Surviving the End: Sterlizing the Hero and the Lie of Omission

Even when you win, you haven’t finished. What you’ve really done is survived.  In many works of speculative fiction the last chapter, the final few moments of the show or the movie is full of fireworks and toasting. We survived! Most of us lived! Apocalypse averted. Whoopee.

But that’s not the world we live in. After the credits roll, we have to keep living. We have to keep going. And no major event leaves us without a bag of trash, a refugee population or a scar to deal with.

There is a human need to hear these stories. And people write them. They write about the after effects of rape, the after effects of war, living with post dramatic stress disorder, the after effects of child abuse and broken marriage and even divorce. They’re writing about after effects. They’re writing about the pieces we’re left with, the damaged people that we are that keep living through each day. How do we become whole again? Or if not whole, how do we put the pieces back together in a way that makes some semblance of life is meaningful?

In fanfiction, a lot of the story lines starts after all of, a major section, or a huge drama has happened in the original work. Many of the best fanfiction writers will pick up the story in one of these places and start writing about everything that’s left.

Gandalf the White

We don’t see these stories so much in the blockbuster focused market, or the mainstream as some people would call it. Stories have been the big awesomeness of “We made it! We Won! Thor’s come down, the Avengers are winning, blah, blah, blah, everything’s finished. Isn’t Gandalf awesome?”

But we don’t hear about rebuilding New York. We don’t see Thor crying in the back room about loosing his brother. We don’t see this stuff.

The after effects are where the bigger story really exists. That’s where we really deal with the personal shit that makes us human, that gives us empathy, that allows us as readers to forgive ourselves for not being superheroes.

So often I reach the end of a book where I’ve come to love and adore the characters and I know that if I were them, I’d be having nightmares for the rest of my life and limping from that gunshot wound or sword cut for years to come. But the After Effects aren’t mentioned. The mead is drunk, the party roles out and it’s over. Some people complain about the long winding end to the Lord of the Ring’s movie. I though it was too short. Frodo went on the Gray Ships because he had been so fundamentally wounded by his experiences that a form of death or at least passing was the only merciful answer to his pain.

Authors, I believe, are put in a difficult position. It is nearly impossible to write a hero-saves-the-day by his courage and strength and defeats the evil of the galaxy, crash boom, thunder and lighting and then continue in the same book with the same readers into moments of sensitivity, emotional breakdown and despair and eventual healing.

Harry Potter is an excellent example. Rowling wrote a child’s story that developed into a young adult story that was enjoyed by all ages. She crashed through to the end and many of us followed straight along, hooked to the edges of our seats, staying up late reading, crying when Harry ‘died’ and cheering when Voldermort FINALLY fell for good.

Harry Potter Epilogue And then Harry marries Ginny in the epilogue and Draco has a kid – ‘scary thought’ – and somewhere along the line Ron and Hermione worked out their issues. It’s all domestic normality with a possible dose of bliss. There is a large cadre of readers who simple pretend they never read that. I’m one of them. Why? Because no one lives through what those characters lived through and comes out without a tick, a limp or some phobia.

For example, I’m scared of spiders. I was not born that way.

While living in China, I had a spider crawl into my mouth and bite me in my sleep. In a few minutes it had spread to the rest of my face and down into my neck. Breathing was difficult. It was five o’clock in the morning. I was in a backwater city by myself. Scared, I put on my coat and shoes and walked to the hospital. There was no one at the front desk. As I walked around the only person I saw ducked his head as soon as he saw my foreign face and scuttled. The longer I wandered looking for help, confused and moving slowly, the more scared I became. I knew I wasn’t thinking well. There was a second hospital down the road. I managed to walk there. The nurse at the front just kept pointing to the time that the place opened and ignored me, despite it being an emergency room. Even though I could speak Mandarin, Chinese people, especially in the countryside, have a deep abiding belief that foreigners can not. Finally, in frustration, I sat my butt down in front of her desk and figured that once I passed out and bounced my skull off the floor, she’d scream and get help. Cracking skulls does that to people.

Just writing about this is raising my heartbeat. My face hurts. Even once I got help, the medicine had only a so so effect and it was a week before I knew without a doubt that I’d keep breathing. I’d go to sleep wondering if I’d wake up. A few months later an actual deadly spider crawled onto my hand in a freak event. I got it off, but I felt my face start to swell and it hurt to breathe. I could still feel the spider on me. I had to keep asking my companion, if my face was getting larger. My perception of reality was so skewed I had to trust what my companion was telling me because I didn’t know what was real and what was memory. My own body was lying to me.

