’t fit so well -especially after the Mai Lei Massacre.
Our fiction began to reflect our troubled reality. Our heroes became flawed heroes. I actually don’t mind flawed heroes. It’s okay to have human failings, but dammit, they were still heroes. It’s the self obsessed,woe is me, I don’t know what to do, the world is cruel and everybody hates me, protagonist that drives me nuts. Can’t they just die already?
Now I’m told that people don’t like the competent hero because nobody is like that anymore. Personally, I’m insulted by that suggestion. I’ve been in the hero business myself and put it all on the line more than once -and was good at it too! Plenty of people, both men and women, have what it takes to be the sort of talented amazing heroes of days gone by.
So what if the reader does not have what it takes? They can at least aspire to greatness. Those heroes can be role models. They inspired me when I was a kid. Lord help us if people only have losers for protagonists.
-Raymond M. Coulombe