Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heroes and Heroism

A quick writing post--because I'm feeling inspired. Of course, before I forget--today's the last day to enter my book giveaway. Enter Here.

Susan from Let the Words Flow posted an awesome article about heroes--making your protagonists reflect the qualities you perceive as heroic in real-life heroes. She suggested the following: List a few real-life heroes and identify the qualities that make them heroic.

So it got me thinking...and instead of posting the world's longest comment (as some of my blog friends know I have a tendency to do on occasion) I decided to write my own post in response.

Now, for some odd reason, I gravitate toward war stories when I think about heroes. This is clichéd, I know, but there is something about the camaradarie, survivalism, hardship, and stripped-down immediacy of wartime to bring out heroic character.

The heroes who spring to mind:

George Rogers Clark: This is not the first, nor will it be, I project, the last time I wax poetic on GRC on this blog. I grew up reenacting the Revolutionary War as a member of "his" regiment--which set forth from Virginia in 1778 in hopes of capturing the Northwest Territory (now the eastern Midwest) from the British. He hatched the plan and convinced Virginia's governer, "Give me Liberty or give me death" Patrick Henry, to go along with it. He refused to give up even when he assembled only half the troops he expected. He cleverly used those troops to take several towns in the region by convincing the towns he had far more people than he did. And then, when part of the territory was recaptured by the British, he led his small army across half-frozen floodplains in a harrowing march to retake it. And he took the fort the British held with no casualties to his own regiment during combat.

But this--even give all the other stuff--is what makes him a hero in my book, from his own memoir: I viewed their confusion for about one minute, whispered to those near me to do as I did immediately, put some water in my hand, poured on [black] powder, blackened my face, gave the warwhoop and marched into the water, without saying a word. The party gazed and fell in, one after another without saying a word...

Talk about leadership! And foresight and innovation. And a strength of character.

And another:

Lieutenant Winters: If you've seen Band of Brothers, the HBO miniseries, you're familiar with this fellow. A quiet, strong leader, he was field promoted more than once and, in the miniseries, seems to garner respect in any situaiton. But he's not just a character--Winters is a real person, and was interviewed as part of the show. And this is where his heroism strikes me the most--you would never know this guy was a hero. He's just an old fellow who you might see at the grocery store or a baseball game. He's completely self-effacing, and everything that he did is reflected back on the group of men he served with. His triumphs weren't his alone--they're handed right back to his men. In one episode of the miniseries, this is portrayed as Winters attempts to write a report of an engagement--during which he performed with extraordinary leadership and valor. But he has to write the thing without saying this--because he won't take the credit for himself.

Which brings me back to a quote by George Rogers Clark: Great things have been effected by a few men well-conducted.

So what is a hero to me?

It's someone who recognizes the ability of one man--or a few men--to effect great things. That vision, plus innovation when the situation demands. Don't we love a clever hero? Who gets out of scrapes with brilliant ideas?

It's someone who has leadership--but not someone purely independent. Someone who recognizes the contributions and value of those around them.

Someone with exceptional conduct, as GRC says--the strength of character to continue to do the right thing or the thing one has to do, even when it would be much, much easier not to.

Of course, not every protagonist in a story can have this sort of forthright courage and honor. Some have quieter forms of heroism. So, one final example, another wartime story--but this of an entirely different nature. My favorite of the Anne of Green Gables books is the final book--Rilla of Ingleside. When WWI breaks out, Rilla is a teenager, but still a child--hopeful and idealistic, but also naive and self-centered. However, over the course of the book, Rilla proves that any person can effect great things. Her leadership with the local Red Cross refuses to let her be completely independent, and she has to learn to value what others can offer--and then they can accomplish bigger things together. She adopts a war baby--and even though it would be much easier to send him to the orphanage, she displayes exceptional conduct by keeping him. She is a hero, too.

Now, the hard part--imbuing my characters with these traits!

What do you think makes a hero?


Susan said...

Wow, great post! I can feel how much these characteristics matter to you -- I hope your own protagonists have these qualities.

Like you said in your comment on LTWF, when the writer is passionate about the characteristic, the reader will feel it too. I can definitely feel how much you admire these qualities, and so that makes me admire them too!

Maybelle Leung said...

Mm this sounds like a great topic! I do think, though, I was always more drawn to antiheroes and the "darker" traits - but at the same time I like my characters to be deep, full of motivations, and so forth. I like blurring the boundaries between "good" and "bad" guys - a lot of things come down to motive and acting out that motive, in the end.

I'll probably look up your heroes sometime! I think what defines a hero has gradually changed over time, especially when you look at "heroic" characters like Achilles and Hector, verses the egalitarian concept of "anyone can be a hero" today. I found the Greek/Epic heroes veryy hard to stomach, or even a more modern character like D'Artagnan from the Three Musketeers,because they always seemed so overblown and "courageous", and if there's anything "wrong" with them, these actions are justified because they just ARE heroes. It relates back to the achieved or ascribed statuses. but I think a true hero is someone who works for the role, and not born into/automatically assumed into.

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Susan! It's true--when you care about something, I think it comes through without even thinking about it!

Maybelle--definitely! I want to write an accompanying post with the darker traits I find intriguing. I think you need something in a character to admire, and something to intrigue you and make you nervous about the character--those darker sides.