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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Heroes doing the hero thing

   
Author Topic: Heroes doing the hero thing
babooher
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So, I'm procrastinating putting the final touches to the beast I've been laboring on. The last time I was lucky enough to have some critiques, several people mentioned that my protagonist was going to lose the reader's respect because he wasn't being too hero-ish. I'm setting something of an anti-hero up anyway. In fact, some might say there are terrorist overtones to what the protagonist is doing. I'm at junction now where the protagonist knows his enemies are going to die. However, he might be able to save one from a horrible death, but only at considerable risk to himself and in the end, the little nemesis is going to die anyway.

So I'm sitting here debating if my protagonist should do the smart thing or the heroic thing. If he does the heroic thing he can be betrayed just a little more so that the inevitable death of the nemesis doesn't seem too bad, but it would still be stupid. It would kinda be like saving Boba Fett from the Sarlacc pit just to put him on Jabba's sail barge. (I hope I didn't geek out too badly there.) In any event, my heart kinda wants the nicer but stupider attempt to "rescue" the nemesis but my brain is screaming that I shouldn't. The protagonist has come to town for revenge, so the nemesis has to go, but he doesn't have to go so cruelly. Attempting to, uh, ease the pain and allow for the nemesis to really show what kind of a jerk he is might be nice so that readers can root more for the avenging protagonist. But how much can you root for someone who does something so stupid?

How heroic should heroes be?

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LDWriter2
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As to heros doing the hero thing with their enemies. I think it depends. Did he set up the bad, horrible thing that is about to happen to his opposite? Did the bad guy set it up for someone else?

Usually, in the various books I've read, the hero will do something heroic to keep even a bad guy from dying horribly even when Hero is at least partly anti-hero. Sometimes the bad guy doesn't help and ends up dead that way anyway. Captain Kirk and a Klingon Captain ended a fight that way in one movie. Kirk tried to save the Klingon from falling to his death in a lava river but the guy tried to kill Kirk anyway so Kirk gave up and let him fall... actually he helped the guy fall.

I believe Garrett of Glen Cook and Dresden of Jim Butcher have both risked their lives to save a bad guy from a very messy death. Both are some what anti-hero. Garrett has even saved the life of the head gangster of his city.

As to a hero doing something at least part way terroristic. Again it depends. What it is, why he is doing it, and how many innocents might get killed? I see nothing wrong with a good guy bringing down a whole building or a town, to stop a mad scheme. Of course if the building is full or even half filled with people that would be different. Different yet if the building was full of bad guys. And how does he feel about it?

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babooher
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I've minimized civilian deaths, but I've realized for some time that technically I'm creating a terrorist. Or a rebel. Depends on your point of view, I guess.

I know if or when I ask for crits, that I'll be asking about this. It's something where I'm torn and I don't trust my own judgment enough. The last time I was just surprised by the concern readers had when I let the protagonist taunt an attacker so that the attacker would get upset and do something foolish. It was one of those things where I never predicted that kind of a response. The first time I read the comment, I kinda shrugged it off, but then I saw it several more times. I wouldn't say I'm writing by suggestion, but I've kinda kept that comment nearby as I've been working. I want readers to want these nemeses punished, but their main acts of jerkness happened a decade or so before the story starts. So I feel like I am trying to create situations to show the nemeses' evil and to highlight the protagonist's goodness even though the protagonist could easily be seen as a terrorist if you put the right spin on it.

IN a more general perspective, I sometimes find myself screaming at characters for doing something stupidly heroic. Maybe because I'm a coward or cynic or something, but I think a lot of stuff heroes do is stupid.

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Natej11
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I'll admit, I've written quite a few stories featuring anti-heroes or morally gray characters. These days there's a lot of hostility to the "goody two-shoes" characters who are nice to people who are mean to them and who do what's right even when being wronged. I've come to realize, however, that it's because these characters are poorly represented, likely reflecting the author's own hostility to such goodness.

I was watching a show called "Downton Abbey" recently that featured a Mr. Bates who was what anybody would call a hero. Quiet, reserved, kind to everyone, and took the high ground even when others treated him horribly.

A bit of background on him is he's taken on by an Earl who he served under during a war. He was injured in the fighting, leaving him crippled and less able to fulfill his duties as valet. Another servant, coveting the valet spot, conspires to have him sacked by various means, along with his companion in plotting, the lady's maid.

