Note. This post is adapted from the introduction I wrote for the Blackhearts Omnibus, for Black Library’s Warhammer Universe. Though originally specific to that book, it remains the best summation I’ve managed to write about my philosophy of heroes and heroic fiction.
When I moved out to Hollywood twenty five years ago, my “big idea” was to write traditional action movies with non-traditional heroes. I loved action movies – still do – but I got tired of the heroes. Too many of them were big, square-jawed white guys who ran around like they owned the place and solved all their problems with their fists or their guns – James Bond, Dirty Harry, Commando, Rambo, Batman, Robo-Cop. They were always the biggest, toughest – and here’s the important one – the least human characters in the movie.
True, there were exceptions, and it was the exceptions that I loved the best. Aliens, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, The Road Warrior, Southern Comfort – all starred heroes that had at least some flaws and a few scraps of humanity.
I wanted to take that notion further. I wanted my heroes to be people of average ability but above-average heart – working men, house wives, punk rockers, beat cops, common soldiers, small time hoods – who were swept up in an extraordinary situation and, because they weren’t the best fighters or athletes, and because they didn’t have the biggest guns or biceps, had to use their guts and their brains to stay alive and save the day.
Needless to say, I didn’t sell too many scripts, but when Black Library asked me to write a novel for them… well, I thought I’d give my ‘big idea’ another shot.
In his introduction to The Founding, the first Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus, Dan Abnett talked about choosing to write about the grunts of the Imperial Guard because he couldn’t relate to the ‘too perfect’ space marines. I had the same problem with Warhammer Fantasy. I loved the grim horror and grimy patina of the Old World, but I didn’t want to write about the noble knights of the Empire. I couldn’t get inside their heads. To me, they were the same big, square-jawed white guys who bored me to tears in the movies.
How could anyone care about men so brave, and so certain in their beliefs, that they never have a moment of fear or doubt. I don’t believe these people exist, and if they do, I don’t want to know them. They’re dangerous to be around and they’re boring to talk to at parties. If you have no fear of the enemy and don’t think twice about running into burning buildings to save dewy-eyed children, you’re not a hero, you’re an idiot. A hero, at least in my mind, is the guy who pees his pants when he thinks about the enemy, is terrified of burning, and yet, when faced with the choice of fleeing or doing the right thing, overcomes his fears and runs into the fire.
So, I wrote about my kind of heroes – the Blackhearts - a noble second son turned failed student and professional gambler, a pair of sly farm boys, a field surgeon with nasty habits, a larcenous mercenary, a construction engineer, a fencing instructor, a quartermaster, a student of botany, and a handful of low ranking professional soldiers, and many others. There wasn’t a square-jawed hero among them. Of course they had the occasional heroic impulse, but those were surrounded by episodes of villainy, cowardice, self-doubt, self-loathing, self-interest, and plain old stupidity. And they rarely won with their swords. They won with guts, determination and brains – crapping themselves all the while. And, when left to my own devices, I have followed them with characters of similar stripe, a noblewoman turned vampire whose every heroic action is bracketed by fits of teenaged tantrums, a biker chick who is willing to let murderous revenge trump loyalty, friendship, and honor, and there are more to come, I hope. Many more.
There is a precedent for my sort of hero. There was a time in popular culture when the big guy with the big muscles and the big gun who beat everybody up was the bad guy, and the little guy who stood up to him and fought back with brains and heart and guts was the good guy. Those little guys are my idols – Charlie Chaplin outwitting the Keystone Kops, Robin Hood tricking the Sheriff of Nottingham, Bugs Bunny getting the better of Elmer Fudd, Jackie Chan running circles around an army of gangsters, the Marx Brothers talking circles around an army of bureaucrats, David knocking out Goliath with nothing but a rock and a leather strap.
The Blackhearts, Ulrika, Jane Carver, they’re the scrappy descendants of these little guys – hard-luck losers trapped in a world of monolithic armor-clad behemoths that care not one whit for the survival of the mere mortals scrambling desperately to stay alive beneath their enormous, iron-shod feet. I wanted the stories of my heroes to be a reminder that, no matter what insignia the behemoths may wear, or what philosophy they may spout, a bully is a bully, and no matter how much they beat you down, as long as you’ve got one finger left, you can still poke the bastards in the eye.