Writing Excuses 13.29: Iconic Heroes
Key points: Iconic heroes, unlike epic heroes who have a character arc with a beginning, middle, and an end, are always kind of the same guy. Iconic characters are linchpins of familiarity. They are characters in other people’s stories because they don’t change. They show up, the world changes around, and they ride off into the sunset. Why are they interesting? Can they have an internal conflict? In fact, most iconic heroes are built around a internal conflict. The trick to making them interesting is to introduce them into different situations. Try-fail cycles for a character with a character arc involves growth and learning, but try-fail cycles for an iconic hero involves getting more information, reveals.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 29.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Iconic Heroes.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Valynne] I’m Valynne.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Conan.
[Brandon] All right. Conan…
[Dan] By Crom!
[Dan] I’m the one with a pewter goblet.
[Brandon] Dan is literally drinking out of a pewter goblet right now. Tell us what we mean by this. What is an iconic hero?
[Howard] Okay. I got the term for my good friend Jim Zub, one of the hardest working writers in comics, who described iconic heroes as different from epic heroes to differentiate between characters like Conan the Barbarian and Aragorn. Aragorn has a character arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Conan, while technically has a biography with a beginning, a middle, and an end, you look at Conan stories and he’s kind of always the same guy. There are a lot of characters who fall into this category.
[Dan] One of the reasons that iconic is such a great word to describe this kind of character is that they often show up in long series. You’ve got Conan, you’ve got James Bond, you’ve got Nancy Drew. They are the same person in every book and in every story, and there’s lots of stories about them.
[Brandon] Now, we want to mention that a lot of the iconic heroes we will be talking about…
[Brandon] Coincide with an era in storytelling that was a pretty sexist and racist era. If you read a Conan book now, you’ll be like, “Whoa!” James Bond is another example.
[Howard] Conan and James Bond and…
[Dan] I don’t think that that is part of iconic heroes, I think it just… They were popular at the same time that racism was super popular.
[Brandon] So we are not going to address that other than this mention in this podcast, but next month we’ll be digging into how to deal with weighty topics and things like that and… With your characters, so we’re going to shove that off until then.
[Brandon] Right now we’re just going to talk about why would you write a character like this? We’ve talked about how great character arcs are, and how awesome they are, and why we like them. Why have a character with no arc?
[Howard] For me, the iconic character serves as a linchpin of familiarity for the reader. They know that they are stepping into a… They know they’re stepping into a Hercule Poirot mystery, okay? Hercule Poirot is not going to die in this book. He’s also not going to change significantly in this book. But anybody else…
[Howard] Could fall victim to the murderer. That’s… For readers… I find… I mean, for me, I can’t speak for all readers, that’s really comforting. I can hang on to this one thing. Sure, go ahead and develop and threaten and whatever all of these other people. Just give me something to hang onto that is constant and familiar through the story.
[Dan] It lets the reader know exactly what they’re getting. I mentioned Nancy Drew earlier. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys had very similar stories, but they tackled their problems in a different way. If you wanted to know what kind of story you were reading, Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown or Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, you’re still getting a mystery, but you’re getting a very specific flavor of it that you… presumably you love, because that’s why you’re reading it.
[Valynne] One of the things that I see in a lot of people is that there are some people who that fits their personality, and they go to a restaurant and they always order the same thing because they know that that’s what they’re going to get. For me, when I’m reading, sometimes… What I want to read depends on my mood. So if I’m in the mood for something in particular, I love going to iconic heroes because I know exactly what I’m going to get.
[Brandon] In our pre-podcast discussion of this, we brought up several Terry Pratchett characters. While there are Pratchett characters who have arcs, most notably Vines, most Pratchett characters are kind of the same thing. They’re an icon that then he can use for satire. That satire is really fun. I also think that comic books, as we discussed, use this a lot because they don’t know where… Which issue you’re going to be picking up. But if you know who Wolverine is or who Wonder Woman is, you can generally pick up an issue and read them. Now, I’m sure there are some comic book fans out there who are listening and saying, “No, no, no, no. There are huge character arc development cycles,” and there are. There absolutely are. Particularly in the mainline comics. They’re pretty slow changes, but there are changes. One thing that I think kind of denotes a iconic hero in our current storytelling zeitgeist or whatever is lots of reboots back to the character’s origin. Comic books do this a lot. They’ll be like, “All right. Here is a set of iconic Wolverine comics. We’re going to start over again and do this reboot because everybody expects Wolverine to be one thing, but maybe in the mainline comics, he’s changed from not being that anymore.” Then they run into this thing where people are like, “I thought I knew who Wolverine was. I wanted an iconic classic Wolverine story, but now he’s…”
[Howard] If you look at Matrim Cauthon from the Wheel of Time series. He is representative of an iconic archetypal sort of character. But if you pick him in any given book and run a silhouette test on him, he changes. He changes from book to book. You never, with a few exceptions when they were experimenting, you never have that problem with Superman or Batman or Spiderman. You pick up any book and you are pretty comfortable with who they are in that moment, even if they are having a planet Hulk type series that explores some aspect of their personality.
