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Online literature gives heroes more human touch

ZHOU XINGJIE | 2021-01-13
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Adapted from a hit web novel, the Chinese fantasy drama Martial Universe has grabbed headlines overseas, since being aired in 18 different countries and regions. Photo: CHINA DAILY


Since heroes first appeared in ancient myths, storytelling and the hero archetype have been inseparable. As times change and ideological influences correspondingly shift, hero depictions have begun to vary in images and in narratives. In today's online literature, the accounts of heroes exemplify a different narrative style from previous literary works.
 
From nobody to somebody
A prominent feature of hero-themed online literature is to describe the protagonists' path towards empowerment, particularly in stories centered on male heroes. Most of the protagonists in male-dominated online novels initially do not see themselves as heroes, but become stronger with time. As the stories unfold, they fight their way from the bottom up, changing themselves from weak to strong. Lofty ideals don't necessarily drive the protagonists' growth, it is more common to see characters attempt to protect themselves and thereby protect those close to them. Therefore, such stories always start with the hero in a disadvantageous situation, bullied and shamed, then a moment awakens them, and they desperately strive to gain strength.
 
Typically, the hero's journey of personal growth in most male-dominated online novels is driven by the conflict between hostile forces and his growing power. In this process, the hero usually does not follow the path of classic heroes in previous literary creations, who make contributions and sacrifices out of a sense of morality and obligation. Rather, these subjects act from an urgent need to protect themselves. Every time they fight back, it’s because someone has hurt them, someone close to them, perhaps even someone on their side. Therefore, in most hero-themed web novels, the protagonist can only be described as a strongman, not a hero.
 
However, in famed web novels such as Lord of the Mysteries, The Legend of Supreme Whuu, and Martial Universe, as the heroes become more attached to the people they care about, or more people depend on them and look up to them, their responsibilities grow and they embrace this new fate. In the end, the protagonists become the most powerful beings in their known universe, by which time they encounter an unpredictable crisis, such as the invasion of powerful aliens, the destruction of the world, and so on. To protect their loved ones, they volunteer to shoulder the responsibility of combat, even at the cost of their own life, to win the final victory. When protagonists live through great ordeals to safeguard the planet and the universe, they are no longer just strongmen, they ascend, and they become heroes. In other words, by the end of these heroic narratives, the destinies of the strongman and the hero overlap.
 
In the new era, a hero's representation in literature has changed to a certain extent. They are no longer perfect, but a flesh-and-blood existence with a unique personality. Writers prefer to portray their heroes as flawed and human. In previous literary works, the most popular way to depict protagonists was to strengthen the sanctity and high moral standards of heroes. The way in the new era is to emphasize the ordinary beginnings of a hero's life. Nowadays, web novels take it a step further, adding a bit of mediocrity in with a hero's ordinary roots. 
 
For example, a popular genre centers on people who have no intention of becoming heroes, or even avoid standing out, as in The Fake Big Hero. The protagonist is a nobody who is afraid of death, but due to his strong drive for survival, he accomplishes a series of impossible missions, saving himself, his relatives, and the country, and finally becomes a de facto "big hero."
 
In fact, most of the heroes in web novels are ordinary people with the "golden touch," which makes everything they do successful, until they become the chosen one with infinite power. However, climbing the social ladder with this new edge does not change their secular, civic interests and values. Or, to put it another way, this newly gained capacity makes it easier for them to satisfy their simple, down-to-earth desires. 
 
Therefore, the heroes in online fiction have a blunt attitude toward the pursuit of mundane desires, even after they have fought their life-and-death battles. It can be said that the heroes in most web novels are ordinary people who have achieved heroic deeds with the aid of the "golden touch."
 
Identifying with common folks
Such a change of tone in online heroic narration is by no means an accident. After all, online fiction is born as a form of creative writing destined to give the general public an adrenaline rush. An important psychological foundation is the sense of pleasure which comes from readers relating to the characters, constructing imagined identities and believing "he is like me" and "I'm like him."
 
The protagonist, in comparison to a classical hero, is more an "average Joe" dealing with problems that everyone encounters, conforming to the social experiences of ordinary people, so that they easily bond with the character. As the protagonists fight their way up, grow strong, and defeat those who bully them, readers' sense of pleasure spikes. 
 
Coming from humble roots, these "heroes/readers" are keen on self-protection and have a natural sympathy for the weak, thus wanting to protect them. As this obligation grows, the weak grow strong, and the protagonist turns into a hero, underlying a simple and natural logic. 
 
The well-received web novel Lord of the Mysteries tells the story of protagonist Zhou Mingrui, who finds himself transmigrated into the body of Klein Moretti, a recent history graduate in Tingen City. At first, Klein struggles with life. Then he is recruited into the Nighthawks, a division of guardians who protect the city. The sacrifice and sense of obligation of Dunn Smith, captain of the Nighthawks, makes Klein aware of the meaning of being a guardian. "We are guardians, but also a bunch of miserable wretches that are constantly fighting against threats and madness," Dunn's famous quote, won millions of comments from readers, and many shed tears over it. 
 
As Klein gains power, he never forgets that he is just an ordinary person, despite having defended the city, the nation, and eventually the world in the fight against the evil. Such a setting and narration lay a rich emotional foundation for the growth of a character's personal power and sense of responsibility, which makes readers feel the story is authentic and believable. 
 
From the readers' perspective, this genre of narration in web novels is an answer to the readers' call for heroism. There are numerous examples in Chinese and foreign myths, legends, dramas and popular novels built on heroes, the subject's popularity in web novels is only a continuation and development of such a tradition. Though the current trend does not greatly promote the depth of narrative thought, to some extent, it restores the sublime feelings contained in hero myths. 
 
At the same time, in the Internet era, the hero is not only a guardian for us, but also one of us. More often than not, he or she is usually more of an everyman than a classical hero, with flaws and problems to which people can relate to.
 
For example, the protagonist Xiao Yan in Battle Through the Heavens, loses his aura as a genius and Ji Ning in The Legend of Jade Sword is also an invisible figure in society. Both nobodies end up great heroes that maintain the peace of the world and the universe. Even as they become heroes, readers could still find familiarities in them.
 
Significance of heroic narration
In a broad sense, the inheritance and development of heroic narratives in online literature is of great significance to literary and artistic creation in the contemporary era. 
 
As we can see, extant classics have an impact on current and future literary creation. Now, if successful works can emerge from narratives of heroes online, then these works will influence future literary creation in a more direct way. Therefore, we must emphasize value orientation in these accounts, making sure that in the new virtual social arena of cyberspace, values such as the sense of a guardian's obligations passes on to future generations. 
 
Chinese President Xi Jinping once said that a hopeful nation cannot be without heroes, and a promising country cannot be without a vanguard. At present, web novels are undertaking the important mission of literary and artistic creation in the new era in shaping heroic images. Therefore, online novelists should take advantage of this creative environment and write new heroes that meet the needs of contemporary readers. To say the least, the hero narration in web novels helps us to admire, defend, learn, and care about heroes, and at the same time promotes the prosperity and development of literary and artistic creation in the new era.
 
Zhou Xingjie is a professor from the School of Humanities and Law at Guizhou University of Finance and Economics. 
 
Edited by YANG XUE