Why the hero must save the day

It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.

This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great‌—‌it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass‌—‌it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation‌—‌the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?

The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending‌—‌the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.

handshake-4040911_1280One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.

And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise‌—‌the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.

But he didn’t. The promise was broken.

And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.

That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race‌—‌then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert‌—‌and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.

As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.

Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.

In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?

Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.

If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.

 

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