[Brandon] Let me ask you this, Howard, because one time you brought this up and I thought it was a really interesting way to talk about iconic heroes. We talked about Mad Max… You may have done it even on the podcast. Where Mad Max is almost like a character in other people’s stories because he doesn’t change. He shows up and he kind of represents the old gunslinger or whatever that will show up, all the world changes around him, and then he rides off into the sunset.
[Howard] Mike Underwood… I call him Mike Underwood. Authorially, I think it’s Michael R. Underwood. Wrote a short story called There Will Always Be a Max. In which we explore the icon of Mad Max. But, yeah, the… I think it’s George Palmero… Is that…
[Dan] No, he’s the zombie guy.
[Howard] No, no. It’s…
[Dan] I don’t remember the Mad Max guy.
[Howard] I can’t remember…
[Brandon] George Miller.
[Howard] Gonna have to look it up. Anyway, the director was talking about the latest Mad Max movie, Fury Road.
[Brandon] George Miller.
[Howard] George Miller. And said people will ask sometimes about the canon of Mad Max. He said, “At this point, Mad Max… Max is a character who appears in other people’s stories. He’s an icon, he’s a legend, he’s a myth.” When you look at him in that way, you can tell all kinds of stories in that apocalyptic wasteland, where Max shows up and does heroic things and helps, and is gone at the end of the story. The people who have changed our the people whose lives he interacted with, the people he saved, the people he killed. The other people he killed. The people he may have actually killed.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, you’ve got this. Murder on the Orient Express.
[Dan] Yes. So we mentioned earlier Hercule Poirot. We wanted to… I think I just said that with a Mexican accent. Sorry. I don’t speak French. So we want to talk about him as an iconic hero. He is one of… Agatha Christie’s big detective that she wrote all her… Or many of her books about. He never changes, although everyone around him does. We know that he will always live, although everyone around him might die.
[Brandon] Except for in one book.
[Dan] Except for in the one. Yes. We’ll talk about that one.
[Brandon] Which was publicized and popularized as…
[Dan] As the one. Well, that happened to Holmes, too. But, anyway. So, Murder on the Orient Express is arguably his most famous book, and it has the movie that’s out now, and an older movie. It is a really great and classic murder mystery story set on a train with a very colorful cast of characters. At this point, the story’s like 70 years old, something like that. So it’s hard to say whether spoiling it or not is worth the time, but I won’t in case you’ve never read it. Because it’s well worth reading. Okay?
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this. How do you write a character who’s interesting who does not have an arc or anything like that? Can they have an internal conflict, and still be a iconic hero? What does this mean in regards to having a character engage in conflict?
[Dan] Well, so Mad Max is a really good example of this because he is a character built around conflict. In most of his stories, after the first one, his inner conflict is that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. All three of the rest of the Mad Max movies are about him showing up, trying in various ways to become a part of a community, and eventually realizing that he can’t and leaving. So he doesn’t change as a person, but there is always that central problem at his core.
[Brandon] If we look at the Bruce Banner/Hulk thing, that is… That’s a conflict. That’s an external conflict that manifests an internal conflict. Right? That’s the same conflict every time, but there is that conflict, and that’s why the character has been so fascinating over many, many, many years. So, conflict, yes. How do you make them interesting?
[Valynne] Well, I think that when you have… When you’re writing an iconic character, the reader is going in with certain expectations. I think that the trick is to introduce that iconic character to different situations. Then see how that character’s going to react to those situations. The thing that I like about writing an iconic character is that it’s an interesting world, so you don’t have to re-create it, but you’re not writing a series. So you… So anyone… Any reader could pick up book 1, book 31, and it’s not dependent on whether you’ve read the previous 29 books. Or however many there are in a series. So that’s… I think that it’s just defining what this character is. The character can have internal conflicts. But we need to see what that internal conflict does in the situation every time.
