One of my favorite kinds of stories isn’t identifiable by ray guns, magic wands, or trenchcoats. It’s less about genre and more about structure. Specifically, I like to see the little guy in the big story. We’re used to seeing the President making tough calls or Captain Kirk charging into battle, but I find I’m drawn to the stories of the front-line soldier, the pilot’s wife, or even the young boy.
I still like to see the epic tales of sweeping conflict, but to me they often seem more real when seen from the role of a person not that different from me. But it’s not that these little guys are powerless figures, struggling to stay afloat in the tsunami around them. In a proper little-in-big story, the little guy is somehow drawn to the center of the conflict, and the fate of the world ends up resting on his undersized little-guy shoulders.
The Epic Volunteer
Lots of stories have this element, and they usually show us some of the bits with the big epic characters as well. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a good example of this. The four hobbit adventurers (Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin) are truly little guys in more than one sense. They’re not kings, wizards, great warriors, or even particularly fierce. They’re simply regular fellows like you are me, who when the weight of the world came down on their shoulders refused to buckle under and collapse.
But in Lord of the Rings and stories like it, our little guy heroes know how much responsibility they’re taking on. Certainly, the reality of their path can get harsher and harsher as the tale goes on, but Frodo had at least some idea what he was signing up for when he said he would carry the ring into Mordor. He didn’t know the way it was going to leech at his soul and nearly cost him his sanity, but when he stepped forward in Rivendell, he knew it was a Big Deal.
Other little-guy heroes don’t get that much advanced warning. They’re just trying to live their lives, but as events unfold they find their options increasingly cut off until they have no choice but to step forward and save the world or die trying. Harry Potter is a good example of this. He’s just a kid who wants to make friends and have a family, and he’s finding out that this wizardry thing is pretty fun. Yet in each book and over the course of the series, he finds that his fun-and-friends life is less and less of an option, until at the end, it is clear that he and he alone can save the world.
I confess I really enjoyed the slow build and even slower reveal of the Harry Potter series, but Harry didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. He didn’t step forward at age eleven and volunteer to pit his soul against ultimate evil. Then again, at age eleven he didn’t have the strength of character to step up for that. He was scared, meek, and merely hoping to be let out from under the stairs. We got to see him grow into the person that would valiantly step up for that battle, and that was a journey worth watching.
And then there are the little guys who don’t get to have that weight of the world until the very last moment. Certainly, they have struggled through the epic events, and the crucible of their lives has forged their character, but they don’t get to see their true role in the tale until the last moment, when they are forced to act. Only then do they realize that the epic battle has come down to that one moment, and that it’s up to them to save the world or to damn it though inaction.
I can’t think of an example as famous as the other two, but I have run into this kind of little guy often enough. In Babylon 5, Vir Cotto had a number of such little guy moments, rising to the occasion when it became clear he was the only one who could. Asimov’s tale of The Mule features another such little guy hero in the form of Bayta, who little more than the pilots wife and friend to the musician-clown Magnifico, and yet when the critical moment comes, she becomes the hero of the tale. Another is C.J. Cherryh’s “Finity’s End”, where young Fletcher Neihart tracks down and confronts a conspiracy for his own reasons, only to have that action become critical to the larger story going on around him.
I enjoy all three of these kinds of little-in-big tales. Certainly, I like other tales as well – Captain Kirk has some excellent adventures – but these little tales will always hold a special place for me. It’s not just that I can relate to these mundane characters better. It’s that they make me feel better about myself. I’m not a king or a great warrior or even a starship captain, but these little guys step up to their heroic roles just as I like to imagine I would step up. They give me the chance to think about those epic life-and-death moments, and since they always face them bravely, they make me feel like I would too.
I suppose it’s because of that aspect that the third style of these little-in-big tales calls to me the most. I haven’t volunteered to carry the ring to Mordor, nor are events conspiring around me to force me into a legendary battle with forces of evil. But the world is changing around me, perhaps not quite as epically as in most tales, but it is changing, and this kind of story tells me that when push comes to shove, little guys like me CAN make the right decision and save the world.
And who doesn’t want to feel that way?
So, final thought to the readers… what little-in-big stories have caught your eye over the years? Try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, because I may very well want to read them.
Other examples are Han Solo (Epic Volunteer), Luke Skywalker (who at first appeared to be an EV, but turned out to be Destiny’s Hero) and Anakin Skywalker (Destiny’s Villain).
You could consider most of Elizabeth Moon’s characters to be “little”, though a few come from privileged backgrounds of some sort.
On further reflection, I’m not sure I agree that “Destiny’s Hero” (which I submit should be called the “Chosen One”) belongs in this set. Those guys are decidedly not just some ordinary guy who has to step up, they’re pre-minted heroes who have to come to terms with their innate greatness. Percy Jackson also comes to mind.
The distinction between “little in big” and “The Hero” is interesting, and I’ve found it also spreads into the mindset of two role playing games I enjoy – Traveller (very much “little in big”, or even “little in medium sized”) and D&D (which can be “little in big”, esp. in pre 4e versions, but usually winds up going “Huge in Epic” before the campaign packs it in).
You may be right about the Chosen One not really fitting in this mold, but I was thinking about the early Harry Potter books in there series. At that point, neither he nor we knew his destiny, so he still seemed like a little guy along the way.
I’ll have to think to see if I can come up with another example for that. I’ve got the feel of one buzzing around my head, but I’m not sure if it’s one I’ve actually read or one that I’ve wanted to write.
Elizabeth Moon’s _The Deed of Paksenarrion_, a sheepfarmer’s daughter who dreamed of being a soldier in a mercenary company….but life kept on throwing stuff at her…I find her metamorphosis into a ‘Destiny’s Hero’ rather fascinating.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s _The Fionavar Tapestry_…it has many little-in-big stories that I find compelling. I love the way Kay spins out his surprises, the tension between the apparent and the suggested…and enjoy the fact that while plenty of worthies are cast in the traditional heroic mood, it is the little ones, the mostly discounted ones, who spot the pattern and the need and who act on that need without any consideration of personal ambitions and desires. Both strangers to the world of Fionavar and those born there step forward and do what they think is right, turning the tide of events at crucial moments. Paul and Diar and Kevin and Leila…
Leah in Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy might just be my favourite “Who me?” character.
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