Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Heroes Have Families?

By Francine M. Seal

© 2002, Francine M. Seal

Science fiction and fantasy heroes seldom have families, or if they do, they’re severely dysfunctional. When writing stories, there are some very good reasons for this, both social and psychological.

First, it’s unlikely that the hero of the story will be younger than ten years old. That’s because children in our society are watched almost constantly.  If they’re not under the watchful parental eye, they’re in school or being babysat or watched by neighbors - even total strangers, like the people who have appointed themselves as “child protectors.”  You end up with a society much like ours, where a child can’t have a legitimate accident without some busybody calling child protective services and raising the ugly specter of child neglect or even abuse.

Today when a child disappears for two hours or more, usually even the most lax parents will start calling friends and neighbors. After that it doesn’t take long for the police to be involved. That pretty much eliminates adventures where the hero is gone for days, weeks, or more.

Should the child be lucky enough to have his adventure and return safely (with no cuts, scratches, or bruises) without time passing for his family, he’s off to a safe start. But the minute he starts talking about amazing adventures with mythic creatures or people with magical abilities, people may start wondering about why the child is avoiding reality. If enough people hear the child and the child cannot be dissuaded from talking about these adventures, then parents will be encouraged to clamp down on the child’s imagination, provide more structured activities, or even take the child to a psychiatrist.  In any case the child will not be believed and will likely come to doubt the adventures even happened.

So much for children as heroes in our society.

Theoretically a young teenager could survive in our society long enough to have an adventure, if he were precocious and wily enough. However, up until the child graduates or drops out of high school or is otherwise emancipated, he will face the same problems encountered by a younger child. What may change is the type of abuse suspected and perhaps the identity of the suspected abuser. If abuse is ruled out, then the child may, again, be taken to a psychiatrist to get him to deal with reality in a more mature manner. 

Even Harry Potter had to turn 13 before he could go to Hogwart’s. The premise in those books is that magic is real, but the Dursley’s (who have raised Harry), along with most of the rest of Mundania (the non-magic population), ignore it. And even though Harry Potter is less an adventure or quest than it is a coming of age story, he is still under watchful eyes, for good or evil, if only because of who his parents were.

Now let’s consider adults. A person in his twenties is usually just starting out on his own. He probably has a job, bills, and perhaps even a social life. Disappearing for any length of time without a reasonable explanation results in lost jobs, loss of cars and other items bought on time, and a definite downward trend in the social life, not to mention the very real possibility of a call by worried friends or family reporting a missing person. Law enforcement officials won't exactly look favorably on tales of fighting dragons, rescuing fair maidens, or other “unlikely” scenarios as rational explanations for a person to go missing for extended periods.

Heroes don’t usually have significant others. Indiana Jones doesn’t have a girlfriend; neither does James Bond. Ian Fleming gave Bond a wife only to kill her immediately. What good is a secret agent if he’s always worrying about the safety of his wife?

If we ignore the social reasons, there are still other, psychological reasons why a hero shouldn’t have a family, particularly the older heroes. One very significant reason is distraction.

Imagine if you will, that our heroine, Magic Mary, will be gone for two months while on a quest for a magical amulet guaranteed to reverse pollution. She will leave behind two children, Difficult Debbie and Subdued Sam, and a devoted husband, Reliable Richard. Being a very good wife and mother, Magic Mary makes arrangements to call home every evening.

The first two or three calls are full of “I miss you” and “I love you.”  Then little Debbie gets in a fight at school, and during the ensuing ruckus stomps on a teacher’s foot, breaking the poor woman’s big toe. On top of that, the child refuses to apologize and spits in the principal’s face while waiting for Reliable Richard to pick up her up. What’s Mary’s most logical reaction? To speed home as fast as possible and get her little girl out of trouble, or to hurry home to apply some corrective influence to the child’s posterior  In either case, the end result is that Mary would rush home.

But Mary can’t go home, not now any way. She’s on a vital quest, one that will save the world. So Mary just puts Debbie and her temper tantrums out of her mind and pursues her goal. It would take an exceptionally strong, perhaps even unfeeling, mother to push those worries aside.

Months later Mary is within sight of the amulet but must fight off a hoard of goblins and two very disgruntled dragons to get to it, but it’s time to call home. Does Mary hold up her hands and say, “Wait a minute, guys, gotta' call home.  Take a five minute break.”  I don’t think so. If she did our poor suffering reader would chuck the book in the fireplace and say good riddance.

So Mary can’t call this time , even though she’s called every single day at this time for two months. What happens at home? Does Richard think, “Well, she must be out of range or her batteries have run down.”  Not likely. He’s more likely to think something along the lines of, “Ohmigod, she’s been hurt. Why did I let her go?  What am I going to tell the kids? What’ll I tell our friends who think she’s off taking care of her sick mother?”

When Mary finally is able to call, or shows up at home, she may have some major reassuring to do or she may find that Reliable Richard is tired of being reliable and wants a wife who stays at home and doesn’t worry him or the children or complicate their lives so much.

So while it’s true that families can be the source of a great deal of pleasure, for heroes there are some very good reasons why they shouldn’t have them.