Can a Heroine be a Hero?

In the mystery I’m currently writing, a German-speaking character complains that English is a messy and confusing language.  He has run across a young woman who was wounded by an IED in Afghanistan but saved people under fire from snipers and was awarded a medal for bravery.  He calls her a heroine, then backtracks and says no, she’s a hero.  My viewpoint character agrees with him that English is indeed a mongrel language, because her German friend is correct.  A heroine may be a hero, but a hero is never a heroine.  The problem is complicated by the existence of superheroes, not to mention antiheroes, athletes, and celebrities.

When I taught literature, I trained myself to say protagonist and antagonist instead of hero and villain.  In Macbeth, for example, the main character is a serial killer, and Macduff is the closest Shakespeare comes to giving the play a hero.  Macbeth is far more interesting.  There is no doubt at all that he’s the protagonist, but I’m damned if I’ll call him a hero.

Some years back I had a moment of derring-do myself.  I came home from school early, entered the house by the back door, and sensed that I was not alone.  I tiptoed through the kitchen and opened the door to the dining room a crack.  Two burglars were rummaging through the silverware.  They didn’t notice me.  At that point, a smart person would have backed out, gone to the neighbors, and called the police (this was before cell phones).  Did I do that?  No.  I threw the door open, yelled “What are you doing in my house?” at the top of my not inconsiderable lungs, and chased them out the front door.  My neighbors were treated to the sight of a plump middle-aged college teacher chasing two big adolescent males down the block and shouting Chaucerian words.  The rascals got away, fortunately.  When I did call the police, the officer explained what I should have done and warned me not to confront villains again.

So was I a hero?  I think not.  I may be a berserker–my grandmother was Swedish–but I was closer to being a fool than a hero.  And that’s the key.  No thought took place.  I just charged at the burglars.  A real hero would at least have been aware that her safety was at risk.  I was aware of nothing but outrage.

Fiction is not real life.  Fiction is a simulation.  Americans don’t have a very firm grasp on the difference, or we would not have elected Ronald Reagan President.  Reagan apparently confused his heroic deeds on the silver screen with the real thing, which should have sounded a warning but didn’t.  We persist in regarding large, quick men wearing shoulder pads and helmets as heroes too.  Where’s the heroism in bashing other large persons for pay?  I admire the skill of athletes, but they’re very seldom heroes.  And then there are celebrities.  Paris Hilton?  Excuse me?  Even Princess Diana.  Rest her soul, she led a sad life, but she was no hero.  She was a heroine.

“Heroine” is a good example of what happens when a noun takes on a feminine ending.  A heroine may spend an entire novel wringing her hands and waiting to be rescued, preferably by a guy on a white horse.  He is the hero.  She is just the viewpoint.  I no more want to be a heroine than I want to be an authoress.

And now we have superheroes.  They come out of gaming via mythology and comic books.  When they go into action, nothing can hurt them.  What they do is exciting in animation or a game, but less exciting than if they were vulnerable to harm.  In a novel they’re boring.

When I write a mystery, I like to include at least one action that strikes me as heroic, an action that comes out of the dynamics of character.  My protagonist is frequently not the “hero” but a witness.  Antiheroes are a dime a dozen, but a hero is worth waiting for.  One question I always have in mind when I write a mystery is who is going to be the hero this time.

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