Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them

I was thinking about that quote yesterday——from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night——and how it relates to my post from earlier this month about heroes earning their right to be the protagonist. If we take these as three different approaches to heroism, they each suggest different ways to handle heroism and how to earn (or not) the hero’s mantle.
•Some are born great.
These are the Chosen Ones, marked out by destiny or prophecy as a fulcrum on which the world will turn. Buffy. Onye in Who Fears Death? (which I’ll discuss more this weekend). It’s also those who are simply gifted by the accident of their birth: Superman, with powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals. Or someone such as Lord Peter Wimsey or the 1940s super-hero Firebrand, a man who possesses wealth and power which can finance his detecting, crime-fighting or (in other cases) humanitarian work.
For Chosen Ones, the test is how they bear up under their destiny: Are they good enough to succeed? Will they accept a duty Fate has forced upon them? How will they cope with their responsibilities?
For the fortunate ones, being born great is simply a useful tool for getting more done: Superman isn’t heroic because of his birth but because he uses his powers selflessly (Mark Waid’s Irredeemable is a look at what happens if he’s not so nice). Wimsey’s wealth and aristocratic standing enable him to deliver justice without worrying about paying the rent.
The flip side is those who don’t measure up to their destiny. One of my favorite humor comics was DC’s Inferior Five, the children of a 1940s super-hero team stepping into their parents’ shoes, only to fall far short of their heroic legacy (this sixties series parodied DC’s “legacy hero” concept 30 years before the concept existed). Yet for all their ineptness, they never give up and somehow come out on top.

•Some achieve greatness.
These are the ones who work for years to become the best. Batman. Doc Savage. Star athletes. Brilliant surgeons. Super-scientists. Mages. They’re driven by something——ego, ambition, greed, a dream, a desire for vengeance——and they won’t stop until that drive is satisfied, if it ever is.
For characters such as Batman and Doc Savage, the fact they’ve trained so hard with the goal of fighting crime and helping people proves right there that they’re heroes. In other types of stories, the fact someone’s trained to become a good doctor/lawyer/plumber also gives them some cred——they’ve committed to a path in life and done their best to walk the walk.
Achievers offer lots of options for characterization. What happens when they attain their goal? What if they fail to do so? What if they don’t want it after all? What if their motives are ignoble? What if it’s more important to be acknowledged as the best than to actually be the best? Some may not be so heroic after all.
•Some have greatness thrust upon them.
This is the Flash, Green Lantern, Spider-Man or the FF, gifted with super-powers by a freak twist of fate (even though Hal Jordan was clearly identified as worthy from the first). Aladdin finding his lamp. Or the character whose greatness emerges when he’s thrust into a new situation: Frodo volunteering to carry the ring, Juliet in V (original) who becomes leader of the resistance when nobody else steps up.
As I noted in my previous post, one test for heroism in characters gifted with power is how they cope when the power is taken away. Then we learn whether it’s just the magic ring or the person who wears it. Another is how they cope with having power at all: The strength of Spider-Man’s origin is that he immediately starts exploiting his powers, then pays a price for his self-centeredness.
I don’t think this is a definitive list——I can think of lots of characters who don’t fit on it at all——but as a tool for thinking about characters (other writers’ and our own) I think it has some potential.


Filed under Reading, Writing

8 responses to “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them

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