Common Heroic Narrative Tropes We Should Question

Our stories about heroes and people doing heroic things frequently feature tropes that are, quite frankly, pretty sketchy when you take a closer look at where they come from and what kind of assumptions they make. In this article, I'm going to explore some of these tropes and talk about them.

Table of Contents

Alienation is treated as normal and fine.

In many heroic narratives, the main character can't go and be a hero until or unless they've been cut off from their family. Luke Skywalker is an example of this; he can't start learning the ways of the Jedi until his family is killed, and then he's immediately forced to leave the only home he's ever known. Then he proceeds to lose two mentors, and he barely has time to make any real connection with his father before he, too, dies. Ultimately, Luke loses each and every parental figure he ever has while he's still a young adult.

One might argue that these deaths had dramatic value, or that they were narratively convenient, and both of those are technically true. However, this doesn't mean that there aren't other ways to create drama or move the plot forward. Perhaps Luke could have confronted his uncle, telling him that he can't just ignore the plight of the rebels. Obi-Wan Kenobi could have lived, and very little would have changed up until perhaps The Empire Strikes Back, which could have gone very similarly anyway by forcing Luke and Obi-Wan to separate from the rest of the rebels and hide on Dagobah. Yoda didn't have to die at all. Perhaps the only one it really made sense to kill was Darth Vader, and even then I wouldn't totally rule out some interesting way for him to stay alive.

Now, I'm not saying that all of these characters necessarily should have stayed alive, but rather that it was unnecessary to kill each and every parental figure Luke had. This kind of storytelling suggests that parental figures will only hold you back, and that if you want to do anything worthwhile you have to be rid of them. In reality, I don't think I've seen any young adults who didn't need a parental figure of some kind in their life. After all, they're still learning the ropes of adulthood, and it's immensely helpful to have someone who's been through it to give you advice.

While it is true that some adults will hold you back because they don't understand or respect your own wishes, the idea that you should just wait for them to die is ridiculous. Instead, young adults who find themselves in these situations need to work on developing self-respect and learn how to set boundaries. They may also need the help and support of friends and other family members.

In addition to losing every parental figure, Luke also loses his childhood friend from Tatooine, Biggs Darklighter. (Sidenote, it's kind of disturbing how little attention and gravity is given to the fact that Luke loses his childhood friend.) With Biggs dead, Luke ostensibly has no ties to the place he grew up in, and no ties to whatever community he may have grown up in. This isn't to say that Luke should necessarily want to go back and live on Tatooine, but the fact that Tatooine and everyone on it are treated as so discardable is a little disturbing when you think it through.

Princess Leia is likewise alienated, and even more violently. Her entire planet is destroyed, and loses her family, friends, and whatever community she had there. I'm not saying that this absolutely shouldn't have happened, but it is part of a larger pattern of ensuring that protagonists have no stable community, particularly among those they grew up with. I find it really egregious that this is only treated as mildly and temporarily upsetting, rather than traumatizing. The messaging here is that if your home and everyone you know are wiped out, you just get over it, move on, and focus on your work.

Now, this isn't to knock the importance of Luke and Leia finding each other, nor the importance of everyone else they met along the way. They obviously matter. But this doesn't mean their own alienation from their homes, communities, and any kind of parental figure was good. And this isn't to say that every protagonist needs to have these things all the time, but we should be more conscious of how this kind of situation is actually abnormal, and how it's emotionally and psychologically damaging.

Social alienation is also extremely common in the superhero genre. Look at how many superheroes lack parents, siblings, extended family, or even a real community. They rarely ever have substantial connections to the people they work to protect; rather, most of their relationships are with other superheroes, and those relationships are often incredibly fragile; writers frequently strain or sever them as an easy source of drama. And this isn't to say that interpersonal drama is bad, but the problem is that writers don't want to engage with the fact that people who ostensibly care about each other constantly finding themselves pitted against each other is neither normal or healthy; and is in fact extremely traumatizing over the long run.

One might argue that superhero media is supposed to be fantastic and therefore has no obligation to be realistic in this way. However, one can also point out superhero media is often meant to be a form of escapism, and that with all the conflict going on in the world right now this just hits too close to home for many of us. Many people became interested in superheroes in the first place because they offered us a sense of found family. Seeing these characters and their relationships ultimately fall apart is a painful reminder of what we've endured and lost, and in my opinion, it just reinforces the feeling that stable, loving, healthy connections are ultimately impossible.

