Character Profiles: The Masked Hero

We’ve come to save you. This man in the ridiculous black costume – ”

“It art not ridiculous, thou pigeony person!”

” – is the Florid Sword. Or you can call him Gammon, like I do.”

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

The Florid Sword was a dashing hero in black, jumping down from rooftops to skewer Fangs and foil Stranders. As a rule, Stranders need foiling and Fangs need skewering. That so few volunteer for the job is a pity, though not a wonder. This is especially true in the case of the Fangs. Fangs may be stupider than Stranders, but they are also crueler, and they have armies behind them – and the fist of the Nameless One. People usually submitted.

The Florid Sword rebelled. Under the blackness of night and his own clothes, with a quick blade and cat-like grace, he gave a sliver of justice to an oppressed people. Mysterious and anonymous behind his mask, rumors about him ran far.

He was a Masked Hero. Unquestionably, a man has reason to disguise himself in his double life as an outlaw – even when, like Gammon, he is an outlaw in his primary life, too. It’s a wonderfully solid excuse for a grown man to run around in a costume and say things like, “The Florid Sword hath run you through like unto a bolt of iron lightning piercing the watery depths of the Mighty Blapp, may she run wide and muddy all the days of mine own life!”

It’s also a good excuse for an author to have a character exclaim: “I seest only children in the sights I see with mine seeing eyes!” But it must be said that Andrew Peterson is unique in making such dialogue an advantage of the Masked Hero.

Other advantages he finds in the Masked Hero are typical – stock, even. First among them is all the romance and swashbuckling glory of the hero whose face no one knows. Second is playing the mystery of who is behind the mask. Zorro, the perfection of the Masked Hero, began as that sort of drama. The climax of The Curse of Capistrano was when Zorro was revealed to the readers to be Don Diego. A few of them had probably guessed it already, but until then no one knew.

Now everybody knows. Now the drama of Zorro is in watching him try to keep his secret while enemies and friends alike try to uncover it. This is the second way of mining story gold from a Masked Hero. I think it is also the more common one, and probably the more popular.

The Masked Hero is never too far from a cliche, but it’s a good cliche. Something in him makes the imagination leap. Human beings love a secret, after all, and the face behind the mask is a delicious one. Who doesn’t like to see the Masked Hero finally unmasked? And who, knowing the secret, doesn’t like to watch characters try to discover it?

Who wouldn’t like to step out of their ordinary lives, put on a dashing costume, and run into the night to perform daring and heroic deeds?

Character Profiles: The Hapless Hero

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.