Once again I don my Pontification Hat (it’s comfy!). Consider this, gentle reader: most writers do not pluck their inspiration fully-formed from the ether. Sometimes it’s more of a mugging, the writer rifling through the pockets of an influential story for interesting storytelling devices.
We call the worst of these secondhand storytelling conceits cliches, but in the interest of precision another term is probably better: tropes.
Tropes are an essential form of mental language, a series of avenues to stir the emotions and set fire to the imagination while telling a story. But some tropes have been worn thin by overuse, passed around through generations until they’re reduced to threadbare states. Game developers and writers might want to give some thought to breathing new life into these threadbare tropes.
Our subject for today is the unlikely hero. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good rags-to-riches (or farm boy to glory) story. Heroes from common backgrounds are, theoretically, as likely as heroes from any other origin. But there are times when you’d want to say to the farm boy, “Look, son, I think you’re underqualified for the position here.”
The simple fact remains that, in a world with genuine heroes and professionals, some farm boy or theoretical physicist is hardly the first choice for world-saving escapades (I’m looking at you, Link and Gordon Freeman). But probably the most egregious example of this clichÃ© comes in the marketing for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, which explicitly advertises the emergence of “unlikely heroes.”
Now, let’s think about this for a second. By the present of WoW, players and lore figures have fought off no fewer than two demon lords, defied and bested two ancient monstrosities from before recorded time, slain possibly dozens of fallen heroes and local threats, and toppled the throne of the undying king of the undead himself. If any planet has a hero surplus, it’s Azeroth. And if your cabinet breaks, you hire a skilled carpenter; by the same token, if you need a villain slain, wouldn’t you want to turn to somebody with a solid resume in heroism?
Rather than going with yet another tired Hero’s Journey from humble beginnings to epic stature, a game might focus on a veteran, already established as a man or woman to watch. Everyone expects our protagonist to perform — except themselves. The conflict, rather than the hero overcoming ignominy, would be the hero overcoming their own self-doubt and struggling to become the man or woman everyone else expects them to be.
Wouldn’t that be an interesting change?