Essentially, the first tactic they attempt, aside from complaining to the butler and first maid, is for the lady's maid to kick his crippled leg while they're assembled greeting an influential nobleman, causing him to fall noisily and make a scene.

Now, after that I was hoping Bates would hunt the woman down afterwards and give her a sound beating. That's what "heroes" do these days, isn't it? Or at least find some more subtle way of getting back at her. But he takes it completely in stride, not only acting as if it never happened, but even treating the woman kindly and politely from there on out.

There are various instances where he's framed for crimes, has his good name sullied, and is even openly accused, but he bears it all with true nobility. He is, I think, the first really heroic character I've seen on television in a long while.

Now if his character had been poorly handled by the writers, actor, or director, the way he handled things could've come off as weak and pathetic. Instead we see a strong character we not only love, but are happy to root for every step of the way.

Heroes have changed a lot over the past few decades. At one point heroes were people whose actions made them worth rooting for, whose dilemmas came not only from finding out how to defeat the enemy, but in doing so in a way that didn't compromise their own virtue and integrity.

These days "hero" almost seems to mean "POV character" or "person we're rooting for most". You see writers straining the limits of their character's decency to see how far they can go before their readers come to despise the characters, until it seems like the story HAS no good guys.

It may make for a more realistic story if one is cynical about the world, but it can get awfully depressing.

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MartinV
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The bit where the hero tries to save the villain and then the villain tries that one last trick of trying to kill the hero... I don't like that one bit. I would rather see personality in a hero than a stupid (and dangerous) respect to all life. If both the hero and the villain are committed to their own cause, then trying to spare either one is nothing short of shameful. It's the reason why generals of old chose to commit suicide rather than face humiliation at the hands of their enemies.

A hero or a villain should be in it all the way. Living beyond their cause is what makes them weak. Give your villain a chance to die for his cause as well and thus make him memorable, glorious even.

Personally, I don't like the terms 'hero' and 'villain'. I like my heroes to be such that you don't always agree with them. The heroine of my current project continually walks the fine line between good and evil. My goal is to make the reader connect to her and yet to question her actions.

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Robert Nowall
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I think being a "hero" isn't necessarily in the eyes of the "hero," but in the perceptions of, first, the characters around him, and then the reader. A "hero" might not think of himself as acting "heroic" at all...or, if he does think of himself in that way, might be seen as a "villain" by the reader and the characters.

I suppose it's inevitable that someone bring up the "heroic" actions of Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings in this context. He brought the ring to Mount Doom---suffering all the way---and then deliberately chose not to throw it in, it's actual "going in" practically an accident. It's clear from the remaining story that Frodo himself didn't consider himself a "hero," though he was proclaimed and honored as such...in the end, leaving Middle-Earth in search of healing.

I gather, from Tolkien's comments, he got several letters and such saying Frodo should have been punished for his failure---the breaking of prisoners under torture and brainwashing being one of the burning issues of the day when the book came out.

Was Frodo a hero? Are guys who give their all and then fail heroes? Kind of...

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enigmaticuser
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When it comes to heroeing, I think we make the same mistake we make in real life. Is a basketball star really a hero? Consider how many celebrities are worshipped and yet their life is a couple of high-note roles/performances followed by a drug induced/ruined marriage circling of the drain?

It seems we've mistaken heroics for spectacle. This guy makes a big scene so he's a hero?

I say a hero is the one fighting for good. If there is no good then it is merely a man or woman fighting for selfishness. I watched a terrible movie with fifty-cent in it. Where the hero was a thief whose accomplice 'surprisingly' kills someone during the heist and then turns around and kills one accomplice and tries to kill the other.

The story is then about the survivors struggle for vengence competing with his struggle for redemption. In the end he gets the stolen money back and gives it for like a widows fund to the good wife (the only seemingly wholesome through and through character) for her accomplice husband, and we're left going "aaaahhh."

But I was thinking, wait a second. WHAT ABOUT THE GUY KILLED IN THE HEIST? You know!? The innocent guy doing his job? How about him?

My point is if the hero isn't making a path (however wandering and faultering) for good, then why the hell are we rooting for him?

I think the problem with the "goody-goody" aspect is that we don't SEE THE STRUGGLE. If the hero never questions what is right, and never struggles to do it, then he is simply a robot. Nothing heroic. It is THAT struggle that gives meaning to the outward struggle. I didn't care who lived or died in the movie and I wasn't rooting for anyone (except for maybe the movie to kill them all).

