Thursday, March 1, 2018

Top Ten Trope Thursdays: Guile Hero

*Note: This is going to be a recurring series of articles. I'm not going to mention this every time, but since this is the first, let's break it down. Top Ten Trope Thursdays is a riff on the information from the God-send black hole that is TV Tropes. For those who don't know, TV Tropes is a collection and analysis database for media and entertainment tropes. The Big Fucking Sword, Black and White Morality, Fridge Logic. They all live there, complete with examples and complex explanations that lead you into a spider web with its own special dialect you won't escape from for days.

I promise it's fun, not awful.

This blog series is a simple enough things: in my opinion, with what I've seen and read and played, what are the ten examples that really stand out to me as exemplary or well done of that week's trope. Spoilers can very much be in these, for obvious reasons.*

In the world of heroes and heroines, they come in all shades and styles and types. I think that's pretty obvious, doesn't exactly need to be said. Nobody thinks Harry Potter is the same kind of hero as Olivia Benson, and neither of them are the same as Dr. Frasier Crane.

But there are three I want to focus on for the first three installments. A triangle of heroes that we've all seen, and that almost every protagonist in every form of media can be slotted into somewhere.

The triangle consists of Guile, Action, and Science Heroes (I'm borrowing the terminology of TV Tropes, but this applies across genders. Actually, unless otherwise specified, all of the terms from TV Tropes are meant to be gender neutral.). Today, though, I'm focusing on a personal favorite from the trio: the Guile Hero.

This is the manipulative, politically minded hero. This is every master thief hero, most of your eccentric billionaires, and those lovable rogues and scoundrels and bards. Sure, they might have a knife, but that's only if their first weapon—wit and charm and secrets—fails them. A Guile Hero isn't going anywhere without that kind of backup.

I love this hero, so forgive me if I gush just a little through here: I'm a writer, and I know that crafting these characters isn't an easy process. But damn it, when they work, they work.

(Another tiny note: this is about heroes. I love, love, love smart, manipulative villains even more than the heroes, but this is not the post for them.)

10: Kisuke Urahara (Bleach)
Okay, I'm watching the Bleach fans leave already. Turn around for one second: I love Urahara. He's amazing as a Guile Hero…or Guile Anti-Hero, in some cases.

Urahara is number 10 because he's a Guile Hero…and a Science Hero…and an Action Hero. And yes, the witty, charming Guile Hero knowing all these backup skills is perfectly believable, and in a way that makes him the best Guile Hero. But because he can science the shit out of everything, or stab the shit out of everything, he's not a complete example of the trope.

But what makes Urahara a Guile Hero? He's a master of high-speed mental chess. He was forced into committing a crime, and he used it as a research opportunity. When he was exiled to the human world for that crime, he spent his time protecting the Hogyoku (Basically an embodiment of pure potential.) from the man who forced him into committing the crime. And collateral damage doesn't matter: if someone has to have their soul dissolved to protect it, then so be it. If innocent people are dropped into mortal peril, well that's a calculated decision on his part.

And that is what really makes him a Guile Hero. In the first massive arc of the series (We don't talk about Bleach after the time skip…we just don't.), Urahara controlled everything. It was the character story (Albeit often badly done.) of Ichigo Kurosaki, but the conflict of the series was a massive, centuries long game of chess between two chess masters: Urahara and Aizen. The only time Urahara didn't know what he was doing is when Aizen changed the game. Then Urahara would respond and plan, and Aizen would counter. Anyone else involved was a tool.

And one of the best arguments for his status as a Guile Hero is that he won. He was the best at that strategic tit for tat.

9: Finnick Odair (The Hunger Games)
Again: he's low because he isn't straight up about guile and wit. Finnick can completely and utterly kick your ass with his trident.

But it's established that, outside of the Games, Finnick isn't stomping around killing people or even staying in killing shape. He's staying in prostitution shape at the insistence of the Capitol, but he's not a soldier or a fighter, and he was never a man of science.

No: Finnick has to sleep with people, so he uses that to his advantage. He gets secrets from these people. There's little in the upper levels of Panem society that Finnick doesn't know, or can't find out with a well-placed…you know, a well-placed penis, I guess. Finnick is a massive lynchpin in all of the plans in the second book because he's likable, and famous, and well-connected. He knows things that nobody else knows. Finnick is all charm and wit and, yes, manipulation. That's how Finnick was forced to live by the Capitol, and he thrived in it.

