I recently had one of those nasty little life-episodes that made me sit back and really evaluate things. Specifically, what it means to be a hero. Not me personally as a hero (although I hope to grow up to be one someday), but who heros are and what exactly sets them apart from the rest of us. My conclusion… it’s not what you might think.
I mean, you look at some of the heros on television and in movies and you get the big, muscular, hyper-intelligent individual who creates cures for cancer in his/her spare-time. But are they really heros, or just extraordinary people living up to their potential? I believe that perhaps the later is the case.
To me, a hero is someone who perseveres even when the road travelled suddenly takes a right-turn from the expected. When a challenge is faced, the decision is to do what’s right, not what’s easy. That hero may not be terribly likeable. Heck, they might be a complete jerk, but that’s not the point. The point is, the hero will sacrifice whatever necessary to ensure that a greater good is served, no matter the personal cost.
OK… with that in mind, must the action be something big and earthshattering? No… I don’t think so. Consider the single-parent who works a job he/she hates so the children have a home and food. Then they turn around and take a second job so the children can play hockey, or dance or go into scouts. Just to make sure that the children don’t miss out on having a childhood.
Would that parent be considered a hero? Most people wouldn’t even know of the sacrifice(s) he or she is making. But the parent would. And so would the kids. I have a friend who lived it. Her son was just drafted into the NHL… he definitely has remembered everything she did for him. Is she a hero?
How about the farmer who decides that for a community to be strong and vibrant, the work day doesn’t end after 12 or 14 hours of work? He comes in off the field or from milking cows, washes up and heads into town to help with the local farming cooperative or town/church/lodge council. He does this for years, never asking for praise or thanks. Is he a hero?
And how about the man who was sent alone from his home because of a catastrophe. He lost his parents, his civilization and even his world. He was doomed to live among people not like himself, always alone. A strong sense of purpose guaranteed that he would always work for others first, himself last. Would he be considered a hero?
In every example, these people ARE heros. Not because of what they can do, but because of what they conciously choose to do. Looking back, I realize that for a hero to be truly compelling, that person must be someone of character, of strong moral fibre. Someone willing to do whatever was necessary to get it done.
Consider this when you are creating your protagonists. To try and create a heroic character that doesn’t meet these criteria will be found out and your readers will feel cheated. Creating a true hero will bring them back to you.
I’ve had the great honor and priviledge of knowing some heroic people. Those people made me sit up and reconsider my own life. Great characters can do the same.
I dedicate this to my own personal hero who left this mortal coil on October 11, 2006: Bill Wiesener. He was my grandfather, my guide, and someone who could truly be called a pillar of his community. I hope I can live up to his legacy.