Stories have always been an integral part of communication as a means of passing down cultural, social, and religious values and beliefs. Stories, most specifically parables and anecdotes, have been utilized throughout the years to help teach individuals how to behave. For example, The Boy Who Cried Wolf teaches children that they should not lie because the others will not listen to or believe them when they do tell the truth. In all stories, the roles of specific characters play an important function in showcasing “acceptable,” or correct cultural, societal, or faith-based behaviors (Blakeney, 2010; Cohen, 2010; Foreman, 2011; Perks, 2015). As Herman (2007) explains, “In early narratological research, roles were construed as invariant semantic functions fulfilled by characters with variable surface features (e.g., Both Claudius in Hamlet and Lex Luthor in Superman instantiate the role of ‘villain’)” and that “Analysts of stories have long been concerned with the concept of ‘role’” (p. 191). The roles of characters within stories have become much more complex throughout the years and now offer an unfixed group of characters with which readers can connect to.
Individuals tend to align themselves with the hero/heroine of the story because these characters epitomize the ideals, norms, and beliefs of acceptable societal, cultural, or faith-based roles (OEDB.org, 2013; Perks, 2015; Ramaswamy, 2014; Widrich, 2012). Simply put, these characters are often viewed as heroes because they have overcome adversity by demonstrating transformational leadership qualities. Transformational leadership qualities are defined as a leadership style that provides the motivation that appeal to the individual’s higher needs (i.e., self-esteem and self-actualization) as opposed to other forms of leadership that appeal mostly to the individual’s basic needs (i.e., physical needs, safety needs) (Hackman & Johnson, 2013; Tourish & Pinnington, 2002). This type of leadership is characterized by five specific traits: creativity, interactivity, vision, empowerment, and passion (Hackman & Johnson, 2013). For example, we look at the character of Harry Potter throughout the novels written by J.K. Rowling. Although Harry was forced into the role of hero, he rose to the challenge and overcame Lord Voldemort and saved the wizarding world. The subject of Harry Potter has been the topic of much research on various topics, most especially servant and transformational leadership qualities and skills (Cohen, 2010; Eblin, 2011; Foreman, 2010; Perks, 2015).
While I agree that studying positive aspects of leadership is a benefit, studying the negative aspects of characters might also prove beneficial in the overall study of leadership. Hackman and Johnson (2013) tell us that “Selfish, exploitive leaders can use transformational strategies to achieve unworthy objectives; some of the most terrifying leaders in history were considered to be charismatic” (p. 129) and that the term “pseudo-transformational” (p. 129)was developed to help distinguish between the positive and negative aspects of transformational leadership (p. 129).
I will argue that examining the behaviors and attributes of characters who display pseudo-transformational leadership traits will not only showcase how individuals should not act, but will also help intended audiences – teenagers, parents, teachers, and other youth professionals, to recognize harmful behavior in others or themselves. These audiences are those who can benefit from an understanding of how an examination of fictional characters can affect an individual’s perception on norms, behaviors, and beliefs, as well as influence how individuals react in certain situations.
The lines between hero and villain have become blurred with the rise of certain teen fiction stories, such as Twilight (2005), True Blood (2008), and Maleficent (2014) wherein previously designated villainous characters have become the misunderstood hero. In Twilight (2005), we meet Edward, a vampire, who is not the evil creature that vampires have been known to be. Instead, he is a kind-hearted individual who feeds off of animals, not humans, in order to survive and who falls in love with a human girl. The entire concept of Twilight (2005) turns the historical view of vampires as deadly, blood-drinking, nocturnal, horrifying creatures into individuals who more closely resemble humans with similar temperaments, values, and beliefs. This rise of altered perceptions has started to change the ways in which individuals view the roles of villains and heroes.
I believe that examining the rise of misunderstood heroes in literature, through the lens of Kenneth Burke’s (1973) equipment for living, can help to put individuals in the shoes of others and help to foster a deeper understanding of how villains are people with human emotions, beliefs, and experiences who, like us all, are capable of terrible, and wonderful, things. This project will study the applications of Burke’s equipment for living theory through the concept of pseudo-transformational leadership in popular teen fiction.