Supernatural is another series that treats alienation as an inevitable part of herodom. In the Supernatural universe, being a hunter is depicted as inherently isolating, because you're always on the move trying to find the next monster to fight, and because the enemies you'll make along the way will come after your loved ones. The idea that ordinary people could learn to fight supernatural threats as communities is never considered. Instead, the narrative insists on keeping communities ignorant and powerless to protect themselves, and instead forces them to rely on extremely psychologically damaged people to come in and save them. Nobody wins.

I think we need to stop and critically examine our assumptions that alienation is somehow useful or inevitable. We should also question the necessity and ethics of institutions that facilitate alienation, whether they're secretive organizations, magical schools that don't allow children to tell their nonmagical relatives what goes on, or something else. Alienation is damaging, and acting like it's not or treating it as an unavoidable part of life if you want to do anything that really matters is really deeply messed up.

Soldierization is treated as normal and desirable.

Soldierization is essentially the process of conditioning and/or training someone to enact violence, particularly for the purpose of defending the state or upholding the status quo. This isn't an intrinsically bad thing, per se. For example, it's not fair to expect the oppressed citizens of an evil empire to just quietly take the abuse; of course they have the right to fight back against their oppressors.

The main problem is when the life of a soldier or fighter is treated as inherently desirable or ennobling; at least, so long as one is on the "good" side. It's a problem when it's treated as a way of life to maintain as long as possible, and when wanting to return to a civilian life is treated as cowardice or as shirking one's duty.

In reality, this simply isn't a sustainable lifestyle for most people. The type and level of activity fiction often portrays would be highly damaging in a fairly short amount of time. Many relatively young war veterans suffer chronic pain. And keeping in mind that fiction often focuses on hand-to-hand combat with characters taking punches and getting thrown around on the regular, many professional wrestlers work 300 days a year and sustain serious long-term injuries. Many retired professional football players suffer from chronic pain after playing for an average of just seven years.

And then there's the brain damage. Repeated blows to the head result in a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Many football players suffer from this, and even playing just one season of football is enough to cause permanent brain damage. Now obviously, neither football nor professional wrestling are actual combat, but I think they're useful for demonstrating the long-term effects of constant rough activity.

Unfortunately, a lot of people really do believe that sustaining injury somehow leads to better skill or resilience, but it does not. Instead, it leads to long-term injury that may permanently end someone's fighting career.

Also, combat is often mentally traumatizing; various studies have shown that somewhere around 15% of soldiers can get PTSD while serving for only a year. There's also evidence of people suffering PTSD in ancient and Medieval times, so we can't just say that this is only just a modern problem, either.

The idea that some people should be expected to fight until they suffer severely debilitating injuries or even die is really heartless. Why should somebody be expected to dedicate their entire abled life to something so self-destructive? It's one thing if that's what somebody really wants to do, but fiction really loves to punish characters who want something else. How often have we seen a character decide to retire and start a family, only for the villain to slaughter their spouse and possibly even their children? How often do we see characters die just before they can retire? This kind of thing also subtly implies that if you're not able and willing to fight, then you're as good as dead, and so you might as well just die. And that is really disturbing.

Superhero stories are rife with compulsory soldierization. There's often an assumption that if one has extraordinary powers or skills, then one is obligated to engage in combat. The idea that one might use their powers in a nonviolent way rarely comes up, and when it does, it's often framed as a less important or meaningful use of one's powers. The idea that a superhero could have an entire career based around nonviolent actions is rarely ever considered, let alone taken seriously. And yet, there is no reason why a superhero couldn't find more than enough work without ever having to throw a single punch. There's nothing wrong with search and rescue, disaster mitigation or cleanup, moving supplies to places, and all that.

I'm not saying that it's an inherently bad thing to have a superhero who really wants to fight, especially if the story can convincingly set up a genuine need for it. However, treating combat as the best or only valid option for a superhero is incredibly disturbing when you stop and think about it. The idea that someone absolutely has to engage in combat or else they're cowardly or otherwise morally deficient is, quite frankly, pretty fascist.

Some people might argue that a superhero story without combat would be boring, but I don't think that's true because you can add powers to any pre-existing genre or narrative, and there is no reason it would be boring. It would just be different, and would it most likely appeal to a different crowd from those who prefer a combat-heavy story. But it would absolutely appeal to someone.

The assumption that having superpowers obligates one to fight runs so deep that characters are sometimes assumed to have a duty to fight regardless of their actual skill and experience in combat. By extension, it's assumed that inexperienced superheroes have an obligation or right to build up their skill in actual emergencies, often with little to no oversight or guidance from anyone. It's one thing if a character with new powers sees a problem, can't reach anyone else for help, and decides jump in and do the best they can, but it's really messed up to basically treat actual people as training props. Plus, going into a hectic emergency situation with no real idea of what to do would be completely overwhelming, meaning that they'd realistically be very likely to just shut down, and might even end up traumatized.

