The Lure of the Reluctant Hero

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. -- Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for the reluctant hero. So maybe he’s not the prince born into his noble role in life. He’s not the tough-as-nails navy seal who’s trained diligently to defend life and country, or the armor-clad warrior returning victorious from the fight with the prize. He’s just your average Joe, an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances forcing him to rise to heroism through trial and tribulation -- whether he wants to or not.

You all know who I’m talking about. He starts out as the down-to-earth guy next door or the co-worker with the nice smile sitting three cubicles away. Maybe he’s the son struggling to save the family farm from the flood. Or he’s the crofter who picks up the sword and enters the battle when nobody else will. He’s the father who will sacrifice all to save his sick child. In a romance, he’s often the humorous brother/cousin/best friend to the alpha hero. If we’re lucky, he gets his chance to take center stage and get the girl in the sequel. (God, I love sequels!) He’s the beta with an inner alpha he doesn’t know he has until circumstances arise that force the hero hidden within him out. He’s the guy you might not notice at first when he walks into a room, but when the going gets tough and he finally steps up to the plate -- yowza -- we sure take notice of him then!

Us writer types will recognize the reluctant hero as one of the heroic archetypes described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

“The hero may refuse the adventure or deny the ability to move beyond the status quo. The heralded event may even be ignored – all of these constitute the ‘Refusal of the Call.’ The use of magical intervention is then needed to plunge the hero into the unknown. The reluctant hero requires supernatural forces to urge him on, while the willing adventurer gathers amulets (magical items) and advice from the protector as aid for the journey.”

Unlike a pure-bred alpha, the reluctant hero (RH) doesn’t seek out fame, glory and adventure. He doesn't want to be the star, to have all eyes on him as he rescues the kitten in the tree or saves the world single-handedly. He'd much rather stand back in the crowd and let someone else take all the glory. But the RH usually has a special skill or hidden talent, often unknown to him until he needs to use it, that will see him through his trials. So when it becomes apparent no one else will do it, our RH will heave a heavy sigh, straighten those broad shoulders we didn’t know he had and pick up the sword to charge straight into the fight. Examples of reluctant heroes include André Merrick in Timeline, John McClane in Die Hard, Han Solo in Star Wars, Quinn and Creedy in Reign of Fire, as well as Indiana Jones, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Harry Potter, and Spiderman, to name a few. These guys didn’t start out wanting to be heroes, but when push came to shove, they said “F*ck it” and did what they had to do.

heroesTake a look at one of my favorite TV series, Heroes. It’s chock-full of reluctant heroes. Just about every character on the show started out as someone ordinary, going about their ordinary world, when suddenly everything changes. Or, more accurately, they change. They discover they possess a superpower they aren’t prepared to deal with and then learn they must use it to save the world. Talk about pressure! Some of these heroes, like Claire, tried to hide what she is, denying it, almost ashamed of the incredible things she could do. Others, like Hiro, embraced his new-found responsibility, ready to do whatever needed to be done, even at the cost of his life. And still there were others, like Mohinder, who has no apparent super ability and yet he joins in the fight against the bad guys, because he knows it is what he must do.

Let’s examine another reluctant hero a little more closely . . .

jackJack Shephard from Lost

Jack is the quintessential RH. There he is, minding his own business on a plane flight home, dealing with a family crisis and his own personal demons in stoic silence. Then -- BOOM -- he crash lands on a deserted island where his fellow castaways immediately look to him for the answers to their survival. He doesn’t ask to be the leader. He doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t think he’s the right guy for the job. But the others see something in him -- a strength of character, a hidden courage, a sense of justice -- that makes them believe he is. So he leads them, because nobody else will. He gives them hope, when sometimes all seems lost. And he’s willing to sacrifice everything for people he doesn’t even know to make sure they all live long enough to get off the island. Now that’s my kind of hero.

So you can keep your uber warriors and larger-than-life alpha studs. I’ll take the underdog any day. I love my reluctant heros . . . the guy pushed to the limit until his honor demands he take a stand for what he believes is right.

© 2007 Lori Dillon