Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Heroes or Real People?

In my writing, I always face a conundrum.  Like most folks, I read for an escape, which means I need to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the book.  However, while there are a lot of elements of fantasy I'm willing to overlook - I know, for example, that there are no time machines to bring the AWB back in time to supply the Confederacy with the AK-47 in The Guns of the South - there still has to be a certain plausibility in the story.  Lack of that plausibility leads to something too far out there to really enjoy.

Most of the plausibility I find comes from the characters.  Realistic actions and reactions from people are the hallmark of a good book, but it got me to thinking about the makeup of those people in the first place.  When you read a book, how "ideal" do you want the protagonist to be?  How about the villain - should they be a bastard on every level, or should their motivations be a little more complex?

I know some people who want the hero to be that person they could never be - always principled, strong, and ready to face danger without even a hint of doubt.  On the other hand, I prefer my heroes to be a bit more nuanced.  The ideal exists nowhere in our world except in people's imaginations - Ghandi wrote letters to Adolf Hitler in which he called the maniac "my friend," Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist despite freeing the slaves, and JFK was a known adulterer.  We might like to believe these folks were great men who never had a bad thought or evil intention, but that's not always the case.  Yet these men also did great things.

The heroes I like to read about, indeed the ones I like to write about, are a bit closer to us than the ideal.  I prefer for my protagonists to be ordinary people who overcome great odds despite their flaws.  I want people who have moments of doubt and aren't always self sacrificing, but they're able to reach inside of themselves and still do what's right.  Why is that?  It's because I want my heroes to be people I can relate to.

We all have our dark places, those thing going on inside our minds and our lives that we would be mortified for others to see.  I think it grants comfort to the reader to see a hero that's much like themselves - flawed, possessing the occasional doubt, yet always striving to be the best they can and overcome their own humanity.  This allows the reader to put themselves in place of the hero and see that they too can become greater than they think.

I know that each of us has times when we wonder if we can be the hero.  We present one face to the world, but we know in our own hearts what we really are.  Sometimes this gives us pride, and sometimes this causes us shame.  We tend to think of others as not possessing the flaws we know we have, and this can create self-doubt.  It's important to remember that no one is perfect, and I think that heroes in our stories that show this, and still do the right thing, give hope to people.  Even good people can do horrible things, but if we can show our heroes to rise from the ashes of their own actions and eventually do what's right, it lets us relate to that person.  In the end, I think this provides a more satisfying reading experience, and one the reader can understand more than some alabaster saint that might be so perfect that no one will ever match them.

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