The Broken Hero

Years ago, in a science fiction short story, I came across this expression that just fit my feelings. “Born owing money.”

I think from the way it was employed in the story that it was supposed to mean “from a poor family” but that’s not how I felt it. For me, from as far back as I can remember, I had this feeling I must justify my existence.

As the half (one half the family) unwanted child who then proceeded to near-bankrupt her family because she had every-possible-illness and some that technically, logically, should be impossible, this is perhaps understandable.

I was if not born broken, born to be broken. From the moment I remember I’ve been running so hard because I know what’s behind me: me. I know all my tendency to sloth and to malingering. I know the crazy depressive spins. And I know the malice and spitefulness of the cornered small creature.

My mission in life is to keep those down as much as possible and to do as well as I can. To be as good as I can be. I can never be perfect. And the struggle resumes every day. But most of the time I do pretty well at keeping me under control.

Is that where the broad streak of darkness comes? I don’t know. I know that Kate Paulk and I have discussed it. For women from – relatively – pampered backgrounds (hey, I won’t say I never went a day hungry in my life, but they weren’t many. And I always had adequate, if not always slightly, clothes to cover my body. By historical standards, I’m rich.) we manage to imagine and to feel the full panoply of dark.

Wherever it comes from – there is an evolutionary value to it. People who have too little darkness (husband is one of them) don’t imagine it in others. They are the people who believe always and only in the goodness of others. In another time and place they would go to their doom thinking “If only Stalin knew” – I also have that. And I also watch for that. A certain amount of darkness can be exorcised (exercised) in the books, and I fight to remember, every day, that real people are real and not character in books for me to play with.

What is the point of this exercise in true confessions?

Here it goes: I think most people have less of the darkness and much less of the sense of obligation, and almost no sense of watching themselves ALL THE TIME.

They have to, because otherwise the left would never have managed to sell their favorite lie: that goodness is somehow innate and trouble free. That people who achieve things, people who work and run like crazy to make, to build, to create, are somehow “privileged.”

This only makes sense if you think everyone is innately not just good but industrious and gifted in every art/craft/habits of diligence.

I said most people don’t have the broad streak of darkness I had – this is probably true, or at least it’s true from my interaction with them – but let me put this way: I know remarkably few Disney heros/princesses. As in, I don’t know any of them.

Most people have something they have to fight against to achieve even a modicum of good or of decency. It might be something that even they know it’s not their fault, like an illness, or it might be some tendency – say sloth – they were born with.

The book that shall not be mentioned (well, not in the text, though you can answer questions in the comments) is distinguished by its author repeating over and over his character is special because she is a “good girl” — she doesn’t have any of the flaws that these strange authors give their characters.

I don’t know if that is what makes the book that shall not be mentioned unreadable, because the lack of basic narrative techniques means I can’t go that far into it.

What I’m going to say if that if he’d succeed in creating a character without flaw, she would be absolutely unbearable.

The problem with the left in the arts is the problem with the left in so many things. They suffer from a sort of aspergers of the soul that demands they view the world in stark black and white (which is hilarious, since they accuse US of seeing the world in black and white.) In their case, because they imagine that goodness is a privilege that you’re given at birth: they imagine those who achieve are not made of common clay.

And then they imagine they don’t exist.

It starts like this: they believe, in this as in sexual identity and in so many other things that the label MUST perfectly match the contents (maybe that’s their obsession with labeling laws?)

So if you’re the good guy and the guy who achieved something, then you must be GOOD all through, right? If you’re not that way, then you’re doomed.

And then they notice the people who achieve things are not, in fact, perfect good. Even those on their side. Al Gore might be their environmental champion, but he also wants his chakras played with by anonymous women in hotels.

This brings with it a bizarre dissonance, in which they accuse any religious person, anyone who claims a moral code, for that matter, of “hypocrisy.” Note that no religious person nor even my atheist and rigidly moral friends ever claimed to be perfect. They just claim to be trying to be good.