[Dan] I think you’ve really hit on it. Which is to throw them at different situations. I think that’s one of the reasons that iconic characters tend to be series characters. Because I want to see how is Solomon Kane going to react to this threat versus to this threat. How is Alex Cross going to solve this crime as opposed to this crime? The flavor around him changes. What’s fascinating is watching him react differently in every situation.
[Howard] In previous episodes, we’ve talked about try-fail cycles, and how with a lot of the characters who get character arcs, your try-fail cycles is… You’re failing because your area of competency is not where you are being tested. You’re going to grow and develop in order to accomplish these things. Try-fail cycles for iconic heroes are most often cases where they don’t yet know the enemy’s weakness. They haven’t yet solved the problem. So the things they are trying with their competencies are not being applied correctly. Conan never becomes a better swordsman. James Bond never becomes a better shot. Hercule Poirot never becomes a better detective. They just get more information as the story unfolds. So, for me, a try-fail cycles for an iconic hero in order to… Or the interest in that story is the reveals that show how the try-fail cycle is going to play out.
[Brandon] For me, one of the tensions in writing or reading a character like this is you will occasionally have them, they will learn a lesson in the course of the story, but you know that the reset button’s always going to get hit. That that character will rarely if ever reference that lesson. You run into this happening, I feel like, in certain book series, where people don’t know that they’re doing this. Like, they’re used to this storytelling archetype which happens a lot in television shows, happens a lot in films, that… Like, each of the three Thor movies that have come out, I’ve enjoyed. But they are like their own little microcosms by their own directors. They don’t really reference each other, and they tend to throw away everything that happened in the previous ones. This sort of thing can make for a really self-contained enjoyable piece, but then the whole can get a little frustrating.
[Dan] So, while we’re talking about this, and especially as we talk about superheroes, I keep remembering an essay that I read years ago about Peter Parker, calling him the superhero that never grew up. The point they were making is that while we are totally fine with Bruce Wayne being the same person for 80 years or however long it has been, Peter Parker, because he was a teenager, which is a period of life defined by change, the fact that he is still the same feels wrong to us. When you look at comics, he is the one who’s gone through more permutations as more writers try to justify the fact that they grew up with him, and now they’re adults and they have kids and they have lives and dumb Peter Parker’s still this single guy dating the same girl and he hasn’t grown up.
[Howard] One of the issues here is that… And it’s a… Fundamentally, it’s about money. Spiderman is an incredibly valuable brand, because the crisis of the teen who has a superpower is an incredible wish fulfillment story and it also allows you to explore fun social issues for kids, and that is always going to be valuable to Marvel Comics. They can’t grow out of that and stop making money at that level. So…
[Brandon] They’ve hit the reset button on Spiderman.
[Howard] At a high level, Spiderman and Superman and Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy…
[Howard] Are all the same thing. They are a brand that can’t be allowed to change too much or they’ll stop making money.
[Dan] The point I wanted to make though is that Peter Parker does stand out to me as particularly problematic because it’s a YA story.
[Howard] His brand is in that space of turmoil where you are expected after five years to have emerged as a different person.
[Dan] He is a character who is supposed to change and grow, who can’t for commercial reasons. That may be just a pitfall to keep in mind if you want to write an iconic character.
[Howard] Pillsbury Doughboy who never gets put in the oven.
[Dan] His character arc will never ever get resolved.
[Brandon] All right. We are running out here. I’m going to say comic book fans, address your angry emails to Dan and Howard.
[Howard] You betcha.
[Brandon] But I’m going to give you some homework.
[Howard] They’re great.
[Dan] You have to roll the R. You gotta do it right.
[Brandon] All right. This is something I did about two years ago, just for an interesting exercise, is I plotted out an Indiana Jones movie. Because I wanted to see what the beats of an Indiana Jones movie were. It was partially frustration at the fourth Indiana Jones movie. But partially just me trying to figure out how that iconic formula worked, so I had it in my toolbox if I ever wanted to use it. I sat down and I did this. Dan pitched this as homework, and I said, “Wow. I’ve actually done that.” So I want you…
[Dan] Well, I… I was going to say I’ve done this with Star Trek episodes. So depending on what property you’re familiar with…
[Brandon] Yeah. So go pick one. I suggest Indiana Jones, but whatever you want. Plot one out and have a look at what key touchstones of one of those books or movie is, and… I’m not sure of my verbs…
[Dan] No, that was the right one.
[Brandon] That was the right verb. See… Just see if you can find something that is common to almost all of the stories told of that character, and build out a plot of your own doing that. This has been Writing Excuses. 15 minutes long for 10 years now because we never change.
[Brandon] You’re out of excuses, now go write.