The Dissenter, A Heroic Archetype for the Modern Age

Like many Canadians, I spent the weekend protesting C-51, in the real world and online. The act, which the conservative government calls the “anti-terror bill” gives an array of troubling powers to spy agencies. While I was standing outside in the rain and cold, I often wondered about how to turn this relatively banal (so far) situation into Fantasy Fiction.

What I came up with the idea of the dissenter as a hero. Now, this is not my idea, and I am sure than any reader of Fantasy can think of several heroes and villains who are primarily motivated by their disagreement with the system. I just think it is a timely archetype, especially since we are living an time of increasing inequality, which creates increasing dissatisfaction with the machinery of our society. Everybody who is not in power, or served by society, has some gripe with the system. We all think that our particular brand of dissent is a special snowflake, but even the most diametrically opposed factions often have gripes about the system, legitimate or not. This makes the dissenter a very figure that everyone can relate to on some level.

Some time ago I wrote a post about how a corrupt, or unthinking system can be the perfect villain in modern fantasy (link). Looking through my posts I can see that it is a bit of a running theme actually, including my review of Django unchained (link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5). The gist of the idea is that the system is the monolithic, monstrous villain that Fantasy often tends towards, but put into a context that the modern reader can instantly relate to.

In the same way the person who stands up and demands that the system be fixed, or at least points out the flaws in a system, can make an interesting hero. Think about some of the great dissenter of past ages, and the interesting lives they led. Martin Luther was not an action hero, and yet his act of defiance sparked a massive sectarian shift that humbled the greatest power in his world.

Here are a few reasons why I think that the Dissenter is a mighty heroic archetype for Modern Fantasy, the counterpoint to the system as a villain.

  • Knowledge is a Weapon: Modern readers prefer a hero who is smart in some fashion, be it simple brilliance or grimdark streetwise. The primary armament of the dissenter is knowledge. The dissenter knows the flaws of the system that they hate. Often they are a victim of that system and have learned as much as they could about it in order to oppose it.
  • Challenging the Dragon: Systems are immense, complex, and can become truly monstrous over time. The same is true of corrupt institutions. Often, in real life, people find speaking out against these entities incredibly intimidating.  Thus, the dissenter shows courage simply by confronting the problem.
  • A Grim Task: History is not kind to those who dissent. People in power, and those who benefit from corruption, have many options in quashing dissent. The sheer viciousness that those who benefit from a broken system will engage in to prevent that system from changing cannot be underestimated.
  • Reform or Revolution: The ultimate goal of any dissenter is either to reform the system, or topple it altogether. Both have their own merits as story points.

The dissenter can easily turn out to be a villain as well, going to extremes to attack the system that they oppose. An anti-capitalist who publishes papers and advocated non-violent protests against the excesses of wall street is a good kind of dissenter, while an anti-capitalist who blows up factories indiscriminately is most definitely villainous. Interestingly from the perspective of those who inhabit the system being challenged, these two are almost indistinguishable, which makes crackdowns the perfect starting point for a dissenting hero.

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