The Iconic Hero and the Superversive

I make no bones about the fact that I prefer Sean Connery when I’m talking about James Bond movies. It’s not merely that his take on the character is consistently entertaining, but that it’s consistent period from film to film. This is a man who knows who and what he is, does not apologize for it, and has no issues with what he does; he lives for the mission, and believes in the mission. It’s nothing like Danial Craig’s Bond at all. Robin D.
Laws identifies this as “The Iconic Hero”, and explained in this 2012 post why this is a valid characterization choice:

While a dramatic hero follows a character arc in which he is changed by his experience of the world (examples: Orpheus, King Lear, Ben Braddock), an iconic hero undertakes tasks (often serially) and changes the world, restoring order to it, by remaining true to his essential self.

Prevailing creative writing wisdom favors the changeable dramatic character over his serially unchanging iconic counterpart, but examples of the latter remain enduring tentpoles of popular culture. It’s the clear, simple, elemental iconic heroes who keep getting reinvented every generation. Each such classic character spoke to the era of its invention, while also evoking an eternal quality granting it a continuing resonance. We are going to create a new set of heroes who speak to the contemporary world while evoking the inescapable power of the iconic model.

An iconic hero re-imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood. The nature of his radical individuality can be summed up with a statement of his iconic ethos. It is the ethos that grants higher meaning to the hero’s actions, and a clue to his creator’s intentions. An iconic hero’s ethos motivates and empowers him.

The first paragraph in particular is the mission of a Superversive hero: to restore order to the world. What he does is how he makes that happen, that assertion Laws speaks of, is where the variation lies. In the quoted post, Laws goes over several iconic characters and shows how you can summarize their stories in a sentence by identifying their ethos and how they assert it to restore order to their world time and again. What he doesn’t identify, but nonetheless shows, is that this summary also serves as the basis for every story outline you’ll need in writing stories about those characters that are true and faithful additions to their literary corpus that the readers will accept.

There’s something else that this post, and the concept in it, reveals: how the Enemy subverts the culture. They do resort to making Iconic Heroes into Dynamic Characters, putting them through “arcs” that denigrate their ethos and thereby degrade the characters into agents of subversion to further the Enemy’s agenda. (One need only look at what goes on at Marvel and D.C. Comics to see this in action.)

While stories that have characters changed by the experiences of the narrative are necessary and valuable, this is not a universal requirement. Just look at what’s been done with the Arthurian Mythos to see (a) that it’s not necessary and (b) it’s often done to subvert, degrade, and destroy a targeted culture- and therefore, not to be trusted anymore.

Consider an Iconic Hero when you’re next sitting down to create something, especially if you’re looking to do so as part of a series–writing, gaming, etc.–because you may find it better suited to your objectives than you might think.

  • This is why I do not understand it when people complain about Cap’s part in Civil War. Cap is an Iconic Hero as well as a Superversive hero. He is not supposed to change, just like Sir Galahad – whom Cap resembles in terms of his unwavering sense of right and wrong and his purity of heart – is not supposed to change. In fact the biggest danger to Cap across the board is that he MIGHT be tempted to change. I thought he came close in the church after Peggy’s funeral and in the Berlin base during Civil War, but Cap rose above temptation both times (much to my relief). This also one of the reasons I wish they hadn’t given him a beard for Infinity War; it suggests a dark turn and not only in the story but possibly in Cap’s character, and THAT I will not accept.

    Thank you for this article. It is very informative and interesting.