Nelly, I am... Ragna? (ANL 03)
by WanderingWordsmith (208)
May 14th 2012

The Byronic hero is a character popularized by Lord Byron. The character is 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know', as his lover Lady Lamb is quoted as saying. Wikipedia describes the Byronic hero as 'idealized, but flawed', but there are several traits that a typical Byronic hero will display that makes them fit in. If it was just any old flaw, then many characters could be considered to be Byronic heroes without actually, well... being one. So to start, let's define a Byronic hero and look at a very popular example in literature.

A few of the traits that are displayed by the Byronic hero include arrogance, cunning, cynicism, a disrespect for most social institutions or norms - including military rank or privilege - moodiness, emotional instability, a troubled past, and intelligence or some manner of sophistication. They're also normally seductive, or at least sexually attractive, self-critical or self-destructive, and they're generally treated as an exile or an outcast, if they aren't actually one.

I'm sure you can all think of a hand of Byronic characters, or at least characters that display these traits, but for the sake of length I'm gonna use one character as a damn-near archetypal example of the Byronic hero; Heathcliff, from Emily Brontë's only novel Wuthering Heights.
So, Heathcliff. Troubled past? Well, he was found on the streets of Liverpool and the childhood documented in the novel isn't very pleasing. He's abused on the first day of his arrival, and is abused near-constantly by his adoptive brother Hindley, so check.
Moodiness? A lot of the novel, especially the first part, describes him as a violent and short-fused child or man, and his demeanour certainly doesn't brighten after his return to Wuthering Heights, so check.
Sophistication? After his return, Heathcliff is revealed to have made some considerable wealth in his absence, and has taken on many respectable mannerisms despite his violent streak. Definitely a check.
Arrogance? I think his speech about why Catherine chose Linton over him speaks for itself.
There are many, many more examples of the other traits, but as mentioned in the prefacing note, I don't want to bore your socks off with a wall of text.

Heathcliff, therefore, is a very typical example of the Byronic hero, but what about video game characters? Are there Byronic heroes in games, and what would that actually mean for them? 

The evolution of characters as whole, as I'm sure you're aware, spans a very long time, and video games have only been around for a short period of said time. The expectations of characters changed from the idealized 'Mary Sue'-esque heroes of classic novels and the Byronic hero, which E. M. Forster called 'flat' characters in his Aspects of the novel, to more fleshed out, convention-defying webs of personalities, goals, drives and ambitions, which Forster calls 'round' characters. Nowadays, the archetypes of the romantic hero, the Byronic hero, the antihero etc. are used to colour an audience's expectations of a character, which are then either met or challenged as the plot progresses. This, coupled with how the narrative is presented and the character's interaction with the cast and their reactions to events, creates drama. Using specifically the Byronic hero, the traits they exhibit don't necessarily endear them to an audience; whether they conform or defy these expectations cements them in the audience's mind as someone to cheer for. Think back to Heathcliff and consider all of his actions - does his love for Catherine really justify the hate and the abuse we've seen him deliver? Personally, I don't think it does, even if he is the central protagonist. His past and his personality never glued him to me.
Obviously, characters are dealt with as we encounter them. I'm sure many of you support Heathcliff because you witnessed the abuse he suffered, instead of spiting it for his actions in the second half, but I digress.

In video games, character archetypes serve very much the same function, especially in more recent titles. If you've played the Assassin's Creed titles, think about how the traits of a Byronic hero might relate to the character of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, Assassin and revolutionary of the Assassin Brotherhood.
Ezio displays many Byronic traits over his lengthy time in the spotlight of the franchise, especially during his time in Assassin's Creed II. However, it's interesting to consider that he didn't start out as one - rather, he developed into one after the execution of his father and brothers.
In the opening segment of the game, Ezio is the outgoing, slightly rebellious, but ultimately good-natured middle brother of the Auditore family. He's confident, sexually active and attractive.

However, following the execution of his family, Ezio is forced into the life of an Assassin, exiled by people he trusted for a crime neither he nor his late father committed. He becomes obsessed with revenge, and during his formative time as an Assassin, learns to adapt, develops an aversion to institutions and those who belong to them, as he learns more about the Templars, and becomes incredibly critical of his inability to save his family. Here, the Byronic traits weren't used to set up Ezio's character; they were used to defy the expectations of the people who played Assassin's Creed II by allowing us an opportunity to see how this new Ezio melds with the Ezio of his happier times, creating depth and room for emotional investment. 

These traits also set him up for development in Brotherhood and Revelations, too. Ezio's arrogance following his victory over Rodrigo Borgia allows him to experience loss and develop into a more stalwart, resolved leader of the Assassins, and his continuing fight leads to a world-weariness in the early stages of Revelations, that allows him to gain one last insight into his life and ignite the spark he possessed when we first met him as a young adult.

On a completely unrelated note, I find it beautiful how we've only known Ezio for a hand of years, but in those years we've experience his entire life.

That's me done for this lengthy ramble on the Byronic hero in games. I hope you enjoyed it.


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