There's also a very common assumption that the children of superheroes who engage in combat are obligated to engage in combat themselves at some point. This, again, is a very disturbing assumption because of its fascist overtones.

And speaking of children, many narratives frame putting children in combat as an acceptable practice. Now, it has to be acknowledged that many stories featuring teens and children in combat - for example, many magical girl shows - are essentially power fantasies for kids, and there's nothing wrong with that per se. But things gets disturbing when a narrative depicts adults recruiting or working with child soldiers, and frames that as a good or at least neutral thing. Captain America: Civil War is a good example of this, with Tony Stark recruiting the teenage Spider-Man to help him fight. The story criticizes Tony Stark for a lot of things, but not this one. Considering how hard Captain America: Civil War goes to frame Tony Stark as irresponsible and selfish in other ways, the silence here is pretty deafening.

The Pacific Rim franchise also does this. The supplementary material for the original movie reveals that Chuck Hansen was effectively raised in a military environment since his early adolescence, joined the Academy at sixteen years old, and has basically been fighting kaiju since that point. The original Pacific Rim movie is by no means a power fantasy for children, and Chuck is an adult when we see him, so there is literally no reason for this to exist aside from an assumption that soldierizing children is okay. Even more disturbing, there is no indication that the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps provides (let alone mandates) therapy for any of the rangers. So basically, it's apparently fine to soldierize children and give them no care or support for the psychological trauma they sustain.

The new series Pacific Rim: Into The Black doubles down on this by showing us that children as young as twelve are trained to pilot jaegers. And while Into The Black is arguably meant to be more of a power fantasy for children, that still doesn't make the existence of an in-universe adult-run system that soldierizes children any less questionable or uncomfortable.

I think it's really worth asking ourselves at which point a story stops being an innocent power fantasy for children, and at what point it basically turns into war propaganda and/or a suggestion that children can and should be expected to shoulder adult responsibilities with no problem.

Once again, there's nothing wrong with having characters who choose to fight, and not every story has to feature realistic consequences to long-term combat. However, when you frame combat as an absolute obligation, and when you ignore or demean alternative ways to help people, you create some extremely troubling implications. I think we also need to be more critical about stories that glorify combat in general. Are they made by people who have experienced war? Or are they made by people who have always have been civilians, who have possibly internalized war propaganda? Who's writing and producing films that romanticize combat? Shouldn't we at least be a little concerned about the fact that the Pentagon subsidizes films like Iron Man, Captain America, and Captain Marvel? If you like these movies, that's okay, but we need to think about whose interests these films are really pushing, and how comfortable we really feel pushing that ourselves.

Antagonists are based on hateful caricatures and propaganda.

Many narratives try to justify extreme hatred and violence against its antagonists by leaning into tropes that come right out of some chauvinist asshole's playbook. Let's go over these tropes.

First, evil hiveminds. Evil hiveminds echo the belief that the Other is unable to think for themselves and have no individuality or real agency. You see this sentiment all the time among right-leaning people who dismiss everyone left of center as being part of "the hivemind." Real and perceived communists have been perceived and depicted as being brainwashed puppets with no individuality. East Asians are frequently thought of as being unable to think for themselves due to their more collectivist cultures.

We've seen the hivemind trope pop up in various places, including the Borg in Star Trek, the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the Chitauri in The Avengers, and the kaiju and their creators in the Pacific Rim franchise. You might notice how hiveminds are pretty much always alien in nature, and how often they involve forcibly assimilating people and taking away their free will. The plot of Pacific Rim: Uprising hinges on a character having his free will overridden by the scary foreign hivemind aliens.

A lot of writers seem to overlook the possibility that there are lots of reasons someone might willingly join an alien faction. Maybe they were mislead by propaganda or a glittery sales pitch, and didn't realize what they were really getting into. Maybe the aliens gave them an excuse to act on their cruelest and most selfish impulses. Maybe the aliens were genuinely nice to them, or at least treated them better than everyone else did. Maybe the aliens are just genuinely okay people - maybe not perfect, but still maybe okay enough to get along with.

The second one is genetically evil species or races. These are entire groups of beings that we can never truly peacefully coexist with because they are biologically driven to be malicious and destructive. Examples of this include the Daleks in Doctor Who and orcs in D&D. All of this strongly resembles ideas put forth by proponents of race science, which is essentially a pseudoscientific excuse to believe that racism is fine.

