Mentor: One day, you’ll discover that what I expect out of you, is not for you. Then…you’ll leave.
Student: Never! You’re far too wise. I would never leave you.
Mentor: Then…I will have failed.
The Hero’s Journey is the backbone of everything from SFF to rom-com. An unlikely hero is somehow pulled out of his (traditionally, male) circumstance and finds guidance from a gray-bearded sage (again, male). Some hidden power is within him, but he scorns it, only to use it to save the day. That’s a brief definition of this trope, one that should be enough for just about anyone to recognize it in so many books and movies of the past half-century. I’ve often heard others talk about stories and explain how they hated a particular one, couldn’t finish it, because the character was ‘unlikable’ or ‘irredeemable’. They just couldn’t find it in them to follow them through the narrative. As for myself, a good story can have any kind of guide, truthful or unreliable, a cannibal or a saint, as long as they enrich the greater story. Perhaps the Hero’s Journey has done more harm than we realize.
When power is discovered by a character, especially by a young person, it’s an overwhelming experience. When I see them deny it, over and over again, I can’t help but wonder why. Why does the ‘evil’ character use it recklessly while the ‘good’ character might cause a bit of mischief, but ultimately harness it and save the day, again? How many inherently ‘good’ teenagers wouldn’t take advantage of their newfound powers? A good mentor expects their student to rebel, otherwise, they have simply made a copy of themselves. Power is messy and it comes in many forms, especially, knowledge. I’m certainly not encouraging outright deceit and destruction, but the human element needs to intrude, rather than the dusty equation of the Hero’s Journey. Of course, that kind of irredeemable character does exist, in all types of storytelling. My fundamental issue is the reflexive response of readers and watchers: “I just can’t read a book with an unlikable character.” Power comes in many forms, whether it is magic or a smooth talker. Main characters are not meant to be liked and certainly don’t have to be good. They can be, but that doesn’t make them supreme. I suppose the most important thing for me is, they are complex in their human-ness.
Let them fail.
It can be so moving to drop the book or scream at the television: “NO! DON’T!” Perhaps there is far more to learn through the picaresque point of view. Seeing how the world reacts to these characters is not only entertaining, it’s fascinating. There certainly are countless villains in the real world, but the focus and remove of storytelling allows the reader/watcher to see the world from the irredeemable character’s perspective. I’m not talking about tender sympathy, but a chance to find deeper understanding, maybe even a few life-skills for ways to deal with such villains or false-heroes. Creating a story with an irredeemable character that is a good story is a mighty feat. I suppose my plea is for more people to give those kinds of stories a chance. See what happens. Hopefully, you find you have experienced something novel.
Go ahead, betray your mentor.