by Toni McGee Causey
They are the people who run up the stairs in a burning building where terrorist planes have crashed.
They are the men and women who run toward the gunshots instead of away.
They are the medics who keep a fellow soldier from bleeding out on the field when mortar fire falls around them.
They are the pilots quietly landing a jet in the middle of a river.
They are the passengers, helping other passengers, leaping into the water to pull someone back on the airplane wing.
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Grace under pressure, choices that weigh the balance of their own life against the value of others.
Allison's terrific blog about villains
made me think about some of my pet peeves about heroes, and what a missed opportunity a hero sometimes is. As writers, we want people to root for our hero, we ultimately need them to be likable at some level, and we need who they are to resonate with enough readers that more and more people will identify with him/her (I am using "hero" as the generic term) so that people recommend the book to others.
One problem I find with a lot of heroes in a lot of stories is that they turn out to be somewhat generic people. Sure, they have some quirks and individualized traits, but in and of themselves, they're not all that memorable. They feel morally compelled to do what they do and while they have some past history that makes them not-perfect, and the obstacles are fierce, they rise to the occasion to vanquish the foe. And a lot of times, this works well enough within the context of the story that I'm not thrown out, I'll be entertained enough to read to the end, but a week later, I can't remember their name. A month later, I can't remember the book.
Hero does not have to be synonymous with heroic. As in, a character constantly leading a heroic life. They should be flawed people, sometimes awful people, with their own moments of self-centeredness, doubt, grumpiness, ailments, and bad habits.
A second problem I have found is a bit more insidious and fascinating, in a cultural context, and that's what I have started calling the "sell sheet" for the character:
1) is curmudgeonly
2) drinks (or is in AA) or the relevant social equivalent
3) is often a loner
4) smokes (or used to) and if the latter, now uses a patch/gum to help them stop
5) had a bad childhood
6) has moments of social responsibility (doesn't drink and drive or always uses a condom or believes in gun safety) (and yes, I realize how those can be combined for comedic effect)
7) likes music (very often jazz or the blues, occasionally indie stuff no one's heard of but it sounds cool and hip)
And in and of themselves, none of the above are bad choices, but they're not going to make the character stand out. Many of us can identify with a character like that because we've either had one or more of those traits, or we know someone who's had one or more of those characteristics, and so they are familiar enough that we can step into that hero's shoes and face the obstacles with him and root for him. (Or her.)
What is often missing, though, are the essential details to make that person unique, iconic. Now, there are often more specific details than the above, of course, but I've noticed there's also a social influence at work when a writer starts choosing those details… a cultural permission slip, if you will… that makes some particulars more "acceptable" than others. What we're often missing is what Megan Hustad referred to
as a person's "shadow list" — the true personal preferences people don't want to admit to.
Using consumption habits as a sort of self-expression shorthand has become so ubiquitous that we don't even blink. Hi, I'm Megan, I'm from New York, and I like the Jam, Prince, Nina Simone, mid-1990s D.C. punk, "The Colbert Report," "Little House on the Prairie," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," "Middlemarch," "The Moviegoer," Kazuo Ishiguro, Joan Didion's essay "On Self-Respect" and Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."
Too much, too soon, you say? Lately I've been thinking it's a bit too much — period. The "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment, as Virginia Postrel succinctly put it in "The Substance of Style," has turned us into self-handicapping snobs: Since we've taken so much care to craft our own perfect list, we feel more entitled to shrug off anyone whose list doesn't similarly impress. Would you be interested in someone who identifies with"The Secret"? We're also keeping our distance from a whole array of cultural output because we think it sends the wrong message about who we are and what we want to be.
Now, Hustad goes on to talk about this in relation to the reader and the books he / she will admit to having read, but there's a larger implication: I can't help but think that, as authors, we often fall prey to this sort of self-editing because we're aware on some level that the I like this=I'm like this connection is going to occur to our readers and be applied back to the creator. In this global-media world, we're all inundated by what is fashionable, or culturally acceptable. A step deeper than that, we're sensitive to the fact that certain traits would have the connotation of "bad" or "loser" or "socially unacceptable" or "asshole" or "irredeemable." It's almost as if we pull back on those details because it's seventh grade all over again.
It's a well-known given that certain personalities will gravitate to certain kinds of work–it's why you generally won't get a stone-rigid introvert applying for a talk-show host gig. But within that framework, a hero needs to be incredibly specific in order to be iconic, memorable. The reader–if not the other characters, at least the reader–needs to learn the hero's "shadow list" as they journey through the story. Sure, the hero may order steak while out to eat with a bunch of fellow officers, and probably orders scotch or beer when at the bar, but it's much more individual if he secretly likes to bake souffles and does a damned good job of it. But souffles are even socially acceptable–that's not a real "shadow" item, is it? See, I defaulted to that, in the writing just at this moment. No, a real shadow item is that he secretly bakes brownies or makes cream puffs or is itching to go buy some Fritos with chili and cheese.
Like Allison said in her post, the villain has to be worthy of the hero–the villain has to be a significant enough of a challenge to matter, to drive the story forward, to raise the stakes for the hero with each forward parry the hero makes toward his goal that we don't know how to predict the outcome. But just as important, the hero has to be worthy of the villain–as unique, as flawed, as driven, as individual, and we need to get to know them deeply. Knowing their shadow list is one good way to start.
So–pick a character–your own or something you've read lately–and tell me that character's shadow list. Let's see how creative authors can get.