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Your Character’s Iconic Ethos

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Hit the tag for previous discussion of iconic heroes...

An iconic hero re-imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood. The nature of his radical individuality can be summed up with a statement of his iconic ethos. It is the ethos that grants higher meaning to the hero’s actions, and a clue to his creator’s intentions. An iconic hero’s ethos motivates and empowers him.

Sherlock Holmes solves mysteries using rigorous deductive logic.

Conan uses his barbaric superiority to overturn the false order of corrupt civilization.

Carnacki the Ghost Finder conquers fear with scientific methodology and technology.

Dr. Gregory House caustically tramples social decencies to solve medical mysteries, temporarily assuaging his self-loathing.

Batman brings justice to cowardly and superstitious wrongdoers, doing for others what he could not do for his murdered parents.

James Bond dispatches the enemies of Britain with cold suavity and violence.

Tarzan upholds the noble values of the jungle against the predatory outsiders who would despoil it.

Aldo Raines brutalizes the brutalizers, marking them to strike terror into their compatriots, and to prevent those he spares from escaping their crimes.

Philip Marlowe goes down mean streets, without himself becoming mean.

An iconic ethos implies both action and motivation, and is thus an ideal tool for defining player characters in roleplaying games. What does your character do, and why does he do it?

The ethos further refers to something we, the audience want to see happen. Thus it ensures sympathy for what is often eccentric, anti-social or cruel behavior. The iconic hero is free of society’s constraints, yet acts to restore order. This order may be different from our own, as it is for Conan and Tarzan, but is privileged within the moral framework provided by the author. In real life, you might be a PR rep for a firm engaged in clear-cutting old growth forest, but if you disconnect your own values from the ethical universe portrayed by Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can still enjoy rooting for Tarzan. Where the iconic hero trope is used in an ironic or revisionist fashion, we might be made to feel conflicted about the outcome, as with Raines.

Roleplaying PCs need not be iconic. They can be dramatic characters, who are changed by their experience of the world and undergo a transformative arc. Often they’re neither, and amble around without achieving memorable definition.

Who are you playing now? If you were to conceive of him or her as iconic, what would your hero’s ethos be?

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