I can root for a hero who struggles and fails so long as he's struggling to do good and I can see why he fell, have sympathy for the fight, but right has to be the aim.

Which is why I do take issue with true gray characters. I think a gray character is just a villain. Isn't Lex Luther pursuing a type of good, but by any means? Isn't Vader pursuing a good order and stability where there are no slaves or sandpeople? Wasn't Kang in Star Trek VI trying to protect the glory and heritage and identity of the Klingon Empire?

What seperates a hero from a villain is the pursuit of right, not simply the devotion to an agenda or spectacular feats.

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extrinsic
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Hero and antihero, villain, nemesis, and adversary, for external complications these are the characters who clash. Readers want a program to tell them apart. Signaling one or another's roles are important early in a narrative so that readers know who to emotionally attach to, care about what happens to, who to cheer for. who to cry for, who to laugh with, who to hate.

An unsympathetic or empathy-less hero might as well be a villain. Worse, readers are emotionally indifferent toward emotionally flat and static characters. Worst, are central characters posed in protagonist roles readers revile or loathe. At least the latter are emotional responses.

Rounded heroes, like rounded characters, have proportionate measures of good and bad personality traits and behaviors. Heroes are human or human-like with human needs and values and mores and struggles and failings and frailties. Heroes overcome their failings as much as they overcome their nemeses or villains or adversaries and their complications. That's what makes a hero a hero. They are made heroes by their circumstances. That's where the larger-than-life character development paradigm comes into play, a meek and modest, sympathetic person is forced out of an everyday routine to act for the benefit of others.

One of six essential opening attributes of a narrative is creating a sympathetic protagonist, or at least empathy-worthy. That's artfully done by showing a protagonist's self-sacrificing service to a greater good than the self. Also, by posing more than personal stakes, by posing public stakes that matter to readers. Again, larger-than-life actions with consequences and complications.

Temporal rather than spiritual, good and evil can be seen for writing purposes as the degrees to which an individual serves the public good: self-serving to some degree, self-sacrificing to some degree, at others' expense to some degree, for one's own benefit to some degree. The measures of which are in infinitely varying proportions that change over the course of any given narrative and from narrative to narrative.

If there's a shortcoming I see most often in many struggling narratives, it's that last one: private and public service, stakes, and complications. That's what larger than life is about, about more than the self so that readers connect, care, and are emotionally stimulated, and satisfied by an ending's payoff.

[ February 20, 2012, 10:12 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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genevive42
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What is it in the nature of the character to do? This is where I would entirely let the character decide what's to happen because that's the only way his actions will ring true. If you don't like the answer he gives you, then put him in a different situation, but don't have him act contrary to his own motivations.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I'm with enigmaticuser on heroes. I heard once that one difference between heroes and villains is that heroes are always second-guessing themselves (am I doing the right/best thing?), but villains don't care--they do whatever they want to do.

And in light of that, I also agree with what genevive42 said. If you are going to have your character act contrary to the motivations your readers know about, then you're going to have to come up with other motivations for him to be acting contrary--and you should probably plant some hints about them earlier in the story.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Of course, you just might want to try writing it up both ways, and then see which way you like the best. No writing is ever wasted--consider it an exercise.
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LDWriter2
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quote:
The last time I was just surprised by the concern readers had when I let the protagonist taunt an attacker so that the attacker would get upset and do something foolish.
That would surprise me too. That is a time honored method for the good guy to beat the bad guy especially if the bad guy is stronger.
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LDWriter2
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Martin
quote:
Give your villain a chance to die for his cause as well and thus make him memorable, glorious even.
I have read stories where the villain did die for his cause. Some are just evil, selfish people but others have been detected to a belief system or country or some such and were willing to give it all for the cause. In some cases the villain could have been a good guy under other circumstances, but in this case he is trying to stop the good guy- because of a misunderstanding, or his boss is the real evil guy, or the good guy needs to do something illegal and may even be a rogue himself.


And I think when talking about literature the hero of a story may not be a heroic figure but they are still considered the hero or main character of the story.

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rcmann
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Terry Pratchett had a character in one of his books warn the MC to pray he never had to face a good man. A bad man would draw things out, because he liked to scare you and make you hurt. If a good man was going to kill you, it was only because he believed it had to be done. He wouldn't take any pleasure in it, he would just do it and get it over with. No taunting, no lingering over it, just a blinding strike.