That was just a spider…and a bunch of people not helping me when I needed it. Think about Hermione from the Potter Universe. She was actually tortured.

You keep living your life and you do what you can, but those kind of things are not ones you simply walk away from.

Time-Magazine-Veteran-Suicide-CoverIn the U.S. we have an  quiet epidemic of veterans committing suicide. This is After Effect. The war, for them, might be over, but in their heads, it isn’t. You are everything you’ve ever been and every moment you’ve ever lived. The one thing you can’t walk away from is what you are and what you remember. Moments of time between life and death are imprinted on the brain with twisted clarity. Time slows down, details become unnaturally distinct. The brain itself changes. Decisions are made for better or worse in split second timing, based on instinct more than on our rational selves.

We remember it. Whether or not we remember what actually happened is up for debate situation by situation but we remember something.

So we come again to the last chapter of our book or the last scene in our movie. The cheering is dying away, friends are holding hands. Even the grumpy character in the back might crack a tiny smile.

Black Screen. Roll credits.

It feels good to watch. It’s nice to know the world is back to where it should be and everyone is happy again. That’s why we watch these hero movies or read the books. The resolution feels amazing.

It’s not a lie so much as cutting the footage quick enough to hide the difficult truth.

There is a trend now, among some shows and books, that I appreciate very much. Shows like Heroes has actually investigated what happens after, what changes. I’ve seen seasons 1-4 at the moment, again, not in a place where I can watch the rest. Also, Doctor Who, to some extent, delves into After Effects, which makes the story stronger. The Return of the King, book form, eludes to After Effects. Babylon 5 was amazing for handling fall out from events in its storyline.

Stories go on forever. One event leads to the next. Last chapters come in a rhythm and there’s reason they come at the artificial ‘end’ of the story. The plot has come upon an event like the defeat of a threat or the accomplishment of a mission. We have to end books somewhere. But we know the story goes on.

Authors are in a difficult place here, because the reader who is willing and possibly even needs to fall into the dark after a damaged or depressed hero and live with him or her through to the other side, is not necessarily the reader who wants to cheer on the side lines as the same hero, brash and bold charges the dragon with only his courage and a steel stick.

Natasha Black Widow AvengersIn some cases, they are. I would love to read a book about Natasha from the Avengers and how she came to be what she is and maybe, possibly, what’s going on between her and Hawkeye. There’s some tension there for sure. To get into her head, watch her unwind a little, maybe even prank Iron Man once would be awesome.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that if Rowling sat down and wrote a post-Hogwarts book for Harry where he goes on a drinking binge mourning the loss of his grandfather and breaking up with Ginny because she can’t ‘get him’ would go over very well with the fans that are there for the drama. I’d read it, but some people would definitely get angry.

The audience for the blockbuster hero is probably larger. It’s also considered ‘safer’ and ‘family friendly’. I would argue a diet just of those kind of stories with ending scenes cut on the final celebration and no After Effect acknowledgement is damaging. As a child, I wanted to live up to my heroes and be as tough as them and never cry or acknowledge pain. Of course, I woefully failed. I’m human! It wasn’t until I started reading books like Star Wars the Expanded Universe and following Luke Skywalker as he dealt with his After Effects that I realized that there really was this entire other world. It was liberating as a teenager and it was like crashing into a whole new universe as a reader.

Where does this conundrum leave us as readers and writer? We should give ourselves permission to tell the whole story, whether its in a sequel or in a form that warns the reader what they’re getting into or doing it in a kick-ass way with multiple story lines like the show Heroes does. I believe it will enrich genre literature and the lives of readers. If someone yells foul or ‘save the children’ the fact is many of these stories being written today about really damaging things and surviving them are being written by our children, posted under pen names online and read by other children.

The children are already there. They already know shit happens. Some of them are watching family members come back from war, or have experienced child on child violence. They’ve hidden in their closets and listened to they parents yell. I’m guessing a lot of them are just waiting for the adults in their lives to stop lying to them. Haddix’s Among the Hidden series is an excellent example of dystopian writing for young people. She deals with issues just as dark and as ugly as anything else. Maybe the sexuality isn’t blatant and the world view is focused down onto the eyes of one child, but if kids can read that, they’re going to handle Thor getting broke up about his family situation or Frodo having nightmares.

