Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Hero Worship

"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being."
-- May Sarton

What happened to heroes in stories? In older films and stories, heroes were characters who made sacrifices. They were people who thought of others before themselves. At some point we decided that this was unrealistic, and characters like a square-jawed Superman were too corny for us. We were more sophisticated than that -- life is gray, not black and white. Bad guys and good guys went the way of the dodo. Nowadays heroes are out for themselves. Maybe that is more realistic -- but what lesson are we learning?

What people are forgetting about stories is why we tell them, and that “why” is very important. The “why” tells you how to tell a story. Almost all stories have a lesson at their core. Sometimes a small lesson, sometimes profound, but almost always a lesson.

If you buy this idea, then what are heroes for? Why in the past were they so goody-goody? Heroes represent ideals to live up to. We learn from their example how we should try to behave. We see who we hope we will be when and if we are ever called on to be brave in the face of danger, be it physical or emotional. These examples are what we hope to imitate.

Stories are only a reflection of life, and flesh-and-blood heroes who are not fictional beings serve the same purpose -- they have lived out ideals we hope to live up to. Look at Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- very few of us can claim to be as self-sacrificing as these. And because we know what they did is right, but not easy to do, we exalt these people.

A hero is measured by the size of his/her struggle. In many stories, a formidable villain shows us the hero’s strength. But in others, a hero’s internal struggle, with what has been called a fatal flaw, is the real obstacle to overcome. Giving a hero a weakness to overcome is what makes him/her like us. They are reluctant to do the right thing, but do it anyway because it is the right thing.

How deep does this imitation go? In the 1930s, Clark Gable starred in a classic Frank Capra film called It Happened One Night. In a scene in that film, he undressed and you could see that he wore no t-shirt. That year the sales of t-shirts went down. Years later, in Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean wore a t-shirt as outer wear and that became a fad.

These are just small examples of how we imitate our heroes. We also adopt their behaviors. We learn from their mindsets. As storytellers, we have a responsibility to show people who they could be if they face their demons and do the right thing. Sometimes people need a story to show them how they can be heroes.

This blog entry is dedicated to August Wilson who became a friend and hero to me. He died on October 2, 2005, of liver cancer.


Hadibi @ gndagnor said...

I am so happy to have found your blog :D After reading all of your blog, I feel so exhilirated! You've entertained me by telling me about how to tell stories. All the wonderful information that you've given are all so easy to grasp and told in an entertaining way. There's so much I want to say but I dont know how to type it haha. I'll definately be checking up for new posts. Thanks Brian, for inspiring me to want to make great stories :)

Brian McD said...

Thank you. I'm just glad people read it at all. I'm happy to hear that you get so much from it.

James Baker said...

Brian>> that MAY SARTON quote is great. i have to remember that one..

this issue of the hero is something I've thought about too... i could ramble on and on about it...

I guess the area that got me thinking about it was from watching some films that featured ANTI-HERO characters, starting with the MAN WITH NO NAME. It occured to me that even though those Clint Eastwood films focus on a character who tends to take the law into his own hands and isn't such a classic "good guy" (and were seen as anti-social in their time) there is a sort of morality in those films, because, in their own way they do show the cost of living your life like that. The guy may be cool, but he doesn't really have a life that any of us would envy... no friends, no home, not even a name.

the classic western SHANE also shows the cost of living a life of violence. Even though we like Shane, we see that he will always pay the price for living his life the way he does.

in the classic story the Count of Monte Cristo the protagonist sets about getting revenge on all the guys who have spoiled his life and left him for dead. When At last he is done with them all and he reveals his true identity to his wife, she says that no, he ISN'T the man she married. She rejects him at the end of the story. The revenge that has so possessed him is acheived at a cost.

I think what these stories did is gave us the vicarious thrill of being a bad-ass, tough-guy revenger (because who hasn't had some revenge fantasies?) but without saying that was a GOOD waqy to live your life.

Contrast those stories with the films like TRUE LIES (or even the DIE HARD sequels) where we see a loving family man running around garotting people, breaking necks and then going back to his family as if nothing has happened...as if those outrageously violent activities hadn't affected him in any way.

I think that there is a way to have larger than life action that satisfies our cravings for violence and kinetic suff, AND/OR stories that show darker "more realistic" not so "goody goody" characters, but that are still rooted to a kind of EMOTIONAL realism. By showing the negative consequences rather than the positive.

Maybe I am really naive but I still do believe that if you are only out for revenge you will lose something of yourself. Or, if you are only out for yourself (the so-called "realistic" characters that you reference) then there will be stuff that you miss out on too...

i don't mind if the protagonist isn't classically heroic perhaps, or even "good" but in that case I like to see some consequences..