Wednesday, July 17, 2019

What Makes A Barbarian Hero?

A few weeks back I talked about what makes an anti-hero in Getting Back to Basics When it Comes to Anti-Heroes. So I thought I'd continue examining the archetypes and styles of our stories this week, and delve into one of my personal favorites... the Barbarian Hero!

Things are about the get ripped in here.

Classic Heroes (Through The Lens of The Barbarian)

As I said when we were talking about anti-heroes, the first thing you need to do is to establish the traits and qualities of your Classic Hero. Not to beat a dead horse, but some of the traits you run into included:

- Prowess: Classical heroes were good at things (typically fighting, but other stuff, too).

- Surety: Classical heroes knew what to do, and usually wasted no time doing it.

- Looks: Classical heroes were usually handsome, and were prone to being admired.

- Cause: Heroes of antiquity fought for themselves, while heroes in the middle ages tended to fight for king, god, and other rulers. The difference between Hector and Lancelot, in this one.

- Flawless: Classical heroes had either no flaws, or their single, Tragic Flaw. Sometimes physical, sometimes more metaphorical.

- Special Bloodline: Whether it was from gods or kings, heroes were born special more often than not.

While there was some variation from story to story and culture to culture, this was the typical mold for where heroic characters fit. And from Achilles to Aragorn, this mold is very much a part of our modern storytelling toolbox.

So where do the barbarians come in?
The Barbarian Hero has always been a part of our stories, our legends, and our tales; he didn't just show up a century or so ago under the pen of Robert E. Howard. From ancient myths that described characters like Enkidu the beast man, to Cu Chulainn and his legendary riastrad, and into the modern day with characters like Kull the Conqueror, Tarzan, and the Forgotten Realms' own Wulfgar, the barbarian hero has always been with us.

But what makes the Barbarian Hero different from classical heroes?

The first thing a Barbarian Hero requires is an uncivilized aspect. Whether it's someone from civilization being raised in the wilds like the Earl of Greystoke, or a character who was born and bred in the wilds of the world like Conan, that lack of a civilization is essential to these characters. It should be noted, also, that some characters are merely treated as throwbacks; uncivilized people born into civilized times. Often it's this inherent lack of civilization that acts as the source of the character's power in some way, shape, or form (the savage furies of the north, the rippling thews of the southern jungles, etc.).

Beyond that uncivilized aspect, though, the Barbarian Hero is a creature of both raw physicality, and unstoppable willpower. Many of them are great in stature, as it represents they are different than most men, and even those who are of an average size have a strength far greater than those around them (you see this in The Jungle Book 2, when Mowgli is far stronger than average men because he was raised by wild beasts). Barbarian Heroes also tend to be stronger-willed than average characters, and despite being seen as uncivilized brutes by many, they usually possess a wide variety of skills and experiences, as well as a firm grasp of logic and reason.

One of the final aspects of the Barbarian Hero is that they are often (but not always) positioned opposite their nemesis of the Sorcerer. For while a Barbarian Hero is a rampantly physical character, their greatest opponents are those who use trickery and magic to confound or challenge that strength. In many of these matches it is the Barbarian Hero's sheer force of will, as well as their cat-like reflexes, that allow them to win the day.

This mixing of the heroic with the savage, and keeping many aspects we recognize while mixing them with ones we do not, tends to create interesting characters. And while it is a mold that has waxed and waned over the years, it is not one that has ever really gone away.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction?

One of the odder things about the barbarian hero, as an idea, is that there's some truth to it. According to TV Tropes, older societies often dealt with a slew of problems that could be directly attributed to the problems of civilization. From disease running rampant, to difficulties with inbreeding, to the issue of feeding a large number of people in one location, you often saw weakness that wasn't present in more nomadic, less-developed societies.

That was probably part of where this archetype came from in the first place... because sometimes our actual history influences the stories we tell in some truly bizarre ways.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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