But if the label must match the contents, then if you say you’re trying to be good you should have no flaws. Any flaw – lust, anger, even lack of taste – then becomes “hypocrisy.”

And if the successful person is on their side, this results in a frantic sweeping of flaws under the rug.

But for most of them, the mass of the left who buy into this curious myopia, it results in their thinking they’re “fated” not to succeed and in their hating everyone who does, because clearly they were “given more.”

This reflects itself in the people they create in books, too. And this is why they create flawed heroes who then CAN’T be allowed to win. (Note not all leftists do this. The really good ones are good despite believing this. Meaning they’re artists and the art is larger than them. Which is what art is.) And therefore we end up with the books where everyone, hero and villain is flawed and where the action is just a playing out “flawed people can’t win.” They create anti-heroes because they imagine heroes get everything “handed” to them, and then they destroy the world because in their minds unless you’re good all through good can’t triumph.

Jagi Lamplighter talked about superversive here yesterday and some people – most not regulars – made comments about how heroes without flaws aren’t interesting.

Yeah, they wouldn’t be. But if you are a real writer – if you understand people even enough to write books someone might want to read – then you won’t write anyone without flaws.

Because you will know from yourself that the only way to achieve anything is to control your baser self, to superglue the places you’re broken, and to lurch forward on broken and bleeding feet.

In small things and large, I watch myself all the time. You wouldn’t want to know me if I didn’t.

It’s like one of the hardest things to explain to beginning writers is that you can’t have characters without the plot. Telling me “my strength is characters” is great. But unless you can show me the characters in action and pitted against circumstances that bring them forth, you don’t have anything. And sometimes it is throwing the most inadequate character up against the biggest challenge and SOMEHOW finding a way for him to push himself to victory that makes a book great. Just because you write the underdog, it doesn’t mean he has to bleed and die. In fact, he shouldn’t, because that denies every inadequate person out there still fighting to win. (me! Me!)

I know the depths of darkness in my own soul – but weirdly, that’s the places against which the light shines brightest. I know my flaws in ability – and those are the ones I work at the hardest.

We’re all walking wounded. That doesn’t mean we can’t win.

And a well done hero is flawed and has a broad streak of darkness. It is that which allows him to see the darkness in the enemy.

And it is bleeding and broken, walking long after we wore through our feet, standing when we’d rather lie down, shouting when we’d rather whisper, that we can have any hope of winning this culture war.

And we must, because the alternative is for everyone to be told if they’re flawed there’s not hope for them, and it’s nothing but grey goo everlasting and life has no meaning.

No culture, no civilization can survive having all its stories say that.

Which is why we must make sure there are other narratives, other stories, other inspirations.  That we are so inadequate to the task only makes our glory greater when we achieve.

Now go.


178 thoughts on “The Broken Hero

  1. Can’t have characters without a plot.


    Character and plot are so intertwined that they aren’t separate things. A bird has wings, everything, about birds is based on flight. Penguins swim instead of fly, sea lions eat penguins.

    An African Lion is big and strong, a Cheetah runs very fast, canines run in packs. Herd animals herd. Insects multiply in very large numbers. Fish swim, school, and eat other fish/aquatic creatures.

    What’s the plot? It’s how characters interact. Ambitious humans scheme and plot or just use brute force. Liars lie, and sickly humans are at a disadvantage, someone has to take care of them.

    1. “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it? It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character. If you say you don’t see it (character in that-allons donc!) this is exactly what the artist who has reasons of his own for thinking he does see it undertakes to show you. ” — Henry James

  2. The harder the fight the greater the triumph. I think you expressed my point about broken heroes so much better than I ever could.

  3. We all have our flaws/failures/inadequacies. How we deal with them is what makes us who we are. That we are willing to admit our failures/flaws and deal with them (or not) is what either allows us to succeed in spite of ourselves, or dooms one to a meager existance, devoid of joy. I caught hell from my beta readers for ‘showing’ the lack of foresight/planning my main character exhibits in the next book, but he’s not perfect…

  4. Most of my friends who are conservative have, somewhere in the back of their head, a fear that they will end up on the streets. They have used this fear (or it has used them) to go out and achieve some measure of success. Most liberals I know have no such fear. They go blithely through life assuming that everything will be All Right regardless. I wonder if it’s the fear of The Dark in us that makes us worry about it All Falling Apart.

