Motivating a heroic character well ‘is hard.’ I say ‘is hard’ because if I say, up front, it’s easy, and you’re a bunch of shameful, pathetic cynics, I’ll look condescending, even if that’s ultimately how I feel about this bullshit.
Media I watch lately has featured an enormous amount of templated storytelling and one of the template points that’s become worn so deep it’s now basically a groove is the protagonist’s motivation is overwhelmingly linked to someone important dies. It’s usually a woman, either a lover or a child. I considered, briefly, making a little gif supercutting together every single game, movie or tv show I could think of in the past five years or so that used this trope then realised it’s enough of a percentage of the media output I partake of that it’s gagworthy. Even stuff I like a lot does it.
Looking at you, Dishonored.
Anyway, point is, that it’s a really common motivator, to the point where it’s basically unexamined. In the classical arc of the Hero’s Journey, which really is storytelling 101 for people doing a large, multistage production with a three-act structure, one of the key points is the Refusal of the Call – ie, the point where the protagonist declines to go on the journey. This is a useful story device for showing that the narrative has resistance to it, and that there are more complex things going on in the hero’s life than just compliance with the story. It is an opportunity to represent that the call, the heroic action, is a choice, which is more important than destined compliance. It’s also a chance to show that the destind action won’t just happen without them – that the hero’s inaction would lead to problems.
This means that for simplistic writers and boneheads and cynics, clearly, the only option is that heroes don’t want to be heroes and don’t want to do anything. It’s seen as relateable that heroes don’t want to be heroes. That is, when presented with the opportunity to do the hero’s journey, most people would say ‘no,’ until something so dire – the irrevocable death of a beloved one – pushes them into action.
This is dumb, and it paints a worldview of heroes as glum people who don’t have any reason to like what they’re doing. It makes the action of being a hero – of being powerful, capable, survivable, important – as an annoying imposition on a life of happy potato farming. No doubt this plays into a protestant ideal of being content with your lot – heroes are just wishing they could get back to the dull drudgery bullshit of your 9-to-5, let me tell you.
The thing is, the refusal doesn’t have to be ‘I will not do anything at all.’ It can be ‘I will try this other method that won’t work.’ Or ‘I will focus on this different set of priorities.’ Or ‘I cannot make this decision for myself and must comply with an other.’ Or even ‘I can’t yet see a way I could do this.’ They are all ways to illuminate character, arrest the narrative briefly, and none of them require the murder of a woman only to provide motivation.
Interestingly, the movie Hercules does use the murder of a woman but it’s in the third act, in a way to intensify and narrow the focus, to make the stakes that were global personal, and that’s another, different problem. The Last Of Us is similar, though much closer to the end, and the threat of that death. But anyway.
When you paint heroes as being unable to be happy being heroes, and when you create a world where nobody would, with power, act in a way beneficial to others without it instead speaking to some trauma, you first reduce all heroics to emotional selfishness, and dissolve the idea of heroics as meaningful. Second, it’s so fucking repetitive.
There are worlds full of injustice and by creating characters who only care about it when the injustice directly impacts them you are suggesting that we should only care about things that directly impact us. You drag heroic aspirations down to our level, instead of elevating them, and you do it in the name of a cynic’s idea of realism, that there surely could be no reason a person might choose to do the right thing at all.