It’s also for us, the adults in this world. Finish the story. Acknowledge the After Effects. Find a little honesty for yourself. Maybe you graduated from college on your own without help from family. Awesome. How’s your health? Or the new job, did wonders for your reputation in the industry. Where’s your relationship with your children now?

The hero is the hero because of what he or she does. They’re human like us, because they cry. Our myths serve us well only as long as they move us towards a more human and reasonable existence.

In my world, Frodo has nightmares and Faramir asks Aragon about the last moments of his brother.

Frodo at the End


Photo Credits:


Harry Potter:

Time’s Cover: 



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8 Responses to Surviving the End: Sterlizing the Hero and the Lie of Omission

  1. Really good post. Years ago, I read a writing book that discussed the Hero’s Journey and mythic archetypes. In this book, the author discussed the prevalence in Western storytelling largely omits the hero’s return and home in which s/he is sharply contrasted with how s/he was prior to the journey – that by not showing the full personal sacrifice the hero has made, it’s in effect suggesting the idea of self-sacrifice for the good of a community or an ideal is foolish.

    Like you, I like having at least a hint of What Happens After, if not a full examination of it as part of the main story. I really enjoyed the end of LOTR, and Mockingjay as well for that reason. A lot of reviewers found Katniss’s PTSD depressing and overly grim, but I found it so realistic after all she’d been through.

    But that right there is part of the problem: many (if not most) people use their entertainment as a way to escape realism, not be exposed to additional forms of it. I suppose I’m the same was as well, at times. But most of the time, I want my entertainment, not to take me away from the real world, but to show me possibilities for how the real world can be made better. Part of this comes from showing the full extent of what’s happening in the story world (which is representative of our own).

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Mockingjay was depressing and grim. Katniss had been through so much. Sometimes in seeking escapism I think audiences forget the reason that certain events make them cling to the sides of their seats is because consequences are coming. I have to respect Collins for not glossing over the end of Katniss’s hero journey. The problem is as you stated, escaping realism versus the full hero journey. Thank you for commenting! I wasn’t thinking of the Hero’s Journey, but it fits perfectly.

  2. James says:

    Great post there, kudos!

  3. Ciara Darren says:

    Ooh! Firefly! I’m right there with you. There’s the dread, but yes, usually just excited. And Star Wars EU, cried and cried over a few of those. Agents of Shield, that I have not explored. Still in Japan here, so many things don’t get streamed and there’s too many universes I love to go buy the DVD’s…sigh. Soon, soon. I’ll be back in the States.

    • mobewan says:

      I think the key is conviction is telling a compelling and realistic (to get back on point with regard to your post) story regarding what happens post ‘survival’. I too love the end of the LOTR films, both the warmth and heartache that’s encapsulated is the perfect end to the saga. Hunger Games was the same (books, not watched the films). Despite not enjoying the second and third books particularly, the epilogue after the third was pitch perfect. SW EU has been the same. Yes there have been ups and down and for every story I’ve loved (Mara Jade arc for instance…wary of spoilers for you or others) there have been others I’ve not clicked with (Jacen Solo springs to mind), but I still enjoyed them because they were told with conviction. I respected the authors right to tell a well told story whether I liked it or not.

      I think thats why Agents of Shield winds me up so much. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that it’s meh. If you are going to tell the story of ‘what happened next…’, have the encourage of your convictions to tell a story you believe in, even if all your audience might not agree.

      • Ciara Darren says:

        I don’t know the Agents of Shield story line. Something tells me I’ll have to get around to it sometime. Thank you for bringing up conviction. Spot on. I’ve had some of my favorite authors take their characters places I was very uncomfortable with, but they maintained their integrity as storytellers and I followed along anyway. Michael Stackpole comes to mind. I think it was the Dragon Crown Wars. I’ll still read whatever I find of his next, because he tells stories I can believe in and get behind.

        Really appreciate the thoughtful comments.

  4. mobewan says:

    I’ve read just about every Star Wars EU book and graphic novel out there. Star Trek too. I have a burning desire to find out what happens to my heroes (and the villains) after the credits roll. Do I always agree with the direction they take? No, but hey, if someone has the balls to right something in a much loved world, then as long as the quality of the writing is good then I’m happy to be swept along. That’s why I get ridiculously excited every time I see a news story about firefly coming back. Or Farscape.

    But a little bit of dread sneaks in too. Especially more so recently.

    Because, you know, Agents of Shield.

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