In the last decade, mass media in the United States has seen many changes in the way characters and stories are written. One change which I consider to be particularly unfortunate is the gradual, yet rapid, decline in the use of protagonists who display the characteristics of unyielding idealism, optimism, and moralistic heroism. Yes, there are a few examples of characters who start out that way only to be warped by the writers into embittered, “disillusioned” shells of their former selves. I consider the season 2 downfall of Hiro (and Ando, to a lesser degree later on) from the show Heroes to be a particularly galling instance of this because I really liked that character. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m also not talking about the Eak the cat style character who always suffers for his idealism. I’m talking about the ones who, although they may grow as characters, don’t lose the essential core of their character and usually end up influencing others to become better people (or whatever creature they are) in the process. The kind of character I’m referring to was usually written to be just naïve enough to give almost any villain a chance to “do the right thing,” but just canny enough to know how to use his abilities and outward persona (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) to effectively use human nature to achieve the most fair or moral outcome as the direct effect of the nature of his/her character. By the direct effect of this kind of character, I’m referring to things the character does deliberately. One example might be instances wherein the hero breaks from the crowd in order to take some kind of action (e.g., the stereotypical examples of catching a purse-snatcher, saving a hostage, tackling someone away from an oncoming vehicle, or finding an especially cagey way to negotiate peace with a hostile alien species). Another example might be deliberately intervening in a conversation or other not so action-packed situation wherein the hero seems to be the only one capable of bending the wills of others toward moral, ethical, etc. outcome.
The indirect effect of this kind of character was that the hero and the actions of the character combined with idealism and a certain likable kindness toward others was contagious with the surrounding characters so that even when the heroic character fails in his efforts (or breaks some kind of rule, usually out of sentimentality or kindness) the other characters are so moved by his overall persona that they temporarily modify their own behavior in order to assist the hero out of friendship and/or admiration. In other words, the other characters realize that the hero is the embodiment of ideals they have long ignored (or become jaded against) and are so distressed by the thought of the hero’s defeat that they (temporarily, at least) take on the hero’s battle. The statements I’ve made so far probably sound overly broad and general in nature, so I’d better provide a few examples to explain what I mean.
There are plenty of examples of this kind of character in old films. The majority of this character’s appearance in “classic cinema” is most easily identifiable in Capra films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Actually, that’s a pretty good example. Consider the protagonist, Smith. The direct effect of this character was his efforts to build a boys’ camp – on land which the antagonist wanted for eeeevil purposes. The indirect effect of this character was when his sheer idealistic goodness of intentions caused the jaded and pessimistic Saunders (also the love-interest of the story) to stay in D.C. and fight what she assumed to be a hopeless battle against the “Taylor machine.”
Several programs I used to watch on television as a kid (during the late 1980s through the 1990s) had a character matching this description as either one of the supporting characters or as the central protagonist. A short list of such characters from modern TV and movies would include the protagonist from McGyver, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Daniel Jackson from Stargate: SG-1, and Mulder from The X-Files (with a few exceptions, in his case). The most exaggerated example that comes to mind is that of the character Benton Fraser from the show Due South. Although written as almost an Eek the cat like caricature of this kind of character for the sake of humor, Fraser also exhibited quite a bit of character-growth as the show progressed and could definitely be described as a multi-layered or three-dimensional character.
Admittedly, I don’t watch quite as much TV and movies as I used to (only about 4-6 hours a day instead of 12-18), but I really can’t think of a character written in the last couple of years that I could refer to as the classical wide-eyed, idealistic hero type. Upon reflection, it’s probably my favorite kind of character. But short of writing such a character into my own screenplays, I don’t get to see any examples in contemporary TV or film these days.
In short, alack!