Hero vs. Heroine – Can’t They Both Shine?

The other day I saw a well-known reviewer discuss a popular book that concluded a trilogy. They commented that they enjoyed the grand finale, but wished that the hero – who’d been built up as being the most powerful of his kind – had wielded more of that power in the final battle. I nodded along, having felt the same way. I also know why the story skewed in that direction. The heroine stepped up and took the lion’s share of the heroics in defeating the Big Bad.

Does it have to be that way? I don’t know.

As both a reader and a writer, I see stories through a dual lens. I very much enjoyed that trilogy and loved the ride, but I did feel a little let down that this hero I’d come to love never truly flexed this incredible power that had been hinted at all along. At the same time, my author mind was running the plot analysis and thinking, “Well, yeah – his power had to be downplayed for the heroine to shine.” Otherwise we’d end up with yet another story where the hero saves the day while the heroine cheerleads with breasts bouncing on the sidelines.

In fact, it drives me crazy when the hero takes over the narrative from the heroine – the reverse situation of this example – and I see stories fall into that trap all the time. And I am definitely talking about stories where there are two primary protagonists, one male and one female. The gender politics, assumptions, and subconscious programming come into play with the hero/heroine dynamic that aren’t as present or pronounced with male/male or female/female pairings. Or, so I believe. Someone who’s more versed than I am in parsing those dynamics is welcome to take up that topic.

What I see in hero/heroine, male/female pairings is that the female character will often begin with a terrific set of strengths and challenges. She might have a fascinating profession, or be determined on a quest or revenge. As the story plays out, however, gradually the hero takes on the active role, handling the greatest challenges while the heroine takes a step back. 

An example that springs to mind is a story where the heroine has returned from an abduction, having left a child behind. She actively manipulates her family and events so she can marry a man who will take her back to recover the child. Enter the hero, who arrives in the story entirely as a tool for the heroine to get what she wants. As the story progresses, she discovers her magic and they engage in adventures and battles. By the end, however, I was dismayed to see her pretty much hanging out back at the castle, pregnant and watching the kids, while the hero went out and battled the Big Bad. He had become the far more interesting and active character.

I think this happens in part because of gender stereotypes and the weight of stories and tropes in our heads. It’s easier to give over the action to the big warrior hero, because we have a lot of precedence for that kind of story. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As we’ve seen with all kinds of gender-swapped stories, we can produce fantastic narratives with roles and tropes switched up.

But do we have to switch and swap?

As with my opening example, it wasn’t satisfying to me as a reader to have the hero basically sidelined either. It’s a challenge, but I think stories that have a male/female pairing – whose adventures in part show what a great team they make -should strive to give equal limelight to both the hero and heroine. I think Ilona Andrews does a great job of this in their books, giving both the hero and heroine critical roles in overcoming the challenges, each playing to their own strengths.

What do you all think of this – am I wrong? Who else writes this balance well?

 

Meeting Your Heroes – Awesome Experiences Chapter

A week ago, last Friday, I got to see Dar Williams in concert.

I didn’t get to tell you all about it before this, because we left early the next morning for the long road trip to my mother-in-law’s funeral. But I was super excited for this concert and so happy that the timing worked out so that I could go, as Dar has long been one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. I have all of her CDs. Yes, actual CDs, because I started listening to her in the early 90s and I collected every single one. (Admittedly, her two most recent releases I have on iTunes only.)

Back in the early 90s – well, and in the mid and late 90s – I was living in Laramie, Wyoming. I’d bailed on my PhD program, got my Masters degree in ’94, and had decided to become a writer instead of a neuroscientist. As one does.

I’d gotten a job with a petroleum research group as an editor/writer, in order to build my writing chops. I had a terrific boss, and a lovely quiet office, with lots of sunshine and not a lot of pressure. Every morning I listened to Wyoming Public Radio on the local station which broadcast right there from the University of Wyoming campus. After the national shows and news, it went over to Don Woods’ Morning music, which played until noon.

Don loved Dar Williams, and soon I did, too.

My memories of those days are all tied up with learning how to write and to be a writer. I first submitted work to a Wyoming Arts Council literature award because I heard about it on that station. An award I eventually won, years later.

I’d been to see Dar perform twice over the years, but in much bigger venues. That she was coming to the GIG in Santa Fe – an intimate space in my new home town – promised much. I dragged the delightful Megan Mulry along with me – who’d never heard of Dar, but is always up for art excursions of any kind. With the general seating, we snagged chairs in the front row. 

After the show – which was a mix of reading and singing, because Dar has a book out on community and what she’s learned from all her years as a traveling musician – she invited people to stay and chat, get autographs, etc. Unfortunately, in a SNAFU all writers understand far too well, her books didn’t arrive, so she couldn’t sign and sell those. 

Megan – and this is one of the reasons I love her – suggested we hang until the end, then invite Dar to come have a drink with us. “After all,” she said, “this is what the writers do, right?” And Megan and I were already planning to hit up Second Street Brewery for drinks and a late dinner.

So, we hung out, and took a series of silly selfies while we waited. It didn’t take long for the line to wear down and then I got to chat with Dar. Total fangirl moment, which I got out of the way first. I told her how I loved that she talked about public radio and local stations and how they build community, because I first listened to her music on Wyoming Public Radio. Looking back, I see now how important that connection to the greater world was for me, and how much her storytelling via song influenced me. It was funny to discover that we are almost exactly the same age, too.

For fans, I also asked her if “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono” was a response to “Be My Yoko Ono” by the Barenaked Ladies. The answer? Amazingly enough, though the songs came out at the same time, they were unrelated. Dar said that if she’d been more media conscious, she might’ve done a throw-down with them. It could still happen.

Megan took our picture together – a first for me, though I’ve happily posed for many photos with readers – and Dar asked about my books. She planned to download the audio book of The Mark of the Tala to listen to on the road the next day. 

Did you get that part? DAR WILLIAMS WAS GOING TO READ MY BOOK.

I can’t even. I think back to that younger me, listening to Wyoming Public Radio and trying to figure out how to be a writer. I came away feeling like I’d made a friend of one of my heroes.

Alas, Dar couldn’t come for a drink as she was leaving early, though she said she normally would. I believed her. She even said she was glad to have met us, especially as the people who wait until the end to talk to her are often weird. Like the guy who sincerely believed she was an alien and they needed to discuss that.

As Megan and I walked out, Dar called my name and hurried after us. She gave me her reading copy of What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time. She’d spilled water and coffee on it, which made it even better. 

Pretty awesome.