Maybe I can’t read or write, but that doesn’t make me an illiterate!
Georgi, The Inspector General, 1949
Georgi was not such a bad fellow. True, he was the stooge of a lying, thieving charlatan. True, he played a primary role in selling healing elixir that was actually furniture polish. But he wasn’t really such a bad fellow.
He showed that one day when a woman tried to buy the furniture polish for her sick husband. “Go away,” he told her. When this failed, he confessed, “This medicine is a fake. I’m a fake. Yakov’s a fake. We’re cheating all the people.”
He didn’t notice until too late that some of the people were close enough to hear. After escaping the angry mob, Yakov sent him away. That’s when Georgi showed why, despite being not such a bad fellow, he was still the stooge of a charlatan. He wandered penniless and hungry for two days before, finally, he was thrown in jail as a vagrant.
Then – you know how crazy life is, especially if you’re in a movie – the town officials mistook him for the inspector general, hunting out corruption in disguise. Having cause to fear, they banqueted Georgi and obeyed him and generally acted as if he were the emperor himself. Georgi took it in bewilderment until, figuring out their mistake, he decided to run.
He was a Hapless Hero. Hapless Heroes are a common device in fiction. They don’t walk into their adventures; they stumble into them. Sometimes they’re pushed. They become heroes by luck, by accident, by anybody’s design but their own.
Hapless Heroes are usually played for comedy. Sometimes they’re endearing and sometimes they’re pathetic; occasionally, like Georgi, they’re both. Yet what makes Hapless Heroes unique is not their lack of competence nor their potential for humor. What makes them unique is that they do not want to be in the story. Their driving desire is to leave. That can be changed, of course, but – authors, take warning! – it must not be forgotten.
Sometimes the Hapless Hero changes through his adventure so that, on the other end of the character arc, he’s strong and confident. Other Hapless Heroes remain hapless to the end. Either way, every Hapless Hero must have his moment – a moment when he acts strongly, ably, and of his own volition.
Because all heroes, even Hapless Heroes, need to be heroic at some point.