Frodo Baggins is my favorite fictional character.
He accepts a quest that he knows is too much for him, that he’s been told is too much for him. He wants nothing more than to keep on living his comfortable quiet life, but he takes the Ring to Mordor anyway, because he knows he’s the only one who can. He pushes himself to the limit of his endurance and beyond. When he has nothing left; he just keeps going; even when his physical strength gives out and he can no longer walk, he crawls forward. When I read Lord of the Rings as a kid, Frodo shaped my view of what a hero is.
And yet this is a controversial preference. When I reread Lord of the Rings a couple of years ago, I discovered that a lot of people dislike the story because of him, or even love the story but wish he weren’t a part of it. They see him as weak, as not properly heroic. Where I see the ideal hero, they see someone pitiful and passive.
There are two types of fictional heroes, I’ve noticed, that people tend to gravitate towards. And I suspect both are popular for the same reason. When we read, we often put ourselves into the shoes of the main character. It’s natural. We want to imagine ourselves stepping outside of our ordinary lives for a while, defeating monsters and having great adventures. We like to think that if we were those characters, we could do what they do.
The first type of hero is the larger-than-life character, the kind of person we wish we could be. They’re good at what they do—not just good, but the best. They have the skills to get out of any situation they find themselves in. Hardly anything fazes them. The people around them admire them and fall in love with them. They triumph because of their competence. James Bond, for instance, is a classic wish-fulfillment character in this mold.
The second type of character is also wish fulfillment, but in a different sense. These characters aren’t larger than life; they’re ordinary people, or appear to be at first. They might be skilled at certain things, just like we all have our own strengths, but their skills aren’t on a superhuman level. They are not unfazed; they go through their stories as uncertain and afraid as we would be in their situation. But these characters also triumph in the end, and when they do, it’s because of their inner strength.
The first type of character lets us imagine being somebody else—somebody stronger, somebody smarter, somebody better. The second type of character lets us imagine being heroes as we are—ordinary people who are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.
I think I prefer the second type because they let me imagine myself as a hero while remaining myself. To be a James Bond type, for instance I would have to be an entirely different person, with an entirely different personality and set of strengths. And while I can understand the appeal of that kind of fantasy, that’s not what I want. I like who I am, even though my traits aren’t those of the typical hero. I like being a quiet person with a quiet life. I like being more intellectual than physical. I like being cautious and needing time to analyze a situation before acting. In short, I like all the things about myself that would make me completely unsuitable as a larger-than-life action hero. And while it can be fun to step into the head of someone totally different for a while, what I really love are stories that let me be myself in my daydreams of heroism.
And more than that, I love stories that say that people who aren’t the type of person everyone wishes they could be (and really, who among us is capable of being James Bond?) can also accomplish great things—not in spite of who they are, but because of it. Aragorn, after all, who does fit the mold of the classic hero, would have been corrupted by the Ring long before he reached Mount Doom.