I figure a hero/heroine is somebody who does what they believe to be the right thing, no matter how much it hurts, because if they didn't do the right thing they wouldn't be able to live with themselves. Like Huck Finn deciding to help Jim escape, even when it went contrary to all of his cultural conditioning.

On the other hand, what the hero/heroine might consider the right thing to do may, or may not, agree with the reader's digestion.

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babooher
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"Of course, you just might want to try writing it up both ways, and then see which way you like the best. No writing is ever wasted--consider it an exercise."

That's what I figured, too. I wrote it out the way my heart wanted and then I've been tweaking to make my brain like it.

As for what the character wants...I think he wants revenge, but he also doesn't want to be evil. If he's evil, the original attack on his family would be justified and the revenge wouldn't be.

rcmann, if you know the Terry Pratchett book that comes from, let me know. I like the sound of it.

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rcmann
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It's one of the Discworld books, with Commander Vimes as the hero. I'm trying to remember it. One of the earlier ones. I remember the secret heir to the throne of Ankh stabbed the bad guy and ended up driving his sword into a stone pillar.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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babooher, if I may recommend a series of books about a character who is struggling mightily not to be a bad guy:

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR MONSTER, and I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU by Dan Wells. Powerful stuff.

Right now it's a "trilogy," but the author has assured me that he intends to continue writing about this character, so I have hope.

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babooher
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Thanks KDW!
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Josephine Kait
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quote:
As for what the character wants...I think he wants revenge, but he also doesn't want to be evil. If he's evil, the original attack on his family would be justified and the revenge wouldn't be.
This is your MCs main dilemma in this situation. Let us see him struggle with it. Then it almost doesn’t matter which side the coin lands on. If he is going to kill the guy (or let him die) then have the images of the dead flash before him and overcome all reason. If he is not, then let the voices of the dead persuade him to be better than his instincts. If you let us feel what he is feeling, we will understand either one.

Don’t forget that there will be a heavy price to be paid regardless of the outcome. He will either feel guilt for “failing” to avenge his family when he had the chance, or face the damage done to the human soul that is the natural result of taking a life, even one that needs taking.

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MattLeo
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quote:
As for what the character wants...I think he wants revenge, but he also doesn't want to be evil. If he's evil, the original attack on his family would be justified and the revenge wouldn't be.
I think convincing *evil* characters don't want to be evil either. The essential, characteristic motive of evil isn't *hatred*; it's *entitlement*. The evil person believes he's entitled to act in a way that ignores the welfare and rights of others. That's what turns what might just be a personal failing into actual evil: I hate you, therefore I'm entitled to kill you. This sense of entitlement doesn't have to stem from base motives like personal hatred; it could also be the result of an idealistic goal, like creating a Utopia. Killing you is disagreeable to me, but it Progress demands it.

Also, about taking critique: always *listen* to it, but don't think you have to *follow* it. Critics are like the grammar checker in Word; they're quite good at pointing out places where you aren't getting your point across, but not so good at telling you how to fix it.

An evil character is usually a hero in his own eyes -- I'd even argue that casting yourself as a hero is morally perilous.

Now as for cynical vs. "heroic", it's a question of how your story has been worked up to the moment of truth. It's not very likely for the two endings to be equally plausible, unless you've carefully contrived that.

Sometimes I read a story that has an unhappy ending hammered on to it, and I want to throw it down in disgust. Not because the ending is *unhappy*, but because it doesn't fit the story. It's like the author got to the end, realized it was going to be happy, then changed it so his literary friends wouldn't make fun of him. I wouldn't mind if he went back and re-worked the story so the ending fit.

So end your story in a way that is true to how it develops. If you don't like the ending that fits, go back and make the story lead to a different place.

I don't think it is true that a cynical ending is necessarily a *realistic* one. I think it's just more credible to cynical people. Cynicism and naivete are two sides of the same coin -- intellectual laziness. The naive person believes things uncritically, the cynic *disbelieves* them uncritically. An unbiased look at the world would reveal amazing instances of both heroism *and* villainy, and everything in between.

