We generally call the main character in a book the “hero,” but that doesn’t mean he is always heroic, right? Generally, heroes fall into three categories: Captain America (the hero who is truly heroic and really only struggles with the forces against him), Thor (the hero who doesn’t start off particularly great, but eventually learns true heroism, often through self-sacrifice), and Average Joe (who is…you know, average). The character of Average Joe intrigues me most, because, no matter your super hero preference, most of us will still say we like and identify with Joe. But are most instances of Joe, the human hero, really all that human? Or are they still a little on the super side? And better yet, how human can we let Joe become?
For purposes of examination, I’m going to use Poldark, a 1970s British mini-series about life in a small English village* during the upheaval of the late 1700s. If you haven’t seen it, I only have one word: Epic. Not what I would call “family friendly,” but epic in a way that makes you sad it’s over….Anyway…
The series centers around Ross Poldark, a British soldier returning home after the failed attempt to keep America a colony, only to find that his image of “home sweet home” has become just about as disastrous as his military career. Ross is the average man, trying to rebuild his life and career against a tide of disappointment and unwanted adventure, but he is also very human. That is to say, he is always ready to stand up for what is right, but he also suffers from pride and a quick temper that frequently gets him into trouble. He is the man who will run into danger to save someone and is willing to right any wrongs he may have caused, but he will also excuse the crimes of the people who are close to him and justify a few of his own if he feels it will save his family. He loves deeply, but sometimes very selfishly. In other words, Ross is human.
But can we love him anyway? Can we still say we identify with the average man when that average man is “looking the other way” about something or losing his temper over an apparent offense? One might say that is when he identifies with us most.
It is perhaps the end of the story that makes Ross the most human. Although he does plenty of self-sacrificing throughout the story, he doesn’t have a “Thor-like” moment in which all selfishness and pride are lost. No, we are all pretty sure that Ross will have hero and a little villain in him for the rest of his life.
I know some who did not like that ending. They wanted to have the sense that all of Ross’s faults were gone and he’s off to live happily ever after. And there are some who could never like him, because he didn’t have that Captain America shield to ward off every temptation that came his way.
But I think over all we might say that Ross is the character you just can’t help liking after all…and perhaps he is the character we should like after all.
So, have you ever met a character too human to like?
*For those of you who hear “small English village” and think quaint and boring…you obviously haven’t lived in a small English village during the 1700s. Epic, my friend, epic.