There's also the trope where the world is secretly - or sometimes even overtly - controlled by a race or species that treats humans like cattle and feeds on them, or on something they produce. This one's blood libel all over again.

Another trope is the idea that some beings can have minds that are just too alien to ever comprehend. I've found that this is an idea that bigots often have about the Other, whether it's women, neurodivergent people, people from other cultures (especially if they're not white), people with other political ideologies (particularly those with progressive ideologies), and so on. Painting the other as alien is a tool of propaganda, as well; if people assume that the Other is too alien to understand and reason with, they'll never consider that maybe they deserve compassion or deserve to have their side of the story told. Because all aliens are essentially just foreigners and sometimes even immigrants, it functionally ends up making a statement on what foreigners and immigrants might be like. This isn't to say that all and any alien beings have to be sympathetic or benevolent, but rather that if you're going to have alien beings as antagonists, it would be better if they didn't reflect false and hateful beliefs about the Other.

There is no such thing as a person whose worldview and motives are just too alien to understand if you're actually willing to put in the effort to understand it. You may discover that their worldview is centered around a set of beliefs that give them a sense of superiority. You might find that they hold extremely reductive views about other people because it makes it easier for them to justify violence against them. Imperialism frequently involves the assumption that civilized, moral people look and live like you and your own people, which in turn creates the assumption that you're doing everyone else a favor by forcing your culture on them, or that you're justified in exploiting them and taking their land them because your culture deserves its wealth and riches more than they do.

Or you might discover that they're incredibly self-centered and just don't think it's a real problem if their actions and choices seriously hurt people. You might find that they base their entire moral compass on the legal system, or on how things make them feel personally. This kind of thinking is often found in people who commit small and petty acts of cruelty, and in people who frequently undermine the autonomy of others. There's nothing "alien" or "incomprehensible" about it. They're just small-minded and self-centered.

I think we need to consider how creating beings with incomprehensible motives robs us of the opportunity to explore and acknowledge the very real motives and thought processes behind cruel, self-centered behaviors. We also can't deny how "their minds and motives are beyond comprehension" has been used exotify and dehumanize foreigners and the neurodivergent. In general, if any villain trope seems to be based more in propaganda and chauvinism than in actual human behavior, or the behavior of any actual social species whatsoever, we should rethink it and consider something that captures a more authentic picture of why people make cruel and damaging choices.

Actual moral problem-solving skills are conspicuously absent from the narrative.

There are so many stories where it's blatantly obvious that the writer took absolutely no time to analyze and think about the moral and philosophical principles behind common rules and conventions. Nor did they ask themselves whether these rules and conventions actually serve those principles, and whether serving those principles actually benefits society and individuals. Instead, their comprehension runs closer to "good people do X, bad people do Y, and morally gray people do a little of both."

Consequentially, we end up with a lot of stories with an extremely dysfunctional sense of morality. We get narratives where a spell that forces people to follow your commands is considered utterly reprehensible, yet love potions are largely considered inconveniencing, but largely harmless. It's pretty strange that these two things are given such different moral values when both of them accomplish the exact same thing: forcing people to do things they wouldn't have otherwise consented to.

It can manifest through narratives where the protagonists never have to actually stop and consider someone else's point of view, let alone acknowledge and admit that their own viewpoints were based on faulty assumptions, personal bias, and bad information. You might see the protagonists framed as justified in dismissing other viewpoints out of hand, simply because they clash with their present goals, values, or lifestyle. Or you might get a story where those who in favor of hearing out other perspectives might be treated as weak, cowardly, or even traitorous. Either way, it probably won't acknowledge that it's completely possible to thoroughly consider another point of view, weigh out its moral and ethical value, and ultimately conclude that it's completely messed up. Instead, goodness may be predicated on keeping oneself "pure" from corrupting ideas and influences, rather than being able to critically examine new ideas and compare them to moral principles based in ideals of creating a just, equitable society for all.

In reality, emphasizing and focusing on purity does not lead to better morals or a better society; it never has. Instead, it creates an illusion of morality in which people think they're doing good simply because they're not engaging in the things considered bad. For example, legalistic approaches to Christianity are rife with this. Many people who have grown up in legalistic households can tell you all about how they were strictly forbidden from engaging with anything that might be impure, all the while their parents physically and emotionally abused them to make sure they stayed on the straight and narrow. Purity culture also tends to backfire spectacularly; for example, teen pregnancy rates are higher among those who received abstinence-only education, and teens who take purity pledges are more likely to end up pregnant.

