• 15 July 2010
    At the Edinburgh Book Festival one year, I took part in a debate with Mark Walden (who writes the H.I.V.E. books) in which we discussed which is "better" -- heroes or villains. Mark argued the case for villains, while I took the part of heroes. We both made an opening statement, then the audience got involved. Although much of the debate revolved around expected heroes and villains, like Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor and the Daleks, I tried to come at the subject from a different angle in my opening statement, to get people thinking about heroes in a fresh light. It seemed to work -- at the end of the debate, everyone voted for whether heroes or villains were best, and heroes just shaded it!!!!! Here follows the speech I gave.


    According to my dictionary, a hero is a person admired for great deeds and noble qualities. When I first started thinking about this argument, I planned to focus on heroes in that mould, like Batman, James Bond, the Famous Five, Jim Hawkins. People who face over the top villains and get the better of them. But then I cast my thoughts back and remembered the books I enjoyed most when I was a child and teenager, and the characters who stand out in my mind after all these years. And I realised that although I certainly enjoyed reading about Batman and the Famous Five, they weren’t the heroes who made a lasting, deep-rooted impression on me. In fact, the heroes I enjoyed most were those who weren’t necessarily heroes at all, at least not according to the dictionary definition. At that point I drew up a shortlist of a few of the books which mattered most to me when I was younger, and looked at the qualities of the main characters. And as I studied them, I began to realise that actually they WERE heroes, that the dictionary definition is flawed, that there is much more to being a hero than defeating the latest baddie and saving the world. There are alternate heroes, what I call TRUE heroes. And these are the type of heroes I’m going to focus on today, because I think once I get you thinking about them too, you’ll realise that TRUE heroes are far more multi-layered, interesting and memorable than any number of histrionic villains.

    I’m going to focus on three books which had a massive impact on me when I was younger to help illustrate what TRUE heroes are like. First, in The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall, a boy called Chas McGill collects war souvenirs. It’s World War II, the Blitz is in full flight, and he often spends his nights in a bomb shelter with his family. But in the daytime he looks for war memorobilia. He has a great collection of bullet shells, bomb tailfins and so on, but then he finds a machine gun from a crashed plane, and everything changes. He installs it in a camp which he and a few of his friends are building. None of them are cool. They don’t have loads of friends at school. They’re misfits. One night they think the Germans have invaded, and every member of the group races to the camp, where they prepare themselves to fight, certain they’re going to die, but determined to go down fighting.

    In fact it’s NOT an invasion, and at the end of the book they end up in a LOT of trouble. Their camp is taken over, the group is broken up – never to see each other again – and some of them are even sent to the 1940s version of juvenile delinquent centres! But what endears us to them is the fact that they TRY. They think the end is coming, and rather than sit in bomb shelters with their families, waiting for the worst, they make the effort to fight destiny, to make a stand, to go out heroically.

    In The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, a boy called Jerry Renault goes to a school in a which a gang called the Vigils exercises unhealthy control, forcing students to do things they don’t want to. Every year the school organises a sale of chocolates, to raise funds. This year the Vigils tell Jerry not to sell any chocolates — they want to rock the boat a little. Jerry goes along with them and endures a hard time. Then, when the teachers are furious with him, the Vigils tell him he can start selling the chocolates — but he refuses. He doesn’t want to bow to their pressure. He resists, even though the entire school turns against him, staff and students alike. He stands alone. His mother has recently died. His father is still in mourning and distant. Jerry feels lonely and scared. But he stands up to the bullies. He refuses to back down. And is he rewarded for his struggles? Does he come away smiling and triumphant, like most so-called heroes do when they face a challenge? Nope! He ends up getting beaten to a pulp in front of a huge crowd, so badly that he needs an ambulance. He even ends up regretting his actions. He thinks to himself near the end of the book, “I have to tell Goober to play ball, make the team, sell whatever they want you to sell, do whatever they want you to do. They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it, not unless it happens to be their thing too. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.”

    But despite his regret and ultimate defeat, Jerry DOES disturb the universe, and for that reason he’s a REAL hero, just like Chas McGill in The Machine Gunners, and that’s why even in defeat and tragedy we care about them. A villain HAS to win. If a villain plots and schemes and kills people and takes the world to the brink of destruction, and then FAILS, we just feel derision. We sit there thinking, “Sucker! You’ve blown it! What a loser!” Because we don’t really CARE about them. They entertain us, yes, but ultimately we expect them to lose, and want them to lose, and don’t care too much when things go wrong for them.

    But we DO care about heroes. In real life, we all know it’s hard to go against the masses, to pit yourself against a crowd. We know how difficult it is to stand up for something you believe in, to defy the will of your friends and family. And we also know that even if you ARE heroic enough to take a stand, your efforts probably won’t amount to much, that, like Chas McGill and Jerry Renault, you won’t get to enjoy a fabulous victory. If you’re a vegetarian, your refusal to eat meat probably won’t cause others to stop eating it. If you’re concerned about the environment and you recycle and do what you can to help protect the planet, you’re fighting a long, hard battle, and many people are just going to ignore you. That’s life!

