Inspiration

Six Subversive Heroes for Stand Out Stories

Today’s popular stories pick most of their heroes from the same narrow group of people, reinforcing destructive stereotypes and stripping characters of interesting variation. But storytellers get a silver lining: we have an easy opportunity to make our heroes stand apart by subverting convention. To get started, take some worthy people who are normally dismissed or despised, and make them stars. You can begin with these six.

1. The Homeless Adult

homeless

Homeless individuals are the ultimate underdogs. While homeless children are common in stories, they neglect adults. It’s assumed that if an adult is homeless, it’s their fault. This assumption ignores all the people who end up on the street because of tragic events or medical conditions and the high numbers of homeless people who have jobs. Making your hero homeless not only helps build understanding for a group of people who are struggling but also gives your hero lots of challenges to overcome, strengthening your story.

Example

Miranda does not want to fight vampires. But since she had to choose between paying rent and buying her medication, she’s had no home to uninvite them from. Now once again, she’s asked to work late, causing her to miss the deadline for getting a bed at the shelter. It’s time to carve some stakes and get to high ground, because somehow the vampires always know where she is. And she’ll have to be quick; she doesn’t have the money to replace her work uniform a third time.

2. The Janitor

Nothing makes how we look down on janitors more obvious than comparing their roles in stories. Heroes are only given custodial jobs to advertise how pathetic their life is before their adventure. Custodial side characters are dispensers of wisdom who reward the hero for stooping to be friends with a lowly janitor! Let’s give those who do this work some credit. Thankless as it is, it’s essential to human welfare. Pests, diseases, and general safety hazards all appear when sanitation fails. That can put a janitor in the spotlight.

Example

Mark is the head custodian at the neighborhood school. It’s a paycheck like any other, except people keep coming to him for advice while he’s trying to work, for some reason. Then one day a strange disease begins to spread through the city’s children, transforming them into creatures no one would recognize. One after the other, the schools close. But not his. Not a single child at his school has been infected. The CDC shows up to beg for his help. Can he stop the pathogen before the military turns the city into a quarantine zone?

3. The Immigrant

immigrant

Immigrants have many obstacles, and they’re all great fodder for stories. Unfortunately, storytellers have a habit of capitalizing on the challenges immigrants face without ever giving immigrants real representation. A mortal kidnapped by the fey has to adjust to their new location, but outwardly that character doesn’t resemble an immigrant, so they rarely build sympathy for real people in similar situations. That’s why instead of transplanting your hero against their will, consider giving them a compelling reason to search for a new home. Then let them deal with the reluctant officials and near-impossible requirements at their destination before they must adapt to an alien society (sometimes literally) that looks down on them.

Example

April starts manifesting powerful magic in grade school. If her magic is revealed in her home country, she’ll be forced into training as a government agent. Her parents keep her powers secret as they quietly sell their home. Then they give up their high-paying jobs so they can make the leap to a country with independent magic schools. But now April has to learn to control her powers at a school where no one speaks a language she understands. Her parents can pay for only the cheapest spell ingredients, and what’s worse, there’s graffiti on the wall telling her to go back where she came from.

4. The Social Worker

social-work

It’s a social worker’s job to help other people turn their lives around. Yet because they fight for a class of people who are almost invisible to society, they rarely gain the spotlight. That’s too bad, because few professions make a better starting point for someone destined to save a city. They are not only natural heroes but also perfectly positioned to notice when something is stalking the city’s less fortunate denizens.

Example

By day Jonathan Jones is an unassuming (though blindingly handsome) guy in a cheap suit and thick glasses. He gets up every morning and endures a soulless commute downtown where he works in the social services office. The people of the city line up there, crying out for help. He fights through red tape, combats discriminatory practices, and offers a guiding light until every person is seen to. Then he reviews the case files for patterns, connecting the dots of human misery until it leads him to their sources. The suit comes off and the spandex comes on. He’s now Safety Net Man, defender of the downtrodden, and he’s ready to kick some super villain ass.

5. The Grandmother

grandmother

Mature women rarely get the spotlight in stories. When they aren’t playing villainous witches, their purpose is to support younger heroes. But grandmothers can have a lifetime of interesting experiences and a crowd of descendants to protect. What makes for a better hero? Depending on the subversive flavor you want, your grandmother character might harness power from traditional women’s roles, excel in roles traditionally held by men, or show an interesting combination of the two.

Example

Mable Huxley was ready to retire to a life of peaceful knitting and playing with her grandchildren. Then the dark pillars appeared among the clouds. Now her grandson is missing and the local authorities are determined to look the other way. Mable lights a lamp in the dusty recesses of her basement, wherein lies the gear she used a lifetime ago. She fires up her workshop to update the old tech, and then she’s back in commando gear. She’ll use every skill she’s gained over hundreds of missions. She’ll call in every favor she earned over a lifetime. She won’t stop until this thing has been busted wide open and she’s brought her grandson home.