    1. I grew up knowing from a very early age that my parents would likely die before me, and that I needed to get my act together if I didn’t want to end up a wretch on the streets, dying of my own failures. Okay, some of this is obvious, and mostly true for everyone.

  5. “They suffer from a sort of aspergers of the soul that demands they view the world in stark black and white (which is hilarious, since they accuse US of seeing the world in black and white.”

    Eh, too routine to be hilarious. Want to know what the left is up to? Look at what they accuse the right of.

    1. BINGO!

      Also a good war to figure out what they are currently deathly afraid of. I rapidly came to the conclusion, during the era of out of control Bush Derangement Syndrome, that the Left was deathly afraid that Bush would use the extraordinarily powers he had been granted by the Patriot Act to investigate and jail all the not with academics who had gotten their jollies playing footsie with terrorist organizations before 9/11. It’s what they would have done, and if he had done it they would have been hard put to keep enough Trendy Professors out of the clink to form a Bridge four.

      Bush had more important things on his mind.

  6. This is a good explanation of why they get so red in the face at “hypocrisy”, treating people they perceive to be hypocrites as the Worst People Ever. They rely on labels; they trust labels; they have to have labels with the contents spelled out in legalese and percentages or they panic. And if you don’t act out like the labels advertise that you should, the world rocks on its foundations.

    1. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve pointed out that a liberal’s objection was a complaint that someone didn’t conform to stereotype, I’d at least be able to buy a soda.

  7. Heroes without flaws? I don’t know … I was going to get a bumper sticker made after a suggestion of John C. Wright’s:

    “What Would Kimball Kinnison Do?”

    1. Perhaps Aristotle was right, and we like heroes who are little better than we are, or just as good. (Which included more than moral goodness, but did include that.) Which would explain why some people like the heroes with considerably more flaws than others like ’em.

    2. Arbitrarily impose the full power of the state to enact his plans against Boskone? I love the Lensman books but reading them again forty-odd years after I first discovered them they are sodden with the authoritarian, strong-man mindset of the 1930’s.

      1. They are kind of heavy on the genocide. The environmental impact statements on some of their actions would be staggering.

  8. Well, everyone human has flaws – big or small, it’s how we cope with them and try and rise above them that makes us human and makes our characters interesting.

    Just by the way – my latest, Lone Star Sons has just gone up on Amazon for pre-order. This is fast, as I only approved it Friday afternoon.
    I’ll have the Look-Inside feature activated sometime in the next few days, but here’s the link –

  9. … otherwise the left would never have managed to sell their favorite lie: that goodness is somehow innate and trouble free.

    Maybe this is part of what insulated me from the Left. I grew up very sheltered and naive. I still have a hard time being skeptical of things people tell me, unless they contradict things I already know, but I’ve been disappointed enough times that I no longer am likely to believe that.

  10. I don’t think I could stand a hero that had no flaws. I have trouble with a hero that prevails in every situation. On the other hand In the case of Anikin Skywalker he was a whiney character. I do not call him a hero as he was presented. (Lucas should have read Othello more closely). But now I diverting OT

      1. That explains a lot of what went wrong in SW 1-3. If I ever write a Movie script (I can dream can’t I) I want tom on my team.

    1. Chuck-K,

      Anikin is not the hero of that story.

      Just because he is one of the central charictors and a protagonist doesn’t make them a Hero.

      Which brings up the point does your main charactor have to be a model of what to strive for or can (s)he be a caustionary tail of what not to do or how to live your life.

  11. Of course it is possible to tell a compelling story about a heroine without flaws…

    “Once upon a time,” began the bachelor, “there was a little girl called Bertha, who was extra-ordinarily good.”