    But it’s the EFFORT that matters, that makes you heroic. It’s trying, even when you know you can’t win, that makes a TRUE hero. That’s one of the key reasons why heroes in books – in GOOD books – are much more interesting than villains. They’re not one-dimensional. You can explore their failures along with their successes. You can experience the dark side of being a hero. When a villain loses, so what? Send them to Arkham Asylum or run them through a meat grinder. They only matter to us while they’re in pursuit of victory. When their plans unravel, as they virtually always do, we lose interest in them and forget about them. But if a hero loses, as they do occasionally in really good books, like The Machine Gunners or The Chocolate War, that shakes us up and saddens us, and makes us examine the world and think about concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, victory and defeat. Villains are fun, certainly, I’m not going to argue that point — but flawed heroes like Chas McGill and Jerry Renault, who face up to real or imaginary threats and FAIL … they can change the way we think about the world and ourselves.

    Bless the Beasts & Children, by a guy called Glendon Swarthout, is a book about six losers at a summer camp. They all have personal problems. They’re clumsy and cowardly, a couple wet their beds, one sucks his thumb, another has tried to commit suicide. They come last in all the challenges at camp and are constantly mocked by the other teenagers. Every team at the camp gets a trophy, to show their status. Because their team is bottom of the camp league, they’re given a bed-pan, and are called The Bedwetters by everybody else. Naturally, this does nothing for their already low sense of self-esteem! They feel worse than ever, worthless, helpless. But then they see a group of buffalo being slaughtered and are horrified. The buffalo are part of a larger herd, and the rest are to be killed the next day. The leader of the Bedwetters, a boy called John Cotton, urges the others to try and help him set the remaining buffalo free.

    The book is about how even the lowest of us can find heroic qualities within ourselves, how all of us have the power to change ourselves and the world around us. This is the great thing about TRUE heroes — they can be weak, pitiful losers! Most of us probably think of the likes of Batman and Superman when we think of heroes, guys of steel and courage. But ARE they that heroic? Superman has amazing powers. Batman is a billionaire and can build all sorts of cool gadgets. It’s easy to be a glitzy hero in those circumstance. Batman and Superman are the sort of heroes we might LIKE to be in an imaginary world, but they’re not realistic, so I don’t think we form the same attachment to them as we do to REAL heroes. That’s why the Joker and Lex Luthor are so popular — because we don’t really care about Batman and Superman. We WANT the villains to come back against them. In an odd way, we WANT heroes like that to get hurt, to see them suffer. They’re not TRUE heroes, and that’s why we sometimes prefer the villains in those types of tales. But in a book with TRUE heroes, I think we always prefer the heroes to the villains.

    To give an example. In Bless the Beasts & Children, there’s a scene where the Bedwetters set out to steal another team’s trophy. In the camp, if you successfully steal another team’s trophy, you can keep it and you take over that team’s place in the standings. But the raid goes wrong, the other team catches the Bedwetters and they tie all six of them to a tree. Then the members of the other team fetch the Bedwetters’ bed-pan, urinate into it and … well, I think you can guess what happens next!

    Now, in Superman, that would be hilarious. Can you imagine? Superman closes in on Lex Luthor. Lex looks like he’s panicking, his great plan foiled, about to be caught and sent back to prison yet again. But then Lex throws a vial of liquid over Superman, who stops and splutters, “Oh no! Liquid Kyrptonite! I’m doomed! I’m going to die slow and horribly and … Wait a minute. This isn’t green. It’s yellow. And what’s that strange, acidic yet somehow pleasant in a weird way, smell? It surely can’t be … Lex — Nooooooooo!!!!!!!” Now, in a situation like that, who wouldn’t cheer for the villain? If a scene like that ever appeared in a Superman comic, I’d join the Lex Luthor fan club for life!

    But in Bless the Beasts & Children, it isn’t funny. Because these six guys are mirror images of you and me. I’m pretty sure most of you, like me, have failed at things in life. You haven’t been picked for a team. Your parents haven’t let you go to a game or concert that you’re dying to see. You’ve been made fun of in class by a teacher, or picked on by a bully. We all have horrible moments, times when we feel low, unwanted and unloved, just like the six Bedwetters in Bless The Beasts & Children. We can see shades of ourselves in these poor losers. And when they’re humiliated in such a cruel fashion, when a bedpan full of urine is thrown over them, as a reader you feel nothing but sympathy. You don’t laugh, because you hate that this has been done to them, because you know that in a world like that – the world that WE live in, the world of REAL villainy and heroism – it could just as easily happen to YOU.

    TRUE heroes are like us — flawed, scared, lonely. The villains in great books aren’t evil masterminds with secret powers, but the everyday type of bully, nasty teacher or uncaring parent or friend that all of us have encountered many times in our lives. We connect with these heroes because they show that no matter what our own flaws might be, we can at least TRY to overcome them. We can TRY to be better people, to stand up for ourselves, to fight for what we think is right. We won’t always succeed, and even if we do, success won’t always be as sweet as we wish it was. But there’s hope for us. When TRUE heroes find strength and courage within themselves, we cheer for them in a way we’ll never cheer for the Joker, Lex Luthor or any other outlandish evil-doer. No villain can make us feel the way a TRUE hero makes us feel — that we’re not alone in the world. That there are others like us, or even worse off then us, struggling with life and their limitations. Others who find inner strength and try to change the universe, despite the realistic odds and impossibility of success. Others who make us feel truly better about ourselves, who show us there’s hope in even the gloomiest and unlikeliest of situations. That’s what TRUE heroes do which no villain can — they give us hope. And that’s why I think you’re going to vote for heroes today, because you know a world in which cheap villains matter more than true heroes is a world without hope. I don’t think any of us want to live in a world like that. And TRUE heroes like Chas McGill, Jerry Renault and the Bedwetters help us believe that we don’t.
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