6. The IRS Auditor

irs-agent

People hate bureaucrats, and those at the IRS are hated most of all. But while no one likes paying taxes, few people think they aren’t necessary. IRS workers are stuck with an essential job that others dislike them for. That makes IRS characters easy underdogs. Not only that, but processing taxes puts them right where they can detect fraudulent financial dealings and other plot hooks.

Example

Joe Schmoe has an average home, family, and a routine day job. Everyone acts like he should be dissatisfied, but he likes his life. Well, except for the threats he gets for catching lawbreakers, but you can’t have everything. But one day he notices some strange numbers in an audit. His boss tells him to leave it, but he keeps digging, leading him to a mysterious facility funded by laundered money. That same evening, mysterious men show up at his home; he and his family barely get away. He’s being hunted. Can he get to the bottom of the tax code and find the culprits before it’s too late?

When you’re using subversive heroes, be careful not to laugh at them. A heroic janitor should be refreshing but not hilarious. Instead, give your subversive heroes dignity. Like other heroes they have admirable qualities, and that’s how they save the day.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I can see a lot of interesting stories up there. A homeless vampire hunter has an additional problem, as there’s no base to flee to or use for developing new gear. A janitor with the knowledge to actually stop the disease won’t be taken seriously, because he’s no person with a degree. The immigrant girl might be so powerful the country she fled from is moving heaven and hell to get her back in their hands, adding another problem to the ones she’s facing already. The social worker super hero might have to be very careful, as not to cause any damage in the city that will make life even worse for those down on their luck. The grandmother will have to keep up pretense she’s just a lovely little dear while firing up her weapons, because otherwise people might claim she’s getting barmy. The IRS auditor knows everything about the law, but now he has to operate outside of it, in order to keep his family safe and cut through all the red tape between him and the answers.

  2. SunlessNick

    I’ve always thought an immigrant would make an interesting choice for a “chosen by the spirit of the land” role (like the Protectors from the Ghosts of Albion webseries and RPG). The spirit seeing a better champion in someone who’s chosen and fought to be part of the realm rather than someone just born into it.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s an interesting take, as long as you don’t make it the good old ‘white saviour’ trope. I could totally see an immigrant as a hero chosen by the spirits of the land, though … especially if you show that the regular inhabitants have grown too used to the gifts from the land and don’t appreciate what they have.

      • SunlessNick

        Definitely not a white saviour, no. Though since you bring it up, it also makes me realise I’d have to be careful of assimilation-yay! as well.

  3. Brigitta M.

    I write about a lot of homeless characters (having experienced it myself) and I’d like to expand upon what you’ve written here on the topic in order to assist/spark ideas for anyone who may read this post. Basically, there’s a lot of reasons to be homeless that aren’t listed and there’s a lot of ways to be homeless that people don’t think about.

    Massive job layoffs can lead to a sudden spiral of losses, especially for those who were already living paycheck-to-paycheck. These layoffs lead to a glut in the local market of supply (the people needing work) and a shortage of demand (the people hiring) which can lead to long term homelessness as resources are stretched to the max. I could write an entire article about this group alone.

    LGBTQ+ folks are depressingly common in the homeless community. Often kicked out as teens, they find it difficult to adapt to life that isn’t on the streets. Doors are often shut to them early on due to their youth when they become homeless and by the time they turn 18, they often don’t know how to readjust to a path of healing and working towards a state of non-homelessness.

    Abused individuals are often homeless as well. While 40% of abuse victims are men, the shelters for such victims are for women. This doesn’t mean that women don’t end up on the streets due to abusive situations just that the resources available aren’t designed for men.

    Aging out of foster care. Once children are 18yo, they’re often booted out of their last home without anyplace to go.

    That’s just a sampling of what is out there and may give some people ideas as to where to go when writing a homeless hero.

    There is also the assumption that the only options for homelessness are “shelter” or “street.” This isn’t the case. A lot of homeless people will often pool resources and discover other places to spend the night or shower, often hopping from couch to couch (called “couch hopping” for obvious reasons), sleeping in empty apartments due to friendly landlords as long as certain rules are followed, and abandoned buildings (called “squats”). There are also a number of people who will sleep in their car.

    All of the above only covers urban and suburban homelessness. People often forget about the rural homeless who pitch tents on hiking trails and forage for food where it’s available.

    Finally, a last word, most of the people who are homeless don’t steal. There’s a certain pride in resourcefulness, even if it means they have to wear the same coat forever or they have to dive into dumpsters behind grocery stores or forage for food in one way or another. You’d be surprised what homeless people know about edible wild flora that’s local to their area. This, of course is a supplement to local food pantries and soup kitchens since one meal a day is certainly not enough for a full grown adult who has to keep moving.

