Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wanted: Heroes

The cabin girl and I had a little chat the other day. She'd been reading a book, but decided to stop in the middle and not finish.

As a writer, I can't think of a worse insult.

"So what was the problem? Why did you stop?" I asked.

"The main character did something stupid. He gave in to his," she rolled her eyes, "tragic flaw."

"Maybe later in the story he'll get a chance to redeem himself," I said.

"But mom, he's already totally lost my respect. I can't look up to him anymore because he gave in!"

"People in real life give in all the time," I said. I think I'd done it myself a few times already that day.

"But this isn't real life, it's a story. When I read a story I want characters that I can look up to, that are better than people in real life. Sure people give in, but I don't want a story about that. I read for characters that give me a good example to follow."

That made me think back to when I was my daughter's age, searching through the school library for a female protagonist I could look up to, emulate, become. I never found her. At the time, I decided it would be up to me to write her.

I'd forgotten.

My daughter continued, "I don't think characters have to be perfect. They should have weaknesses. And minor characters can give in and betray you, but I don't want the story to be about them. The main character can even have given in to their weakness in the past, but I want a story about not giving in anymore. I want a character that makes the right choice, no matter what."

She went on to say that when she's in pain or facing a hard choice, she often remembers her heroes from books and finds strength in their examples. As a writer, I can't think of a higher honor.

Do young people need story heroes to look up to? What kind of heroes are you giving them?


  1. What a wise young lady you have raised, Rebecca! I am duly impressed.

    I felt the exact same way when Rand hopped in the sack with that desert chick in what was it, book 5 of the Wheel of Time series? I was so mad I flung the book across the room. As I recall, you had clued in and given up on the series way back at book #2.

    It's a fine line. Brigham Young had some really cool things to say about portraying evil in plays, and how it must be done, but must be done with a certain amount of wisdom and tact so the wrong messages are not sent. The funny thing about fiction is, the author has not only complete control over the characters' choices (...or do we? That's another subject ;) but they have control over the consequences. Far too often they manipulate the consequences in ways that just don't happen in real life, which can send misleading messages.

  2. I think we all want to read about heroes (well, I do anyway). Writing them is another kettle of fish. Because they can't be perfect - in fact, a good dramatic story almost demands they have major conflict (internal, external). But they can't fail to be heroes when it's required either. Can a character be something other than relentlessly strong and heroic, and still be a hero in the end. Yes, but it's not easy.

    Still, the duty is there to make it happen.

    And Rebecca, I'm with you on the lack of good female protags when we were growing up. There were a few in SF, but not many. There are more now (Katniss, Hunger Games, of course, but also Hermoine in HP).

  3. Let's hear it for the heroes! I always get ticked when the protagonist messes up. I want to reach into the pages and slap them. A lot. Grrrr.

    I agree, I want them to be better than average. If I want average, I'll watch the news or go sit in the parking lot at the highschool. I'm reading for something more than average. I want to read amazing.

  4. Sue, Katniss and Hermione are soon to be joined by Kate Byrne, right! I need to add my own contribution to the list, but first another boy book.

    I've thought about this a lot. Why can't we have stories about average, ordinary people? Well, that's fine in realistic fic, but I like epic tales of adventure to be about people with the power to change the world, and the self-mastery to do it.

  5. @Rebecca I would love Kate Byrne (or Kira Moore) to join the corps of positive female heroes, but only time will tell ...

    Yesterday, when I was in with the 3rd/4th graders teaching them how to write flash fiction, many of the girls wanted to start with an ordinary girl in an ordinary town (the boys started with hypnotizing lizards in the 21st century! LOL). I would ask them "what's special" about their characters? They would struggle a bit, often come up with how extra nice they were. It took some encouragement, but eventually we would find a special trait, or an extraordinary circumstance these ordinary girls found themselves in.

    But it makes me wonder - does everyone really want to read about heros? Or is it just me? :)

  6. I think we want to read about heroes, but we want them to also be ordinary, or at least start out that way and become great. That makes us feel like anyone can become a hero. That's why I love Frodo and Sam so much. They are just hobbits, and they love gardening and eating. Who would ever expect a plump gardener of being capable of saving the world? It makes me think for ever so brief a time that I might be able to save the world, too.

  7. What a thought-provoking post, Rebecca.

    It's pretty scary how strongly the media impacts people--especially our kids.

    Ann Rice decided to quit writing her dark novels because of what it did to her readers. She turned to God and changed her platform. I really admire her for doing that.

    I want my children to look up to someone who exudes strength of character in good things and who is not afraid to shine. Personally, I strive to be that for them.


  8. Rebecca, great post! I love a good hero, and although I like them with a few flaws, I really can't stand it when they disappoint me in a major way. I want a hero I can cheer on, rave to my friends and family about, and look up to. Give me that, and I'm a fan for life.

    Now, writing one is harder than it looks. I'm still trying. Here's to the journey!

  9. AMEN, Amber! I am so with you on that. I want heroic characters! Otherwise, why am I reading it? Lloyd Alexander is one of my favorite authors, largly because so many of his main characters - while being "ordinary," "imperfect," or "fallible" - are still pretty darn awesome and stick with what is right and good when they're faced with the hard decisions that make for great stories.

    It must be very difficult to navigate the fine line between realistically-flawed-and-therefore-believable and accessible-to-the-reader-not-because-of-flaws-but-because-of-...I don't know - what is it? What gives a sense of "everyman" without giving them mistakes any man might have? I guess I haven't thought about that much because I'm more interested in admiring & emulating the characters than relating to them.

    Probably my very favorite heroine of all time: Vesper Holly; closely followed by Frodo & Sam, Sara Crewe, Princess Cimorene, and Kate & Jancsi Nagy.

  10. Angela! A woman after my own heart. Three cheers for Cimorene, and I have a special place in my heart for Kate and Jancsi since my Grandmother is Hungarian and every December 6th we read their St. Nicholas Day story.

    Great thoughts, everyone! Thank you so much for contributing to the discussion.


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