I’ve noticed my blog posts have been quite serious of late, so I think it’s time for more story-based theory. Let’s take a look at favourite trope one: the hero’s family gets killed.
This happens in so many movies. If Hollywood is to be believed, there’s nothing more freeing than finding your entire family or village slaughtered. I know that’s what happened when I moved out of home. The idea of the hero’s family being killed, out of everyone in the entire world, is such an accepted cliché that we don’t even really notice anymore. However, far from being a letdown, like finding out that ‘it was all a dream’, which was brilliant in 1678 when it was the ending of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the hero’s family dying is something that goes largely unnoticed.
It happens to Perrin, in the Wheel of Time series, albeit in around about book 5. It happens to Eragon. It happens in Star Wars, Fable, Red Sonja, The Punisher, and to Lessa in Dragonflight, one of the books of Pern. It happens pre-emptively in Aladdin, and any movie or game where the hero is an orphan, or an amnesiac. It’s reversed in the new Prince of Persia movie, and to good effect, simply because it’s so opposite of the usual theory. Then again, the Prince is spurred into action when – what happens? Well, I’ll let you guess.
Now, this may have been done before, but what if we could twist it? What if we could make the slaughter of the hero’s family take on new meaning? How would we do it, and do I have this copyrighted under Creative Commons?
So the hero’s family gets killed. What else might it have been, apart from the villain? Could it have been a natural disaster? Could it have been something uncaring, like an accident? Must it be related to the main storyline? Well, yes. If it’s a natural disaster, it must have been caused by some kind of imbalance that can be corrected. If it was random – where is the linking element? In the case of Cthulhu mythology, that’s the horror. The horror is the linking element, much as in our session of Delta Green. The unexplained, in this case, can be the answer. Alan Wake’s link is unclear (to mildly spoil the ending). For all that, it’s still very effective. Some things don’t need to be explained.
What else could we do? What if the one to destroy the hero’s family was himself? How would that work, or could it? If the idea of time travel is in your repertoire, perhaps the hero came back to kill his own family. Why? In order to create that sense of determination in himself. Or maybe it was an accident – maybe he was fated to destroy his own life from the outset. There is another trope that’s related to this idea, which is that the hero is actually the villain, but we don’t like that. It’s become a little too predictable, and thus is not something we should use. inFamous did it, under the guise of training the hero to fight a greater evil. In that case, it worked, but in other cases it has felt a little cheap, much like everything being a dream. To spoil another perfectly good game, Might and Magic: Dark Messiah did a good job of working with this trope, and playing on the similar trope of the player always being the hero. So did BioShock.
What else could it be? The ultimate betrayal by a friend or mentor? For similar reasons above, it could work. Again, the best friend turning out to be the ultimate evil is something else that’s become a little bit of a cliché in itself, so it’s not something we’re going to choose, as the wonderful writers we are. The dark mentor convincing the hero to follow a path that turns out to be evil is also a cliché. The Force Unleashed did a good job of turning this on its head – the evil apprentice becomes the leader of the rebellion. But even that was an orphan-turned-hero story – Darth Vader took him in after he killed his father.
I notice this a lot in Mary Sue fiction, too. It’s far easier for the main character to fall in love, and for the main love interest to fall in love with the Mary Sue, if the Mary Sue is unfettered by any other ties to the real world. It lends itself very nicely to a romantic type of vulnerable strength; the idea that Mary, bless her little slightly soiled cotton socks, has been through so much, and has had to go it alone for so long, and has been strong for so long, that falling into the arms of her willingly protective paramour is a gleeful kind of oblivion.
While it sounds sweet, and the fantasizing of which is a pleasant way to pass the time when bored, it does strike me that very few men are allowed such a surrender. The closest I can imagine is a James Bond-like character, who finds solace from the horrors of his job in the bosom of a Good Woman. Again, this is a very typically female fantasy. Male fantasies, generally speaking in a highly sexist way, are a lot more straightforward. It does, however, shed some light on the societal differences between the genders – men in movies who lose their families become strong, and require careful treatment to bring out their caring sides, while women in the same who lose their families are expected to continue being badass up to the point where they can find a father figure and relinquish all responsibility. Even Red Sonja, one of my favourite heroines, gives up her life of swashbuckling to swoon into the arms of Conan.
But this was about heroes who lose their families. There is something romantic about both genders when they’re alone in the world through hardship. If they have endured all of this and still manage to be kind and relatively just, we consider them superior to those who have had a cushy lifestyle. Bruce Wayne is more tragic and romantic than Tony Stark, but Tony Stark appeals to a whole different side of the female psyche, and a whole different section of the menstrual cycle. Women who want to care for men will like Bruce Wayne. Women who want to be cared for by men will imagine taming Tony Stark. Women who have lost their families are somewhat of an enigma, since I can’t think of any off the top of my head, which, again, surely says something about the prevalence of certain genders in our popular media, and relates to Freud’s Oedipus/Electra imbalance. Basically, it’s apparently not that tough to be a woman, if Hollywood is right.
I apologise. I have been reading a lot of the blog posts referenced in the aftermath of Hey, Baby! recently, and I’m finding it hard to remain gender neutral at the moment when so many of my friends are male gamers. I’ll sign off for now and come back with something unrelated tomorrow.