I’m no hero. Not the kind who faces physical danger, anyway. I don’t risk my life on a regular basis, unless you consider flying across the country in a commercial jetliner, seated in Business First, to be risking one’s life. (If you do, hey. I’m doing just that as I type this post.)
No, I’m no hero. Under the right circumstances, I might be. I like to think that I would. We all like to imagine that we’d respond coolly in a crisis, put others ahead of ourselves, do the right thing and face danger without flinching. Same with moral peril. We’d like to speak truth, stand up, inspire others, take action when others shrink back.
Mostly we’re not called upon to do that. Heroism falls to others. Still, we’d like to be ready. We are heroes inside. We celebrate and thank those who’ve sacrificed and fought, either with weapons or with moral courage. We hold them in the highest regard. We organize parades, erect monuments, lay wreaths, salute, hashtag, retweet, and wipe away tears.
We need heroes, not to save us but to lift us. To inspire. To challenge and remind us to be our best selves. To be brave. That is why heroes endure in literature. I don’t mean only gumshoes, sheriffs, military men and women, superheroes. There was a thousand ways to face fear, and fears to face.
Fear is the key. Facing it is what makes a hero or heroine. That means that heroism can inspire us in any novel. In yours. The one you’re writing right now. Does that sound impossible? Does it sound over the top, pulp, unsuited to your story? If so, I understand but let me ask you this: Don’t you think that right now the world needs more heroines and heroes?
Who is going to inspire the courage—the courage that we all want and need—if you do not? Writing fiction is a realm in which showing courage does not fall to others. It falls to you.
ENGINEERING HEROISM STARTS WITH SHAME
Let’s look at some ways to engineer heroism. Recently I asked a workshop full of writers what their protagonists are most afraid of. The answers fell into three categories: 1) Hurting or betraying loved ones. 2) Being emotionally hurt or betrayed oneself. 3) Doing the wrong thing, giving in, going to the dark side.
Interestingly, common fears that you might expect to arise quickly didn’t, such as physical injury, blindness, dying. Perhaps those are hard to relate to? Regardless, it is emotional peril that stirs the greatest fear. Disappointing others. Disappointing self. Giving in, going down, selling out. Failing.
Those fears are rooted in a powerful, primary emotion: experiencing shame. Thus, building heroism starts with creating fear, and creating fear starts with shame. So, considering your WIP and its world, what would most shame your protagonist? What would be the worst possible humiliation? Especially self-inflicted?
More: Whom does your protagonist least want to disappoint? Who holds your protagonist in high regard? Who depends upon him or her? For whom must your protagonist be there, strong, supporting, dependable, always doing right? You can also give your protagonists boosters and believers—perhaps one in particular—who have faith in him or her. Strengthen those bonds. Express that admiration or hero worship. Have your protagonist make a promise, one important to keep. You can also give your protagonist a code, principle, or rule to live by to which he or she steadfastly adheres.
No doubt you see what to do with those elements. Break the bond. Let that person down. Make your protagonist do—once, when it counts—what is low, contemptible, cowardly, false, avoidant, weak or selfish. In what way can your protagonist betray another? How can she or he fail to uphold the all-important code, principle or rule? How can your protagonist let down not only others but, worse, herself or himself?
In other words, establish what constitutes shame for your protagonist. Then, cross that boundary. When your protagonist goes down, we will know fear. We will understand that anyone—you or I—can succumb. We can also work our way back to the right side, of course, and it is that return to goodness, grace, honesty, integrity, right and self-sacrifice that stirs us, your readers, to courage.
Put simply, when your protagonist overcomes the worst possible shame then we know that we can all be heroic. [Read more…]