8: Lyra Bleacqua (His Dark Materials)
Lyra could really be the posterchild for Middle Grade Guile Heroes. By her own circumstances, she can't be an Action Hero: she's twelve. And she won't be a Science Hero: in that culture, men were allowed science. Not twelve year old girls with rebellious streaks.

What Lyra has in her favor is wit…okay, also some plot-based-unobtanium, but they don't call her Lyra Silvertongue for nothing. She has limited tools at her disposal, and she makes the best work of them. Her most common way of getting out of binds is with her quick thinking. She's smart.

When no one else could, when it was literally impossible to anyone else, she lied to a Panserbjorn, saved herself, and won Iorek Byrnison the chance to challenge for his throne again. Her wit attracts everyone to her, from massively powerful witches to people equally manipulative (Marisa Coulter is one of my favorite villains.). Every turn of her journey is hallmarked by how she gets in an out of jams that a twelve year old shouldn't be able to lie and swindle through.

And yet Lyra does it.

7: Simon Tam (Firefly)
Now, Firefly being cut woefully short, there isn't a lot of time to see this played out. It could be argued that at least half the crew of the Serenity are Guile Heroes. At the very least, Simon, Mal, Book, and Inara are all examples of the trope.

But Simon is a unique combination aboard the ship. He's a Doctor, a Science Hero…and he knows it. He uses that to his advantage. The fact that he's a medic is a huge selling point for keeping him on the ship, even if it does endanger the others. He's not afraid to pull out his medical knowledge.

If you watched the show, you know where this is going: the medical supply heist. He needs access to a brain scan for his sister, but the crew won't do it for free. So he shows them exactly how they can be paid when he has no money: medical supplies. While he's getting his brain scan done, the crew can rob the oppressive government blind. It won't hurt anyone. They have access to more supplies. He knows exactly what the crew needs from him, what he needs, and sees how to make everyone happy better than anyone else possibly could.

6: Roseanne Conner (Roseanne)
Yeah, I know. A little weird. And in a lot of ways, this could be the descriptor for almost every sitcom hero. But I like Roseanne. A lot. I grew up on it. I'm looking forward to the reboot, even.

Roseanne is the head of the Conner Clan. They're low income, and that's a real struggle for them (The final season not withstanding.). And as such, Roseanne and Dan both have to work with their wit and guile. And yeah, it's served comedically. They leave the envelope unsealed and tell the bill collectors that the check fell out. She lies to the bank about car trouble to buy herself time, then sits and has a cup of coffee.

But strip away the laugh track and Roseanne is keeping her family going and thriving not by being the biggest and the strongest, and not by her massive book-learning archive. She's fulfilling her goal by looking at the system and seeing how she can make everything work for her instead of against her. If "The Man" gets dinged and bruised in the process, it doesn’t matter because she and the rest of the Conners are good for another week.

5: Every Heist Group Leader
I told you every master thief hero fit this role, and I meant it. Danny Ocean, Charlie Croker, Memphis Raines: they're all Guile Heroes, and all so similar it's difficult to pick one. They're charming. They're clever. They organize people and use them as tools. Sure, the tools profit too, but that's the point of bringing other people in.

This hero can't do everything by himself. Charlie Croker needs a safecracker and a tech guy and an explosives expert. Danny Ocean needs a femme fatale and a contortionist. Memphis Raines needed his whole crew to steal fifty cars.

This character is what people love about heist movies. It all comes down to the Guile Hero.

4: Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games)
Yeah, we're back in Panem. Now, a victor who's just charming isn't really an option. They have to be able to kill people if they're going to win. Peeta's main physical bonus is that he's just very strong.

But that's not what makes Peeta a victor. Okay, yeah, you could say that Katniss is what makes him a victor, and I can absolutely see that argument. But we all know Katniss wouldn't have made it through without Peeta as her opposite. Katniss is emotionally shut down because of the hell that is her life. It's great survival, but we establish that you have to be likable and charismatic to do well in the Games. You know, to not die.

