I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life (Bonnie Tyler)
One of the devices I've been using lately to deepen my writing is to watch movies/television and study certain types of characters. This week's particular fascination has been heroes, in particular Michael Westen of USA's "'Burn Notice."
For those who don't know, Michael's situation is that he has been a US government spy for some time, working all over the work to right various wrongs in the name of the government. For a mysterious reason he was "burned," i.e. declared persona non grata, cut off from his work, support, bank accounts, and more and blacklisted so he can't get more work, The three seasons of the show, he's worked to re-establish himself, find out what happened and get back into his life.
He has been somewhat single-minded about this, willing to sacrifice his own safety as well as personal relationships in order to force those who cut him off to let him back in. Watching the lengths to which he will go to contact and meet with people demonstrates this determination in great detail. This is how a hero works. He doesn't let obstacles stand in his way, even though he risks everything to pass them by.
But Michael fails at first to realize there's more to him than the job.
It's not surprising, since most men identify with their work situation rather than any other sector of their lives. When you ask a man, "What do you do?" he'll reply with his job title. If he's staying home with the children, he's often not seen as a family caregiver, he's labeled as "unemployed." So the fact that this hero doesn't understand his own reality isn't unusual.
As this season of the show has progressed, Michael has been able to learn, through some pretty traumatic situations, that two things are true: 1) that he is not willing to set aside his personal relationships. They are part of what keeps him strong and make him a hero instead of a martyr; and 2) that it isn't really the "job" he craves but the ability to look himself in the mirror because he knows he's respected and doing good work. What he really wanted after the burn notice was to clear his falsely-smeared name, and he wasn't willing to do it with purchased false documents that would have gotten him back in, but sold his soul.
Often we look at heroes as people who act to save/rescue others without regard for their own consequences, but there's more to it than that. The cab driver who pulls an accident victim from a car before the car explodes. Organ donors. Nurses who work with cancer patients. Priests working in poverty areas to bring peace and help the downtrodden. None of these people are cold-hearted automatons who simply go around rescuing people they believe are in need. The key to developing these characters, to bringing them to life in your story, is to show that the quality of "hero" has a certain pride factor for that character. Hero is something that you as the hero feel inside. Your deeds make you proud. You don't just execute plans out of a sense of duty, you gain a certain feeling from completion of these good deeds, when you help others. When you work with others well to accomplish these tasks, they share in the feelings, and that increase in goodwill builds character for you all.
This realization will help me when I am structuring heroes and heroines in my writing. To make them more reachable by a reader and more realistic, they have to be able to have some personal gain in the fulfillment of their role as hero. This rounds them out and makes them appealing. Learning what gives them satisfaction, whether it's helping strangers or proving something to themselves, lets the author know his character and share him with readers.
Causes Barbara Mountjoy Supports
Human Rights Campaign