    The children’s momentarily-aroused interest began at once to flicker; all stories seemed dreadfully alike, no matter who told them.

    “She did all that she was told, she was always truthful, she kept her clothes clean, ate milk puddings as though they were jam tarts, learned her lessons perfectly, and was polite in her manners.”

    “Was she pretty?” asked the bigger of the small girls.

    “Not as pretty as any of you,” said the bachelor, “but she was horribly good.”

    There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt’s tales of infant life.

    —From Saki’s The Storyteller.

    1. Of course, nowadays, Bertha is very popular among gray-goo authors who want nothing so much as to show up any claims of heroism or virtue.

  12. One thing the Left also does is to say “the US did all these bad things so the US can’t get involved preventing other governments from doing bad things”.

    Mind you, it’s more often than not said when Conservatives want to get involved but they said it when Clinton was wanting to get involved in the former Yugoslavia.

  13. While Thor – and Thorgi – came up in the previous post, this is a more appropriate place for commenting on something Marvel is doing:

    Note the praise in all the “diverse” characters they bring up.

    I think there’s something horribly wrong in deliberately breaking existing characters. To me, there is something utterly wrong in changing “Thor” to a title instead of to being the person of Odins Son.

    That said, I think the detail that bothers me most is the teaser/transfer illustration where they go out of their way to have Mjolnir rewrite itself to “She” be worthy instead of “he” – the latter already being perfectly grammatically correct english for a person of either gender in the plural (if there’s going to be more than one Thor).

    It’s not enough to have a woman take on the role of “worthy of Mjolnir” – ya gotta change mjolnir in a not-necessary way to underscore the point?

    1. Incidentally – between watching Monuments Men (I find it ironic that “I love Zinn” Damon and so many other liberals are in a movie unabashedly praising the need to preserve and edify mankind’s achievements….), and reading “Gates of Fire” and “Anathem” , I feel a commentary coming on about achievements, beauty, and that which is ineffable and immaterial yet nonetheless real in and of itself.

    2. From the above-linked article: He has a newfound sister in Angela, a powerful lost Asgardian from the Tenth Realm who is strong enough to defeat him at his best.


      Because this is an idea that is has never appeared in half-a-million-plus fanfics over hundreds of different fantasy realms.

          1. It’s a choice between Sif and Jane Foster. Thor loves Jane. In the sagas Sif was Thor’s wife. She would make a great wife for Thor and his mother likes her but…he loves the Earth chick better.

                1. D’s or H’s? The racks on the probably mean you could carry more, since you’re going to bulk out, not weight out.

                    1. A D IS a pretty nice rack, usually.

                      What do you mean, that’s not what you meant? 🙂

    1. With our gov’t of late, it is totally true. Newborns now owe near a year’s wages at birth in order to pay down the debt our maronies in gov’t have left lying about..

      1. This is why we need a higher minimum wage!!! Under current conditions the wages of a newborn are lower than they would be if we demanded a living wage, preventing our paying down the debt as quickly as we might.

        1. they’ve gone beyond robbing Peter to pay Paul. it is now even past lifting it from your left pocket to fill your right. They are now stealing from someone not even here yet and your little bit o’ sarc is totally reasonable to entirely too many people.
          We can blame the take over of education by the leftoids for that fact. All the hard, “icky” bits like Logic, are removed so things like this will seem reasonable to the uneducated.

  14. “And sometimes it is throwing the most inadequate character up against the biggest challenge and SOMEHOW finding a way for him to push himself to victory that makes a book great.”

    I’ve heard of a plot-creating technique that is basically “Think of the worst thing you can do to your protagonist. Then do it.” Of course, then you have to figure out how to get your character OUT of the problem, but that’s where creativity comes in.

    Come to think of it, that’s an improv game. “What Happens Next?” Audiences are generally pretty mean…

  15. “We’re all walking wounded.” – reminds me of a minister who often reminded us that a church is a hospital for the walking wounded. Gives a bit of perspective to help prevent the liberal nihilist mindset.