    • Bronze Dog

      Any advice for my Changeling chronicle regarding the treatment of the homeless? I figure with being essentially undocumented, most Changelings are going to start out in rough shape once they get back to the mortal world, so they might get a dose of being homeless themselves. Additionally, I figure homeless people are going to be good allies since they get a closer view of what goes outside at night when other people are safe in their homes.

      • Brigitta M.

        Just as in regular communities, homeless communities tend to be a case of like hanging out with like. For the most part that means addicts are with addicts, LGBTQ+ people hang out with other LGBTQ+ folks, etc (though not divided by color lines, immigrant backgrounds can make a difference due to language barriers and the like) Obviously there’s some crossover, but in general it’s just easier if folks hang out with those who would know about resources that are friendly to their specific “type.” Fair or not, but at least in the US, groups are either isolated or included depending on what categories they fall under.

        This means that the Changeling will have to find a way to connect with other magical beings…assuming they exist in your world. If not, they’ll likely blend into a group more or less, but they’ll still appear “off” to those who are street savvy and may have trouble truly being “in” with that group (which will make it even harder as resources are pooled, they may be left out in the cold).

        Without identification (esp in modern society) your Changeling is going to have a lot of trouble coming up with even the most basic of resources such as food stamps/EBT, assisted housing, a job…anything. Soup kitchens will be their best bet for food, but they’ll have to know where they’re active and when. Food pantries are troublesome for the homeless because they’re often set up for people who already have somewhere to cook, prepare, and store food. It’s the last part that’s the most difficult on the streets (unless they have a car, which I assume your Changeling doesn’t).

        How far is your Changeling willing to go to alter their circumstances? What’s their moral core? That will define what they’d be willing to do in order to survive. Alternatively, it may be about naivete as it relates to human behavior and they could get taken advantage of by those who are less than honorable as well.

        • Bronze Dog

          Thanks for the reply. I’m working as the GM, so a lot will depend on the players. I’m planning on giving the players fake IDs as a recruitment perk, which will be a good motivation to get them to join the freehold and pick a Court. The freehold has gotten pretty good at re-integrating Changelings into society, but it takes a while to spin a virtual paper trail.

          Early on, they’ll need to avoid getting into legal trouble, especially since the police have started carding “weirdos.” (They know something is going on.) It’s probably going to be a good way to get the players acquainted with the rules of hospitality, since they’ll be relying on the kindness of strangers for a place to spend the night or roughing it.

  4. Sam

    The Outlander series has the protagonist, Claire, having adventures in her time-travel journey from young womanhood to elderly age.

    I think that why people don’t give elderly women/people a lot of adventures was because they think they had adventures in their youth and old age as wearied them out. Now they pass on their experience and wisdom to the next generation of heroes and heroines.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s the point of this article, though … identifying unusual protagonists for a story, instead of only using the usual types.

  5. Tyson Adams

    The vigilante or wandering hero genre is filled with the homeless adult heroes. Their itinerant lifestyles and discovery of injustice in their travels would be impossible if they were living in the suburbs or holding down a day job. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is probably the current king of the vagrant vigilantes in fiction.

    • Cay Reet

      I think they’re a subset of homeless people, though. They’re usually highly specialized and specifically trained and have a network of contacts to get help from, which is far from the ‘average’ homless person. They have chosen to drift, but could usually start working somewhere immediately, if they wished. They decide to wander and resolve conflicts which they might find on the way.

      Wandering Ronin like Usagi Yojimbo also fall into that category.

      • Tyson Adams

        I agree, Cay. The drifter or transient hero is less homeless and more travelling, especially when you take homeless to also mean some level of poverty. So definitely a subset.

  6. Christie V Powell, author of The Spectra Unearthed

    I love the grandmother idea!
    They don’t have to be protagonists, but I would love to see more children characters who are age-appropriate (ie not geniuses, mini-adults, or accelerated growing) and who are not innocent cardboard-cutout victims.

  7. Trish Mercer

    Ooh, I’m so excited, because in the last three books of my series, the grandmother IS the hero. She has no special powers, but the entire community reveres her which gives her ability no one else has.
    She was also a school teacher, and one of her students who hated her grows up to be a fop who is stunned to face her as an aged woman who still strikes fear in his heart. We’ve all had that teacher from our past, right? The one we’d be terrified to face again?
    As a middle-aged woman, I’ve always thought older people need to have some more presence in stories. Enough with the youthful geniuses! Give us folks who really know something! I also have a grandfather who’s a tragic hero, with teenage kids who actually respect him.
    Weird, right?

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