It also manifests as narratives where the value and moral obligation of harm reduction is never acknowledged. The protagonists might rush to take action that puts others at risk of serious harm without stopping to ask themselves whether there there are any other options, and it's framed as a sign of their heroism or determination rather than selfishness, cowardice, or just plain laziness. Alternatively, it might be framed as the protagonists acting on their "dark impulses," rather than being impatient, short-sighted, or simply just apathetic. Their choices will be framed as uncomfortable to watch, yet undeniably efficient in producing results that we, the audience, are supposed to perceive as desirable.

This is the kind of storytelling that implicitly tells us we should side with assholes, because they're the ones who are most willing to cut through the crap and do whatever needs to be done. In reality, people like this tend to do sloppy work that causes more harm than good in the long run. These people aren't cutting through anything; what they're actually doing is just choosing to ignore the complex realities of the situation that make a brute force approach a terrible idea.

Fiction has no obligation to give its audience good or even likeable protagonists, but when the narrative frames recklessness as bravery, callousness as strength, and apathy as self-determination, the story privileges an extremely egocentric viewpoint - and possibly even one that's sympathetic to fascist ideologies.

Finally, this can also manifest through having characters who have learned and accepted that killing people is a heinous wrong be suddenly willing to kill others just because an authority figure told them to. In reality, this would give anyone with a functioning conscience serious moral conflict (some of them might completely freeze up or break down), and at least a few would be wanting to know just what the operative moral difference here is. Anyone who is immediately willing to kill just because an authority figure suddenly told them to do it has no internal sense of morality; rather, they simply place their trust in an external authority figure. This is a problem in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where children who were told that the killing curse was so repugnant that its use merited a life sentence in prison are suddenly willing to use it against enemies without any question or hesitance. This isn't about whether or not its use was just, but rather to showcase how these characters' moral compasses were completely and entirely directed by those they considered leaders.

In reality, coming to realize that those you consider authority figures were never as morally flawless as you thought they were is part of growing up and becoming an autonomous person. So is coming to realize that you can't place your faith in any single person or institution's moral opinions. Any person or institution who can't tolerate meaningful challenge or dissent is tyrannical and not worth supporting. As it is, failing to teach people genuine moral problem solving skills is a way tyrants stay in power. So when a story doesn't place any value on genuine moral problem solving skills, you have a pretty sketchy narrative.

There's a conspicuous lack of systemic comprehension.

Many stories just don't fully grasp or appreciate how many of society's problems are created by faulty systems, nor do they explore the idea of improving things on a systemic level. Instead, these narratives tend to treat systemic harm is just something that people simply have to accept and respond to with grace. Those who fail to thrive within the system might be framed as humorously unlucky, or even weak or unworthy. The issue of systemic discrimination may never be broached at all. If it does happen, it might be acknowledged briefly and never be brought up again. Or worse, those who speak out might be framed as annoying, naive, and/or petulant. They may even be framed as villains who basically just don't want to accept their rightful lot of living at the bottom of society's hierarchy, which is a very cold and heartless sentiment.

This kind of thing can manifest as narratives that depict supervillains primarily as a major cause of society's problems, rather than more of a symptom. Now of course, any supervillain who is actively causing harm to others ought to be stopped as soon as possible. However, we are majorly remiss to overlook how many supervillains are motivated by income inequality, poor healthcare access, systemic corruption, systemic oppression, etc. We don't really acknowledge that superheroes are just a stopgap solution to the problem of supervillains, and that the real fight is dismantling the systems that incentivize and enable supervillainy in the first place.

Another manifestation of this problem is when the narrative doesn't acknowledge how systems and institutions are staffed and run by real, individual people. They don't acknowledge things like how many people it takes to operate a major bureaucracy, or assemble a warship, or run a school. They might not grasp that even government agents have bosses to answer to, co-workers to play office politics with, and families to go home to. These stories are rather reminiscent the worldview of a young child who thinks their teachers live and sleep at school. If the narrative does acknowledge how many people it would take to staff and operate any of these things, it rarely conceptualizes them as true individuals with minds of their own; rather, it treats them as if they're mass of docile, submissive, mindless drones.

This kind of thing happens when villains enact horrific plans that could only be accomplished with the cooperation of hundreds, if not thousands of people, yet absolutely no one protests, tries to expose them, or simply just walks out in disgust. It happens when the story features organizations where everyone is 100% devoted and loyal to organization's goals or ideology, and no one ever has any doubts, questions, dissenting opinions, or is just there for the paycheck. It happens whenever you have a large organization that's supposed to be really effective at getting things done, but none of its members are clever enough to figure out how to steal or smuggle information out for any reason. Once again, these stories treat everyone as if they're mindless drones.

