Hero stories are stories about what it means to be a good person in a given society. A hero’s circumstances and responses are extreme not just so that the stories are compelling to listen to and share, but also so that their virtues are easier to see. The heroine who braves mortal danger to herself to save others gives us examples of what bravery, heroism, and duty mean much more than definitions of those concepts do.
The common myths, plot devices, and character tensions we see in our hero stories, then, also teach us a lot about the types of challenges that good people will face. Consider a few of the more common assumptions:
- Heroes can’t be in a position of power or accrue wealth because they’ll become corrupt.
- The heroes who can do the most good must be vigilantes.
- The people the heroes love will be harmed or put in danger by the heroes’ actions.
- Heroes will forever have to sacrifice their own happiness or lives in service of others.
- Heroes will be singled out and either burdened by the people they care for or harmed by the people they oppose.
This set of beliefs makes being a good person extremely challenging over and above just being goodhearted. After all, good people can’t be powerful, wealthy, happy; those they love will be harmed by their actions; and the legal system actively prevents them from doing good in the world. To be good is to be actually or easily compromised.
These common stories continue to get told because they represent something true and enduring about the ways in which being virtuous is tried by the circumstances of the world, but I think we can also step back and ask whether it must be the case that, say, a wealthy or powerful person can’t also be a good person or that a person who loves what they do can’t also be helping other people.
Yes, the stories we consume and integrate are just stories, but stories are the vehicles through which we find meaning in the world, and stories drive us. If our stories tell us that being a good person will lead us to be unhappy, inept, lonely, threatened, and broke, it’s time to start crafting and sharing new ones. Doing so may not create great fiction, but it will be more apt to lead to people living great lives.