I was trying to decide what made the hero in The Monster Men feel different from most other fictional heroes I’d encountered recently and I realized that it was a quality of masterfulness.
Without spoiling too much, Number 13 is not only able to engage small armies of pirates in pursuit of his heart’s idol, but also to enlist the aid of his truculent, brutish fellow creations to the task through a blend of domination, threats, and force of personality. In a word, limited as his understanding is, he knows how to take charge of a situation and how to master his fellow men to direct them to his purpose.
This quality of masterfulness, of commanding from a sense of right and without apology for it, is extremely rare in modern fiction. It doesn’t fit with modern sensibilities, and some audience members are liable to interpret it as arrogance or even oppressiveness (especially if the masterful character is a man of a certain complexion).
A good example of what I’m talking about comes in comparing the Aragorn of the book and the Aragorn of the films.
In the films, Aragorn, though strong and admirable, repeatedly states that he doesn’t want to be king, doesn’t desire power, declaims Arwen plighting her troth to him and tries to get her to depart into the west, and requires three films of development before reaching a point where he accepts Anduril at Elrond’s pressing. And even so, he’s one of the more masterful figures of modern cinema, in that he willingly gives commands to his companions and at one point is shown prepared to fight Boromir if the latter pushes him.
In the books, Aragorn never expresses any such doubts or declamations. He and Arwen have already made their pact and he is resolved to carry it through or die trying. He is depicted (in the appendices) as celebrating when he discovers his heritage, though it’s quickly checked when he meets Arwen and realizes how little his dignity counts compared to hers. He commands with an unquestioned authority, able to hold his people on the road of the dead by sheer force of will and seeming to feel no fear himself. At one point he gives Gimli a sharp retort for questioning his decision to use the palantir (“You forget to whom you speak”), while in another he’s almost willing to defy Theoden’s guards when ordered to law aside his sword, and when he finally does so it is with a strict command that no man must touch it on pain of death.
In short, the film Aragorn is a reluctant leader, while the book version is a masterful one. The former is diffident and uncertain of his leadership position, the latter claims it as a right.
Yet, the book Aragorn never comes across as arrogant or entitled; his kindness and affection for the hobbits and his other companions prevents that. Moreover, his high claims are not for his own aggrandizement, but for the good of his people and subjected to claims of right and honor, leading him to willingly risk his life for his friends and companions, even when there seems to be no hope of success. Simply put, it is his right and his place to command and he knows it.
But I think most people, even today, admire a man like this; a man who knows his rights and his position and can bring other men to heel if need be, one who can make his will felt and direct others to his goal.
Most importantly, this is a key element in conveying a sense of true nobility, again, something Burroughs was very good at. Nobility is a matter of blending this kind of power and domination placed in service to a higher idea: it could almost be defined as mastery over others coupled with a complete submission of the self.
It’s the mastery element, the power of command, the self-assurance and sense of right rulership that we’re mostly missing today. We generally have only reluctant or uncertain or compromised heroes. If they are rulers, they are usually careful to avoid any impression of being domineering (e.g. Infinity War having Black Panther demur over being bowed to).
If you want your heroes to feel like classic characters, let them be masterful.