    1. “Do you have scars?”
      “I have scars. And sometimes, they still bleed.”

      “A lot of us have scars, boyo. The biggest difference between you and the rest of us is you haven’t learned to live with yours yet.” (Gray, and Lucivar, from Anne Bishop’s The Shadow Queen.


      Thought the quote applied. And what I liked? Was that ‘yet’ at the very end.

          1. The primary purpose of each generation’s fashion is to give the next generation something to ROFL about.

              1. Jeggings, or meggings, was what I heard them called. Very popular (for both [all?] sexes in Budapest and other larger cities in Central Europe. Alas. *shudder*

      1. Cannibal TV commercial:
        “Long-pig bacon. It’s what’s for dinner.”

        Some days I swear there is something wrong with my brain…

          1. Just because the only map we have is in blue and red crayon, features “TREASURE” and a giant “X” on it, with numerous “here there be Monsters!” No-Go zones, and a family circus dash trail that seems to follow us around doesn’t mean we’re lost…

            1. If the map had been taken down from telephonic instructions by a harried mother of toddlers . . . in yellow crayon on a yellow napkin — why, then you would be lost.

  16. I think when you create a character with flaws, or break him, it’s important that the flaw can be credibly overcome (Miles Vorkosigan) or the breakage repairable (Tom Ormson).

    1. Oh, yeah. well, I’m not sure Tom is repairable. Or Athena. or, for that matter Kit. And Simon… Simon gets his own book for book 4 of Earth Revolution. BUT Archons of Athens, you can’t drop walls on him till he stops moving. I did that with a trilogy waiting in the repair bench. It was a RELIEF when the character died. Mind, I was 28 and had just given birth…

      1. Yeah, but I was thinking initial impressions. Tom came pretty close to my “yucky character, hope he’s not important to the series.” Now half the fault was that cover. Emaciated drug addict. He’s shaped up pretty well, but I’m not sure how boxed into a corner you’ve gotten him.

          1. Uh . . . I . . . *thinks about kittens and rainbows as hard as she can* didn’t need that mental image. Really didn’t need it.

            1. No. He wore a seashell pendant on a cord around his neck. Which is great, for a dragon shifter, right? And the critter had TOO MANY ribs. And his eyes were white. Kate’s husband nailed it “Why are you reading about zombies with an udder fetish?”
              Turns out this is what the illustrator who didn’t tell anyone she couldn’t read word one of English made of my proposal after running it through altavista. I’m going to assume the seashell was the Pearl of Heaven.

            1. If you go back far enough in Colorado’s geologic past, he would have. I suppose a dragon shifter would fit in OK with dinosaurs. *ponders*

                  1. That’s 20 miles from me. The hospital I go to (Texas Health Resources-Presbyterian Plano) is a suburban annex to the one with the case–THR Presbyterian Dallas. Imo, Presby-Dallas is the best hospital in Dallas.

                    1. Obviously the NYT is NOT a reliable source, but I just saw this confirmed elsewhere.
                      The gray lady hasn’t been a reliable source in my lifetime.

                1. The geology department at NM State used to have tee shirts for Surf Las Cruces Beach. If/when the Rio Grande rift reactivates, they’re ready.

                    1. Is the rift a tectonic plate?

                      Actually you’d think that Collin Creek (place name near me) was made up, but it’s a real creek.

                      Maps can be quite interesting. waters, heights, temp boundaries, even lang areas.

      2. ” Simon gets his own book for book 4 of Earth Revolution.”

        😦 You just broke my heart; because this means that Zen doesn’t kill the slimy bastard.

  17. I was also “born owing money.” Or it feels like it. I think I am in the darkness right now. TG for little doggies and friends because near the end when I was fighting the callousness and cruelty of the medical profession I was on my way to tearing the stones down. I’ll let myself get a little sane again and then decide if I am going to do it.

        1. My mom still gets choked up over her dad when she finds a really good chunk of scrap metal, because her first reaction is “I got to get that for dad, he’ll—” Then she remembers he doesn’t need physical scrap for his work anymore.
          (He was killed in the early 90s.)

