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How to write about heroes (and be one)

Superman encouraging Red Cross donations during World War II.

True heroes show others how to be heroes. (image from Comic Book Resources)

What makes a true hero, at least in a story?

Joseph Campbell had many great things to say about the hero’s journey, and we can see them in popular works such as Star Wars and the Harry Potter series. I think that the heroes we enjoy the most are people like us. We can relate to a hero, even one with extraordinary abilities, if we see him or her struggle through the same types of challenges and inner weaknesses we do. In seeing or reading about such heroes, we are inspired to root for them — and become like them.

The journey of this type of hero has several aspects that help us relate to him or her. (Spoilers ahead.)

The hero is sent on the journey against his or her will.

Suppose a wizard with a giant beard or an android with a holographic distress signal showed up at your door and asked you to go with them on a perilous quest. Would you go? Hell, no! No sane person would want to leave the comfort and safety of home and family to risk his or her life, especially for strangers.

In fact, we become suspicious of the man who jumps enthusiastically into danger. We wonder, “What is he trying to prove? Is he really trying to help, or does he just want the fame and glory?” There have been cases of people causing disasters so they can use them to act heroically.

We only go on the journey when we have no other choice, such as when the stormtroopers destroy Luke’s home and kill his aunt and uncle. It usually takes a tragedy, a crisis, or even a spectacular opportunity to send us on a hero’s journey. We have to go on the quest because we no longer have the option of staying where we are.

The hero has to learn the skills he or she needs to triumph.

We spend most of the first 25 years of our lives learning. It takes years just to be competent at basic skills. We expect that from our heroes as well.

This is why Rocky movies have a training montage. Rocky isn’t some superhero who steps into the ring and pounds whatever bad guy is in the other corner. He has to train, just as we know any real athlete has to train. The best example was Rocky IV. While the villain, Ivan Drago, trains in a high-tech lab and gets shot up with steroids, Rocky trains in a cabin in the Siberian tundra by lifting logs, helping neighbors with their carts, and climbing snow-covered mountains. We can root for Rocky because we know he did the work, and we can see how his preparation helped him win the fight.

The hero fails the first (and the second and the third) time.

Speaking of Rocky, don’t forget that he lost the fight in the first movie. What made him heroic was that he went the distance against a better trained and more experienced opponent. Luke and his friends went through a series of near failures before rescuing Princess Leia from the Death Star, and that adventure cost Luke’s (and his father’s) mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi his life.

If victory came too easy to heroes, they wouldn’t seem heroic. Nor would they seem heroic if they gave up too quickly after the first defeat. What makes people true heroes is when they learn from their mistakes and get up to fight again. For them (as for us), failure is part of the learning process.

Defeat also shows the danger and the stakes involved in the hero’s quest. We can care about the hero because we know what he or she is doing is extremely difficult and the cost of failure is great. The hero’s ability to overcome setbacks and persevere helps us become more connected with that person.

The hero must also battle his or her own demons and weaknesses.

However, the greatest foe a hero must often face is his or her own weaknesses. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is an alcoholic. Bruce Wayne (Batman) is haunted by the murder of his parents. We can relate to a hero struggling with inner demons because we all have demons of our own.

One of a hero’s greatest inner demons is the sense of isolation. What makes a person exceptional also makes him or her feel alone. Because of their abilities or wealth, they are the ones who are called upon whenever there is a crisis. Since they always save the day, the public may start taking them for granted. They may be distrusted for having too much power. This is why Watchmen is such a powerful twist on the superhero trope. We see the personal cost of having incredible powers and responsibility.

Seeing the weaknesses of a hero not only help us feel sympathetic towards him or her, it also gives us some sense of comfort. We know that a hero’s power has limits, and heroes can’t become so powerful that they can use that power against us.

The hero accepts the end of his or her journey.

Bilbo Baggins goes home to the Shire. Harry Potter settles down into family life. Superman puts his Clark Kent outfit back on and returns to work at the Daily Planet.

The true hero knows when the adventure is over. He or she is willing to go back to a normal life, satisfied with the accomplishment and the growth they gained. Heroes don’t hang on to the glory or use it to seek greater fame and power for themselves.

This assures us that heroes are, at their core, people like us. They crave the comfort of family and friends and to be average citizens of their community. Even if they are called upon to be heroes again, they will want to return to the normalcy of home. They won’t use their heroism to act superior and use their power against us.

The hero invites us to be heroic.

True heroes invite us to be heroic by showing how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They show that the true path of the hero involves learning, especially learning from failure. They show that we must face our own inner demons before we can face the demons that threaten us. They caution us not to become too enthralled with the trappings of power and success, because they have a horrible price. Finally, they remind us that even the most harrowing of journeys leads us back home.

We don’t have to face an evil wizard or an empire with a planet-destroying weapon to be heroic. We may face personal challenges that require us to step up and be more than who we thought we can be. We can look to fictional heroes to inspire us to be heroes in our own lives. If an ordinary person can muster the courage and gain the skills to battle a difficult foe, so can we.

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