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The hero is one of the most common character archetypes in the fantasy genre. Conan, the Barbarian and Aragorn, are early examples of the typical hero. However, I believe that the characters that are cast as heroes no longer follow the same simple template. Authors like Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan created heroes who came from humble beginnings, and then a wise wizard turns up, and a quest is thrust upon them. In the 21st century, a simple hero origin story is no longer enough to captivate a reader. The backstory for the main antagonist has become the main driving force in fantasy books.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a perfect example, where character development is taken more seriously. Characters like Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister are more complex than they appear. There is no pure good versus pure evil storylines. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jon Snow faces tough choices that involve breaking his vows he took to join the Night’s Watch. Jaime Lannister, commonly dubbed the Kingslayer, has his own reasons for breaking his vows by killing King Aerys. Life is about choice, and the life of a hero is about making difficult choices. Heroes always aim for the best outcome, but it does not necessarily mean that the method is always morally good.
Heroes in modern fantasy novels do not always serve morally good purposes. For example, in the Mistborn trilogy, Vin joins a group planning a heist. The heist does happen to be against the evil Lord Ruler, but the point stands, heroes are more concerned about the outcome. Moreover, by making heroes feel like real people with flaws, enables the reader to feel that they can become more confident in the real world. Monsters exist in the real world, be it phobias, anxious moments concerning money or just the problems that crop up in day-to-day life. Fantasy books teach us that we can overcome our inner demons. Moreover, with heroines becoming more common in the fantasy genre, means that heroism in fantasy is not restricted to men.
The fantasy genre is ever changing and inventive, with new representations of the hero, which is good for the development of modern storytelling. Jon Snow, from A Song of Ice and Fire, is a hero as much as Lirael is in the Old Kingdom series. Human culture is shaped by mythology designed to help us make sense of reality. It is true that science has improved our understanding of how the natural world works, but the art of a good story is its ability to use our imagination to make sense of the data that we are collecting. The hero has become a character who sits in the middle of good and evil, but the fantasy genre still attempts to find creative ways to tell an engaging story, while trying to create fully formed characters. I am personally looking forward to the next generation of innovative approaches, to tackling the theme of heroism in the fantasy genre.