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MattLeo
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And one more point about this:

quote:
The last time I was lucky enough to have some critiques, several people mentioned that my protagonist was going to lose the reader's respect because he wasn't being too hero-ish.
Always listen to criticism, but never take it at face value. Critics are like the grammar checker in Word; they're good at pointing out places where you haven't got your point across, but not very good at telling you how to fix it. Given that very heroic heroes are quite common in literature, I'd say your problem isn't that your hero is unbelievably heroic, but that he's unbelievable period.
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babooher
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First off, MattLeo, you're making me like my story more and more.

"Given that very heroic heroes are quite common in literature, I'd say your problem isn't that your hero is unbelievably heroic, but that he's unbelievable period." I get what you're saying here, and I think that I was worried about that happening, but I think I averted that. I had a chance to build some possible pathos, but at the possible expense of credibility. Sometimes, you have to make that call.

I love The Walking Dead, and I've noticed they play with this idea. You have Rick, the leader, being stupidly heroic, and Shane, the number 2, calling him on it all the time. It is a major source of conflict in the story. When handled well, it works wonderfully; when it doesn't work, I just figure at least the zombies are cool.

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MattLeo
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Well, babooher if you want to *satirize* the concept of heroism, I'm all for that. If you want to use it straight, I'm for that too. But whatever you do, you don't want to be wishy-washy. I think the question shouldn't be "how to I patch this story up to be acceptable to cynics?" It should be, "how do I put this one over on the cynics?"

One technique I mentioned in an earlier post "The Birds and the B's" is to have a B story. A B story is a lesser conflict that parallels the main story and reinforces the theme and characterization. This is a good place to make the actions of your hero credible.

In the movie *Key Largo* the main conflict is that the gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) is making a delivery of contraband to Florida but is stranded by a hurricane. He takes over a hotel and terrorizes the people in it, including war-hero Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart). McCloud, sick of killing, repeatedly refuses to act. Rocco needs McCloud to pilot him back to Cuba; McCloud doesn't want to, but through the first two acts whenever Rocco confronts McCloud, McCloud backs down with a cynical (note carefully!) excuse.

This is where the B story comes in. Rocco has a moll, Gaye, who used to be a nightclub singer. After a few years with Rocco she's an alcoholic wreck, and Rocco only keeps her around to amuse himself by tormenting her. He promises Gaye he'll let her have a drink if she sings. She gives an excruciating performance(which won an Oscar for Claire Trevor), but Rocco reneges on his promise and refuses to give her the drink. The more she begs for it, the funnier the sadistic Rocco thinks it is to refuse her. Finally McCloud steps in and gives her the drink. The moment is tense; we're waiting for Rocco to shoot McCloud, but Rocco backs down, pretending it was all a joke.

This is masterpiece level storytelling. We've heard McCloud is a hero, but until this point he's steadfastly refused to act like one. We believe in his sudden change in behavior because Gaye is so piteous, and Rocco so sadistic, that we really, really want someone to stand up and give Gaye her drink. McCloud's change of heart is instantly credible, even though our heads should tell us it'd be stupid to risk your life to give a drunk another drink.

This isn't magic. It's *technique*. Strictly speaking the whole Gaye incident is a digression from the main plot. There'd be no logical problem with the writers omitting this scene and simply putting Rocco and McCloud on the boat for their showdown, but while it's not logically necessary, this scene transforms what would have been an OK story into a great one.

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LDWriter2
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Something hit me today. No, it wasn't a one of the parts I work with or even a book blown by the wind.

Speaking of heros who do terrorist type of events. There is "Kop" Sorry I forget the writer's name. A very dark world and the MC and friend are crooked policemen. But they started out trying to reform the system. They eventually gave up and became part of it but they still helped people as much as they could. I won't say more except that he does things that a lot of people wouldn't think heros should do. There's a sequel titled "Ex-Kop" .

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ForlornShadow
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Protagonist doesn't mean hero, it means the main character in the story that the conflict is happening to. Hero is an archetype, protagonist is not. Your character doesn't have to be a hero but he doesn't have to be a villain either. I actually think its interesting to have something happen to an ordinary guy who has all these wants and feelings and needs to express them in anyway he can. As for trying to save an enemy, it is the good thing to do. But can your character look past the wrongs that this person has done? If the answer is yes, then try and save him even if its futile, if unsure then save him as well. If no then you can either let your character sit back and watch or debate about it for so long its too late by the time he's decided, or just have your character walk away and not even see it.
The main thing you should worry about is: does the decision match my character's personality? Stay true to the character and it will turn out.

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