In reality, big evil plans are not carried out by mindless masses. Rather, they require a lot of willing and complicit individuals. These individuals aren't simply just people who bought into someone's lies and propaganda because they weren't smart enough to know better; rather, they bought into it because part of them was selfish and hateful enough to want it to be true. These people work together to silence dissenters, discredit whistleblowers, and keep those who might be conscientious enough to take action against them from learning the truth. The most powerful players will be systemically privileged people with money.

Another way this problem manifests is by acting as if fixing the world's problems is just a matter of defeating the right bad guy. For example, the narrative might essentially suggest that the best way to fix the problem of tyrannical leadership is to simply depose whoever's in charge and put someone better in their place. While deposing a tyrannical leader is admirable enough, the problem is how we consistently fail to acknowledge that this is just a stopgap measure. The real fix would be changing the system that allowed a tyrannical leader to come into power in the first place, because any system that allows one tyrant to come into power can and will allow many tyrants to come into power.

So I think that as writers, we need to make more of an effort to think systemically. I'm not saying we can't write superheros and supervillains who end up in big epic fights or something, but rather that it's disingenuous to depict supervillains whose motives stem from systemic issues without also acknowledging that they, like many other people, were let down and failed by broken systems that badly need dismantled and replaced. We also need to stop implicitly dehumanizing large numbers of people, and recognize that they have agency and will - even if most of them ultimately use it to enact evil. And finally, we need to stop acting like the best way to fix a tyrannical monarchy is to install a good monarch, instead of just abolishing the monarchy all together and replacing it with something sensible like, say, an elected council.

The narrative devalues the masses.

Many narratives don't give a lot of thought to the population at large, and end up painting a very dehumanizing picture of them. They fail to recognize and value the fact that people in general tend to be complex beings with dreams, opinions, and rich inner lives, and that most people usually have a meaningful amount of skill at something. Instead, the narrative conveys an underlying assumption that "the masses" are typically incompetent, simple-minded, lazy, and generally of low value.

Non-protagonist characters might consistently be shown as incredibly inept, clueless, and closed-minded. With few (if any) exceptions, only the protagonists will be competent, intelligent, and open-minded enough to face and handle whatever's going on. Non-protagonist characters might often be in utter denial that there's any kind of problem going on, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. Non-protagonist characters who actually do try to tackle anything might end up in trouble or dead, and their actions will likely be framed as recklessly arrogant or laughably naive.

Generally, the protagonists will be the only ones whose opinions really matter when it comes to finding solutions and solving problems. They'll rarely (if ever) have to defer to anyone else's expertise, let alone need to ask any regular, everyday people for their insight and opinions. Should anyone actually disagree with the protagonists' plans or methods, they'll usually turn out to be motivated by selfishness, arrogance, or just plain meanness. Any skepticism in their skill or expertise will be framed as unfounded and unfair, even if the protagonists haven't actually done anything to demonstrate their competence. Essentially, the story will act as if the protagonists are the most competent and knowledgeable people around, and that anyone who's smart and wants what's best for everyone will shut up and do as they say.

Ordinary people might be depicted as unable to solve their own problems. For example, a peasant village beset by a malefic dragon can't just band together and figure out a clever plan to deal with the problem themselves; they can only cower in fear until the brave knight comes to rescue them. Sometimes, even people who should be competent according to the setting's lore are shown to be unable to handle their own problems. A sci-fi story might assure us that everyone who goes to the fancy space academy is highly trained in useful skills, but also show entire crews of non-protagonist characters falling prey to space threats the focus crew always escapes unscathed. (It happens quite a few times in the Star Trek franchise.)

You might see the misfortune of non-protagonist characters treated as relatively unimportant compared to whether or not the protagonists get what they want. Hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people might be killed off in a calamity, with their deaths being treated as less shocking and heartbreaking than the relatively minor inconveniences the protagonists experience. If a protagonist is responsible for their deaths, we might be expected to see it as an unfortunate accident and feel sorry for them, rather than see it as a heartrending tragedy and sympathize with the victims and their families. The protagonists will at most treat it as an unfortunate accident to put behind them; they'll never be expected to apologize to friends and families of the victim, never experience guilt that makes them want to ease the pain of the bereaved, and never experience any real moral trauma over it.