          1. C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed opens with an observation that no one told him that grief felt so much like surprise. After a while, he concluded that it’s the way your thoughts, running along their usual track, hit the obstacle of death.

        2. Guess what I’m saying is: yeah, when you love people, it hurts? And the randomness might be exactly because you’re not expecting it?

          Not sure…. Dang it, wish I was close enough to bring over a hot dish or something…..

          1. That last. Yes.
            And I still expect to see Grandma EVERY TIME I LAND IN PORTUGAL.
            She’s been gone 21 years. When my older son who might as well be grandma come again (except she met him, or I’d be tempted to think reincarnation had something) does something I think “I have to ask/tell grandma.” It never ends.

  18. Sarah,

    Read this…

    …before I went to bed this morning after work, and then woke up to find your post.


    It’s not what others are doing that matters, but what we are doing.

    My greatest flaw is I have no ambition and I don’t rock the boat. I get to a place that I’m comfortable at and I settle.

    As a response to someone asking me what my goal in life was I once flippantly responded that it was to die alone in the gutter of a Bolivian alley. And they told me that was depressing. And told them that if anything else happens I’d count that as a bonus. I set the bar pretty damn low for myself, and here I am.

    Working on changing that but habbit and inertia is a bitch.

    1. PS. Yes I know the post wasn ‘t about us personaly, but I wonder what it says about us as readers what chareractors we identafy with and root for.

  19. Don’t forget the other side of the coin: any flaw that they admit to must be present in everyone else, and if you deny it then you’re as bad and them AND a liar!

  20. So I’m reaching the end of a thirty page Ayn Rand style rant on why a sub light speed interstellar colonial ship needs a free market economy, and I’m gonna throw it all away because there’s no plot, and it’s all ideology.

    Just throw the mutineers overboard and get on with the mission.

    1. That sounds like a precis or possibly the background of a story. Now what you need are a couple of characters and a problem to get it all rolling

    2. Something like that would be flavor-text like stuff that I see on some books. The ‘personages’ of the story’s ‘verse that would be referred to – which, to me, makes the ‘world’ that much more real. Don’t delete it entirely if you’re writing stuff like that, just save to a ‘scraps’ document; see if you can use it later on?

    3. So you’re sure it doesn’t have a beginning, then have conflict, which then gets resolved in a way that was the goal of the story?

      No plot means the characters don’t have a goal, and/or the story doesn’t really have a direction. If you’re just characterizing, perhaps you need to add a goal and several chapters to get there, while the characterizing gets spread out along the way.

    4. Chop it up and use it as chapter headers. If your polemic has any direction it might work as the story progresses underneath it.

  21. Is funny what they think “no flaws” equates to … many of them think Holden Caulfield a hero of flawless virtue.

    That’s gonna require mouthwash.

  22. But if the label must match the contents, then if you say you’re trying to be good you should have no flaws. Any flaw – lust, anger, even lack of taste – then becomes “hypocrisy.”

    This is one of the things that really gets me ticked off at progs.

  23. OT: For the record, I just want to say that anything Tom Knighton might say about me in the future is utterly false. Not a smidgeon of truth.

      1. Now you see, here is the important part. I wasn’t the first one to mention panties. I want you to be completely clear on that.

                    1. You know that is the first time I have ever heard that called ‘Soviet’, rather than ‘Russian’? Commonly written as 7.62x54R but almost always spoken as 7.62 by 54 Rimmed Russian, or simply Rimmed; I’ve never heard it called Soviet.

      1. If they show me in any light other than a perfect gentlemen …. yep. Fabrications produced by ex-Soviet photo retouching elves.

        1. Now when you say “Quest”, the imagination fills in a Fellowship, with weapons & equipment, long journeys in the mountains, random encounters with hostile monsters.

          And none of that happened. None at all.

  24. Ah, the whims of the muse. I’m thinking of dragging out an old story that “The Broken Hero” might apply to as a title. Or possibly starting a new story by that title.

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