If we go back to mythology and folklore, the hero of a story can have superhuman qualities and is often semi-divine in origin - in particular, in ancient Greek myths and legends, the hero’s exploits and dealings with the gods were the subject of the story.
In more modern times, Superman and any totally standard warrior hero type from Beowulf to Batman, from Aragorn to the Scarlet Pimpernel, can to some extent fit the description ‘super-hero’. Naturally enough, in any narrative, such a plainly heroic figure would tend to wear thin after a little, as has been written about earlier in this blog. But the central void within the character - whether it’s a psychological weakness or an actual physical gap in their armour like Batman’s obsession with his parents’ murder or Superman’s kryptonite, Aragorn’s self-doubt or the Pimpernel’s unstated love for his wife - is what keeps us attached, almost literally, to them.
In addition, their full super-heroic stature is often ‘cloaked’ with a more acceptably human ‘secret identity’ so that they can live and work with ordinary people and remain ‘real’. The device of the secret identity also keeps us interested by creating a mystery around the character.
The next notch down from the slightly-more-than-human character is often the starting point for the usual Epic protagonist: not too heroic, and perhaps not displaying any valorous traits at first, but certainly growing into them as the tale progresses. This is Scout in the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit, Paul at the start of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the Pevensies in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; this is Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter stories, Mole in The Wind in the Willows, and many others.
Herbert Pocket from Dicken’s Great Expectations, is a perfect example of a character possessing some interest for us as readers, while not being a protagonist -Pip, the actual protagonist and narrator of the novel, goes to London to begin his education and meets Herbert, whom he discovers is the ‘pale young gentleman’ with whom he earlier fought as a child. Pip and Herbert share chambers at Barnard's Inn and at the Temple and become best friends. Herbert helps teach Pip ‘city manners’, while Pip secretly helps Herbert become a partner in the firm of Clarriker and Co. which enables his friend to marry his sweetheart. Herbert is the optimistic, never-say-die, often unintentionally amusing companion who will play a pivotal role later -his emotional response to any given situation is usually one of cheerfulness:
‘What a hopeful disposition you have!’ said I, gratefully admiring his cheery ways.
‘I ought to have,’ said Herbert, ‘for I have not much else!’
This steadfast cheerfulness is a quality sought in companions, and is almost universally found, from Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader through to R2-D2 in Star Wars. When you are a protagonist, carrying within you a tremendous burden or ‘gap’ or lack, you need this type of companion to keep you going.
Oddly enough, antagonists are more often described in physical detail in novels than protagonists. The bullying Mrs. Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, for example, gets a vivid account:
My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much.
Many villains and anti-heroes in literature, such as Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, Voldemort in Harry Potter, Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Sauron and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings are virtually interchangeable. We are fascinated to watch them descend into brutality, smashing or destroy others or their environment as well as themselves. When they move the other way, though, as Mrs. Joe does by the end of Great Expectations, or like Prince Andrew’s belligerent father in War and Peace, we find that we, as readers, are often profoundly moved: the realism of their portrayal has meant that the shift in key has a deeper effect on us than it otherwise might have done. We feel pity, sympathy and a sense of lost potential, and the characters become more meaningful and real as what we perceive as their ‘flaw’ or built-in void is at least partially filled.
Some villains live in perpetual fear. Apart from being an active liability to the hero, operating on a kind of negative ethics, they screen their dishonesty with a pseudo-ethical mask and ingenious and vicious perversions of truth, like the brilliantly described Steerpike in Gormenghast:
If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.
Numerous other examples leap to mind: the sycophantic Mr. Collins is a mild example Pride and Prejudice; Mrs. Coulter is a stronger type in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The whole society seems to operate at his band in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, while both Gollum and Wormtongue -‘a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes’- demonstrate it perfectly in The Lord of the Rings. Baron Von Harkonnen is an example of it in Dune.
As we sink lower, characters of a certain kind end their short lives in utter failure. It is also true that most Tragic heroes fall through this phase on their way down -Macbeth, for instance, captures the sense of despairing lack of meaning in anything perfectly:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Wuthering Heights has many characters who eventually are worn down to this point -here Heathcliff has descended so far that he has given up on revenge, no longer having the will for it:
My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives -I could do it, and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don't care for striking, I can't take the trouble to raise my hand.
Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre exemplifies this final abandonment of sanity or power or drive; Captain Corelli's Mandolin details a society in which this level is momentarily reached, as does War and Peace. The pitiful madness of many characters in literature such as Treasure Island, The Count Of Monte Cristo, and Far From The Madding Crowd probably belongs here.
Of course, characters move within these bands and from one band to the next and back again -that is how we, as readers, are manipulated emotionally, being moved by vacuums within the characters being opened up (increasing our empathy) or filled (permitting us to share in some kind of joy or release).
(You can find out more about characters and what motivates them in How Stories Really Work.)