It can also manifest as the attitude that humanity in general isn't enlightened or advanced enough to handle some sort of knowledge, technology, or other form of power that the protagonists are presumed worthy of having. It's one thing to posit that you couldn't trust a white American senator with great power; it's another thing to suggest that marginalized minorities don't deserve to have it. (Lots of human societies didn't develop brutal imperialism, so assuming that this is just some kind of inherent trait in our species is pretty irrational.)

This kind of thing can even occur in narratives where the protagonists are ostensibly supposed to care about the masses. For example, it can happen in a superhero story when the question of whether or not the present institution of superheroes ought to be preserved never truly asks whether the present institution of superheroes is actually the best possible system. Questions like how much people are genuinely benefiting from the system, how much their rights and boundaries are being violated by those who work within this system, and whether or not there might be any better alternatives are never truly addressed. Instead, the story will ultimately assure us that the present system is the best and only way to keep the world safe. Without the protection of these godlike paternal figures, the rest of us would be left at the mercy of supervillains. In other words, it's a world where only the skills of an elite few really matter - or rather, are allowed to matter. The kid scientist on the superhero team might be able to build incredibly powerful tools from scraps, but for some reason the blue collar engineer with years of experience can't.

This kind of paternalistic storytelling is also highly individualistic in nature, and strongly echoes the great man theory. The great man theory posits that history is guided and driven by a few extraordinary individuals, who possess inherent qualities that others lack. Great man theory fails to account for things like privilege, accessibility of information, etc., and overlooks how ordinary people drive and catalyze change all the time. Great man theory is the kind of conclusion one might come to if they read history from an elitist point of view - which is how history has often been taught.

A lot of horrible behaviors are treated as heroic and "cool."

Many narratives romanticize and lionize behaviors that are just plain awful.

Now, I have to emphasize that this is not the same thing as writing flawed characters and just letting them be flawed, which is a form of storytelling I love dearly. I love stories like Chicago and Into The Woods, and I even enjoyed Lost for this reason. These stories gave me the space to sympathize with these characters if I wanted to, but didn't suggest that there was a moral imperative for me to do so, or that I was being "too sensitive" or selfish if I chose not to.

The kind of narratives I'm talking about are not that, for the simple reason that they don't grant the audience that freedom. Instead, the framing makes it very clear that you're supposed to take the character's side, or at the very least consider their actions amusing or harmless.

This often happens in the form of boundary violations, which are frequently treated as a normal, even "cool" thing to do. I think boundary violations being framed in a positive or harmless light tends to dovetail with the aforementioned "cutting through the crap" mentality, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

For example, The Avengers has Agent Coulson bypass Tony Stark's security so he can physically enter his penthouse. The scene's framing suggests that because Tony's presence is desired by people who are up to much more important things than he is, he has no right to personal boundaries. And to be fair, Loki's arrival on Earth and his theft of the Tesseract is a pretty big emergency. Yet, the scene never considers whether there might be any alternatives - such as having Agent Coulson send a text message to Pepper Potts so she could tell Tony that he needs to pay attention. Now, I'm not saying that this would be the optimal fix for this scene, but rather I'm bringing it up to draw attention to how strange and uncomfortable that the scene immediately assumes that breaking into Tony Stark's home is the best and only way to get his attention, and presents this as the actions of a sympathetic and ultimately heroic character.

BBC's Sherlock frames boundary violations as a joke; one example being an incident where the eponymous detective cracks John Watson's password so he can look at, ahem, adult pictures on his computer. This and a lot of other inappropriate behavior is framed as largely acceptable, if not somehow funny or quirky, simply because Sherlock is this awesome genius detective. And while the show does usually acknowledge that Sherlock is a difficult person to get along with, it still largely acts as if it's everyone else's responsibility to just put up with him, rather than his responsibility to be less awful. Now, to the show's credit Sherlock does start to act better in season three, although I think it was less planned character growth and more that Moffat finally just realized that Sherlock's behavior was just too selfish and cruel to be funny, given that a similar shift happened in how he wrote the Doctor in Doctor Who around the same time.

"Heroic" characters are frequently shown violating other people's boundaries by presuming to know what's best for them. Pacific Rim contains an example of this, with Raleigh Becket's efforts to make Mako Mori his co-ranger. Despite Mako's attempts to set boundaries and tell Raleigh to mind his own business, Raleigh, like so many other annoying and pushy white men, decides that they have a special connection and convinces himself that his interests are really Mako's interests. Thus he pushes her toward becoming his co-ranger despite her clear efforts to set boundaries. And I'm not discounting the fact that Mako really did want to become a ranger but didn't really have the nerve to talk to Stacker Pentecost about it. However, this could have been realized without necessitating Raleigh's inappropriate behavior. Heck, a lot of this could have been solved by having Raleigh have actual respectful conversations with Mako rather than mostly just trying to mansplain the workings of the pons system - which Mako, a jaeger engineer, would almost certainly know about already.