Being from District Twelve, Peeta and Katniss aren't known. No one wants to help them. So it's up to Peeta to be charming and manipulate everyone. He's likable. He loves Katniss, even if she doesn't. And he lets everyone know what's up with that. Without him laying the groundwork, nothing she had done in the Games with him would have meant a damn thing. But because he played to the public, they were able to succeed. The public loved them, and that helped them survive the impossible tasks laid before them.

3: Deloris van Cartier (Sister Act)
Ah, my favorite nun-based pseudo-musical. Yes, Deloris is a Guile Hero. She saw her spouse murder a man, went into witness protection at a church. And she thrives.

While it isn't a major, complicated plotline to follow, there's no doubt about her archetype. She wins over everyone, including the strict Mother Superior (Still one of my favorite Maggie Smith roles.). She betters and revives the church, and even manages to get the Pope himself to show up at their church for a concert. Her knowledge and street smarts and complete, undeniable charisma power the movie.

You see the same thing in the sequel, as well. Deloris swoops in and fixes the Catholic school choir. Always, she connects with people and makes them like her. Not just like her, but love her. She's a powerhouse of that charisma. A Las Vegas headliner. Everything about her is designed to make people look at her charming little self.

2: Lelouch Lamperouge (Code Geass)
Okay, so Lelouch's "Hero" status is arguable at time, but I consider him solidly as an Anti-Hero. And my god is he a Guile Hero. He's smart, but he's not the smartest. He has certain skills, but most of them are about quick thinking and necessity. He plays…professional gambling chess, which I don't think is a real thing, but he does it, and he does it well. From the beginning, he's set up as a literal chess master, and that continues on through the rest of the series.

Now, Lelouch is not the "likable" Guile Hero. But charisma? Lelouch has charisma, especially as Zero. He isn't even a man as Zero, but a symbol. He's the embodiment of freedom from the Britannian government, and it drags thousands upon thousands to him.

On the battlefield, he maneuvers against the way people behave. He uses humans as pawns in his grander plans. And when he does take to the front lines, it's in a Knightmare frame that practically no one else could use, it's so complicated. He is always above and separate. He's the grand manipulator making the plans, executing the plans, and changing those plans on the fly. He manipulates the entire political sphere, and makes it look easy. It's really astounding, and difficult to pull up a single example from the series, because this is all that Lelouch does.

1: Haymitch Abernathy (The Hunger Games)
Jesus Fucking Christ, Suzanne Collins likes this hero a lot. It could be a problematic thing, except she writes them so well, and Haymitch is the shining example. He's not a wholly unique character: he's an old drunk who really does know better, but smells like grain alcohol. We've seen it, although it often shares the limelight with the Science Hero, like House.

Haymitch, though, deserves the top spot on this list. Even when you hate him and think he's a sexist asshole for calling Katniss sweetheart all the time, you can't help but like him. At the very least, you're fascinated by Haymitch. You have to watch what he's going to do.

Haymitch is a man with no purpose when we meet him. He's going to be a burden. Not even just a lump, but he's going to drag Peeta and Katniss down. And Effie isn't any more helpful than him. They are royally screwed.

Which is exactly what he was waiting for. Whether he knew it or not, he wanted someone to care that they were up shit creek. When Katniss gives a shit about surviving, that's when Haymitch comes to life.

Now before I said that Peeta was the reason they won, and that's not wrong, but Haymitch is the overarching controller of everything that happens. He's out beating the pavement, finding sponsors for Peeta and Katniss to keep their stupid asses alive a little bit longer. He plays everyone along the way, from the capitol citizens, to Peeta and Katniss, to the higher ups of the Games themselves. And it just carries on into Catching Fire, where he just, you know, organizes an entire god damn rebellion against the government. Sure, not alone, but they were not pulling it off without Haymitch.

It's not because he's likable, but he's undeniably charming, charismatic, and witty. Haymitch, more than anyone else, is the embodiment of a Guile Hero, and if someone comes along and unseats him from the top spot, I will be shocked…and utterly, utterly pleased.


Constance Burris said...

This was a really good article. I learned a lot! I had never heard of the term Guile Hero until now. I loved how you described Peta and Lyra.

Voss Foster said...

Yeah, I'm a huge His Dark Materials fan...and if I'm honest, a TV Tropes junkie, so this is looking to be a fun series for me to work on. And I thought the hero triangle would be a good starting point :)