I’ve never forgotten the image of three men without food or heat shivering as wind ripped at their tiny tent, snow piled up at the tent’s exit, and nothing existed for miles except ice and snow. My parents acquired a copy of the movie, “Scott of the Antarctic” and I still feel the cold of that black and white journey. Somehow, Scott’s failure—he was beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen, his preparations were inefficient, and he and his companions died—was more of a learning experience and had greater emotional impact than heroic stories of victorious soldiers and admirals. Also, I don’t mind pulling apart the on and off iconic status of a Brit.
Scott started his naval career at the age of thirteen. (My grandfather went to sea when he was fourteen). By the age of thirty, Scott was the sole support of his mother and sisters. Promotion in the navy was slow and he saw the command of his first Antarctic expedition as a career opportunity. Although dogs and skis were used for that expedition, Scott and his men knew little about them, and Scott doesn’t seem to have learned much by his second and fatal expedition. Roald Amundsen learned Arctic skills from native people in Canada. He used sled dogs and wore animal skins. During his journey, he killed some of his dogs so he and his men had fresh meat.
Although Scott had flaws and showed bravery and endurance during his journey, he didn’t have to go to the South Pole. Maybe he could be a literary hero but not a hero in a mystery. I remember watching with my parents a movie about the conquest of Everest. At the end, my mom said, “The whole thing seems like a waste of energy and life to me. Why did they have to climb it?” My dad was annoyed by her response. Of course the men had to test themselves against the mountain in the same way as Francis Macomber had to shoot animals to prove his manhood in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
As they plot, writers of mysteries think about stakes. As the protagonist faces more danger, so the stakes are raised. If protagonists don’t act bravely, they will face worse consequences. Is reader expectation due to our living at a different time? Surely foolhardy people still place themselves in danger for no good reason? What about sky divers or bungee jumpers? And then there’s adolescence when everyone is expected to behave rashly, hopefully without long-term consequences.
Today, we work hard to make our lives secure, risk-free, and insured. We call people heroes if they perform one brave action. We seem to search for heroes, even accepting avatars and comic book characters if we see no one else. Does fiction, and I’m including movies and television, provide us with the heroes we need and crave? How have antiheroes changed the way we see the main characters in fiction, characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Tom Ripley, Alexander Portnoy, Holden Caulfield, and Cal in East of Eden?
I think characters don’t have to be heroic in traditional terms but they have to unfold throughout a story and reveal themselves with all their motives, petty and grand, to reach memorable status. What makes a hero or heroine for you, whether in fiction or in life?