Agents of SHIELD has a very similar problem. In the first episode, Agent Coulson pressures Agent Melinda May to join his team, despite her making it clear that she'd rather keep her desk job. He also strongarms Skye, a hacktivist trying to uncover what SHIELD covers up, into joining him, and this is framed as a good thing. If you ask me, the fact that Skye comes to see her, well, kidnapper as a benevolent father figure is honestly really creepy - especially in light of what we now know about Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and directed the episode.

The thing is, boundary violations aren't cool or heroic. Now, I'm not saying that there are never any situations where disregarding someone's boundaries is warranted. For example, if a serial killer detailed where they hid the bodies of their victims in their private diary, then by all means somebody should take a look inside to find out where they are. But outside of drastic scenarios where no meaningful alternatives exist, it's simply cruel and abusive. Boundary violations make people feel unsafe. If they internalize the idea that they don't deserve boundaries, or that trying to enforce boundaries is pointless, they become open to letting just about anyone walk all over them and abuse them. This is no way for anyone to live.

As an audience engaging with these stories, it can be very easy to come away with the impression that boundary violations are largely harmless and fine because they were necessary to move the narrative forward and didn't have any lasting harm on anyone. But what we need to do is ask ourselves why so many narratives are constructed to make boundary violations seem necessary in the first place, and why there is so little recognition of the fact that these behaviors are inappropriate and harmful. We should also ask ourselves whether our narratives might be repeating this mentality, and whether we might be overlooking better alternatives to storytelling.

Cruelty for its own sake is often painted in a cool or heroic light. In the first episode of Firefly, Captain Mal Reynolds makes a joke about locking female crewmember Kaylee Frye in the hold because she talks too much. Rather than react with horror or hurt, Kaylee seems to find this funny and endearing and even comments, "I love my captain!" The idea that women talk too much is of course a misogynist stereotype, and joking about punishing a woman with solitary confinement because she happens to get on your nerves doesn't exactly speak to having good attitudes about women and shows a very toxic attitude toward what leadership entitles one to - namely, a right to verbally abuse one's subordinates. Throughout the show, Mal continues to be sadistic and cruel to his crew, and while the story occasionally depicts him as unfair (such as when Kaylee wanted the dress in Shindig), it doesn't acknowledge that his overall conduct is toxic and would have a demoralizing effect on those around him. If anything, the show acts as if being around Mal Reynolds is largely a joy and privilege because he and his ship offer freedom. The narrative is entirely oblivious to the irony in finding "freedom" in serving a sadistic abuser.

As with boundary violations, many narratives frame wanton cruelty as harmless, fun, and sometimes even deserved. And I've found that a lot of people don't really question it, and continue on repeating it in characters who are supposed to be sympathetic and likeable.

When we write our protagonists, it's a good idea to ask ourselves if they're really everything we'd like to think they are. Do they really stand for justice and freedom, or do they intimidate and bully people to impose their own sense of order? Do they really stand up for others, or do they speak up over them? Do they genuinely respect other people on the whole, or do they mainly only show respect to those who look and act "respectable" or "professional," and/or those who never tell them no? It's something to think about.

In closing.

In a nutshell, many heroic narratives lionize behaviors and attitudes that are harmful both to oneself and to others. While I'm not saying that every story needs to be 100% morally "pure," we should still be mindful how many of these tropes come awfully close to (if not outright mirror) fascist propaganda. Many narratives end up batting for the cult of action for action's sake and the cult of heroism as described by Umberto Eco.

We should also be mindful of villain tropes that use the same rhetoric used to demonize and oppress people, and take care not to repeat it. There are plenty of ways to depict evil people and groups without resorting to hateful propaganda.

We should also question this assumption that pushy, boundary-violating behaviors equate to heroism, or are excusable because the character doing them is a designated hero. I'm not saying that every protagonist has to be morally pure, but we do need to be more mindful of what kind of behavior we're framing as "heroic."

We should rethink our assumptions that being a hero means being alienated and apart from society, rather than being a participating member. We shouldn't assume that the most common ways of depicting a heroic narrative are the best or only ways of doing it.

We can think outside the box to make our stories reflect our improved understanding of the world and take things in new, unexplored directions.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you liked it please share it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon. Have a great day and thanks for reading!

Also, you might be interested in:

Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It
On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast
Writing Fantastic People & Creatures Without Unfortunate Implications

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