waiting for more heroes

“If there’s one question that’s bound to make me roll my eyes, it’s about guilty pleasures. You don’t need to feel guilty about the art you love. There are some things in life one should feel guilty about—kicking a puppy, making a child cry, supporting fascism—but liking a particular art, story, character, movie, or song is usually not one of those things.

However, there is one thing I love that keeps me on edge. I don’t feel guilty exactly, but I feel embarrassed and stupid and then feel guilty about those feelings, which might translate into a feeling similar to guilty pleasure? At least in the same area.

See, I finally watched Dungeons & Dragons: A Rogue’s Honor and found myself forced to admit that I like paladins. I really feel like I shouldn’t be saying that in public.

Rogue’s honor aside, I’m not talking about paladins in the strictest Dungeons & Dragons sense here. I’ve read the rules; I know they traditionally have lawful good alignment or allegiance to a chosen deity. I’m a fan in a loose sense. I mean “doer of good,” but it doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

Do-gooders. Champions. Smelly, annoying, rule-abiding (unless the rules are wrong) heroes. I feel very uncool admitting this. It feels like announcing that I’m a boring person who only likes simple, happy stories, which couldn’t be further from the truth. (Okay, I might be boring. Let someone else judge.)

Yet everywhere I go, it’s redemption stories about troubled anti-heroes and villains with no intention of doing anything bad; they just want all the power, you know, and no one can trust it. Apparently, there’s nothing wrong with these characters. I like them very much and sometimes even love them. That’s all there is to it. It’s easy to draw a line between the real world and the stories we tell in it—stories about turbulent times and morally gray characters; stories about fighting back and using every resource to fight back; Doing the right thing, being flawless, getting it right, and only fighting those who are really worth fighting doesn’t always win the fight.

But I don’t think do-gooders have to be simple, bland, or staunch (although in some ways, it’s funny when they are). Can we blame Tolstoy for this lingering idea that good, happy people, like his famous quote about the family, are all alike, and that only the unhappy are interesting and different? Maybe a little bit. And yet, it’s a cultural idea that’s everywhere, from the classic appeal of “bad boys” to the simple fact that Siss have better fashion sense than Jedi. Bad things can be sexy too. Being nice is boring. (Unless you have an American ass, in which case an exception is made.)

I can still think of a lot of do-gooders from TV and movies: the crew of Star TrekStrange New Worlds, Captain and Ms. Marvel, Buffy, and Ahsoka Tano. But when I think about the current book, I hit a wall. It’s hard to find something similar to The Fairy Emperor for many reasons: world-building, complex systems, and meaning of everything from clothes to names, backgrounds, relationships. But it’s also Maya herself, a gentle, kind-hearted person with a position of power she never asked for. The whole book is about how difficult it is – doing good and being yourself in a large system is a challenging and sometimes impossible task.

There are many other such books, correct? I’ve heard a possibly made-up story about how one of the authors of the Expanse series said how annoying it is to have a paladin in your party. (I tried and failed to find direct quotes online.) I love this, but I hate it. I like it for obvious reasons: the whole story of James Holden happened because he couldn’t let it go. Because he’s not shy about imposing his correct views on a universe that won’t necessarily welcome them. But I hate it because I want to stomp my little foot and insist that Holden isn’t annoying! Same with Naomi, Bobby, or anyone else trying to do the right thing in a complicated situation. What started out as the willfulness of a simple, stubborn do-gooder grew into something as complex as the drive of an Avasarala, Amos, or even Inaros.

Kindness is not simple. Popular storytelling has really invested in asking what makes a person bad, or what is truly evil, or what drives people to do dubious, morally risky things—all good questions. Evil is not easy either. Being human is not easy. I just want more stories about people trying to do what they think is good, over and over again, trying, failing, falling down, getting up, dusting themselves off,and trying again. I want stories that show the complexity of being a do-gooder, the challenges they face, and the internal struggles they go through. Because doing the right thing is not always easy, and there is a lot of nuance to it.

In conclusion, liking paladins or do-gooders may not be the most popular choice, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a preference for characters who value kindness, justice, and doing what’s right, even when it’s difficult. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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