Why Do Heroes Have to Die?

Myth and legend, going back to the beginning of mankind, is dominated by heroes, both male and female. Looking up to brave people, appreciating all they sacrifice to save everyday people is important. They inspire us to do braver things and make the world a better place.

If you want to turn my musing into a learned, literary discussion, please go in the other room. I’m here today to muse about random thoughts that came to me while binge watching “When Calls the Heart,” a Hallmark channel series.

Being a Hallmark production, the series is sloppily sentimental but safe for family viewing. Each episode highlights a community coming together to help each other through troubled times, and to close on a moment of hope.

Idealistic, of course. Life is messier than that.

But I want to look at the character of Jack Thornton, the hero of the story.

As a writer, I look at an entire character arc from the moment he walks on stage to the final curtain.

1) What does Jack want most in life?

He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Mountie, to bring justice to the wronged, to fight the good fight. To enforce the law in the chaotic world of the frontier. He sees the opportunity for this goal with a posting to a city riddled with crime. He knows he can curb some of the lawlessness. A hero in the making, but he is too conscious of his agenda to be a true hero at this moment.

2) What is keeping Jack from achieving this goal?

Jack highly resents that he is assigned as constable in a small frontier town. A wealthy and influential man has called in favors to get a Mountie assigned to this town because his pampered princess of a daughter wants to play at being a teacher in this town. He wants the girl protected. Picture Jack gnashing his teeth but doing his duty.

3) What is the emotional growth Jack must undergo to attain his goal, or to change that goal to something more important.

Over the course of three and a half seasons we watch Jack becoming genuinely heroic. He tracks down outlaw gangs and brings them to justice. He exposes corruption in the town. He rescues people from dangerous situations. He is awarded a medal for his actions and receives a big financial reward for his actions. A hero in the making.

But his true heroism comes in little things. He uses his reward money to build a new school that doubles as a town church. He makes friends and falls in love. It turns out that the teacher isn’t a pampered princess but dedicated to her students. This dirty little frontier town becomes home to both Jack and the teacher.

Jack tries to refuse a dangerous assignment because he has found a home, friends, and love. But duty calls and he feels guilty enough to volunteer for the dangerous assignment.

Interestingly the script writers begin to write that character out of the episodes at this point. The actor probably got a movie deal and had to split his time.

In the end, Jack does die. Both season four and five were abbreviated. I felt like they were running out of stories without repeating endless scenarios from “Little House on the Prairie.”

Back to Jack. He died saving others. What more did he need to accomplish?

We know that he would be a good husband and father. We know that he would continue to be a great constable and put his life on the line for others. He has grown beyond a human person subject to faults and failure, into a legend.

And let’s face it, living with a legend is not comfortable. There is a constant realization of our own faults and short comings. We can never live up to the example set for us. In fact, we fall into the danger of never learning to save ourselves, or to organize teams to overcome a disaster, or to stand up to crime and corruption. That’s his job. If you’ve ever read a “Conan the Barbarian” book, you know that Conan always leaves town at the end of his rescue mission. He leaves characters with an example to live up to, without having to live with him.

As a literary character Jack had nowhere else to grow. His arc is complete. But his legend will live on, inspiring people to fight the good fight and become better people. He fulfils the role of a hero, as much in death as life.

And that’s why heroes have to die.

Forgive me my tears while I mourned with the rest of cast as they face the world without him, but always carrying his inspiration with them.


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: www.ireneradford.net Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Why Do Heroes Have to Die? — 5 Comments

  1. Consider however how unhelpful this template is in real life. Real people mostly don’t conveniently die or ride off into the sunset. They hang inconveniently around. They get paunchy, they fall off their pedestal, they marry someone unsuitable or go into politics or develop cancer or paint their house a funny color. They don’t stay heroic, because nobody can.
    When we expect our football players to ruin their health, or our rock musicians to tour into their 80s, is it because writers taught us to demand this? This is allied to the insistent trope that all protagonists in novels be teens or young adults ISO a throne or a magic ring or love. There is life, there is a story, beyond the bildungsroman.

    • That’s reality. And we have to live with it. But stories, oral or written, give us examples to live up to, then cut them short so we don’t have to live _with_ the hero as he grows old and fat and disgruntled.

      • And when the hero does live long enough to grow old and fat and disgruntled, it’s time for a new hero to come along and displace him.

        Circular plotting right out of “The Hero’s Journey”.

  2. Consider BEOWULF. The hero slays Grendel and is a hero. The years roll by. A dragon appears, and because he’s a hero he has to go out and fight it. He cannot allow a younger fitter warrior to step up. He’s stuck in his hero role.

  3. One of my favorite treatments of a hero is Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. The hero gets his magic sword, and then the book skips all of the fighting and stuff that he needed the sword for. Then he’s returned to our time.