Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let's talk about Protagonists...

What comes to mind when you hear the word, “hero?” Do you think of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton? Of Douglas Fairbanks, pere et fils? Of the old John Wayne movies? Of James Bond, as played by any one of a number of handsome and urbane men? Harrison Ford in space and the White House? Of Mel Gibson in woad and plaid? Of Jackie Chan, Leonardo Di Capro, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington? Or even of Tom Clancy’s perennial hero, Jack Ryan? Any or all of them?

Beyond the glitz, the publicists, the puffery, we as writers have to ask, what makes a hero? What exactly does that mean? What is the stuff of heroes?

Courage, I would think. No hero slinks away or hides behind a woman’s skirts when danger threatens. Physical courage that makes a man go up against overwhelming odds for a good cause. That makes a woman have the child against doctor’s orders, rather than ‘terminating’ her baby’s life in favor of her own. Moral courage, too, that urges a young child to tell the truth even in the face of bullying by his peers. Or a teen-aged girl’s keeping herself chaste against the opinions of her friends and the conditional attentions of her attractive, lusty young boyfriend.

Perseverance. The drive that makes a man stick with the sick wife, the witchy wife, the cold wife. The sense of more than duty, the passionate inner sense that is a kind of a love no one makes movies about: the ferocious steadfastness of having made a covenant and sticking to it. There is something terribly heroic about that. The quiet martyrdom of someone who doesn’t consider himself—or herself—a martyr at all. The perseverance of the woman who continues to love the child who would never listen, the charming child whose disobedience was his hallmark, and who ends up hooked on something horrible, while his mother continues to love and weep and pray.

Laughter. I’m not talking about the sarcastic laughter, the derision, the scoffing. I mean true, real humor. Nothing put-down, better-than, or prejudiced. Just funny, dear and truly manly humor, especially with and toward those who are more vulnerable. There is something heroic about a man or woman who can relate with others enough to make laughter come bubbling up from the unseen sources of the heart.

Fear. Now wait, we’re talking about heroes here. Fear? You bet! No one can be heroic without first being afraid. If someone is terrified, say, of cats, it would take heroism for them to pick one up in his arms. But if he were not first afraid, then picking up a cat would be commonplace, not important enough to be mentioned. If a soldier is afraid of being killed, it takes heroism to go forth and engage the enemy anyway. If a woman is afraid of labor, it takes heroism for her to go through it for the sake of her child. It is heroic for a doctor to dare operate on a moribund patient whose only chance is the doctor’s skill. For a lawyer to take on a case that has already been tried in the media. For an EMT to give first aid to an accident victim, whose life rests in their hands.

What do you consider heroism?

Please write to me at and let me know what one quality you think a hero must have. I will post every letter that does not violate Net laws, and we can all see what you think.

In the meantime, be brave, live boldly, and laugh kindly. See you next week.

Lang out.

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