Happy Fourth of July!
International turmoil in Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere is a reminder of how lucky Americans are to have a stable, elected government. No one appreciates freedom more than writers.
As a young journalist I tested the limits a bit with a column questioning automatic recitation of the Flag Salute (patriotism that is mindless is not patriotic at all, I argued) and readers exercised their freedom of speech by giving me a piece of their mind, in a standing-room-only public meeting called to air the issue. One of the biggest audiences I’ve ever had, and no one was hurt. I got to be provocative, and they got to challenge me on it. Is this a great country, or what?
Heroes died and were wounded giving us such freedom (I just read Rick Atkinson’s excellent WW II history, ‘The Guns At Last Light’) and a couple recent incidents made me think about the freedom we give our thriller and fictional heroes. Including freedom from mortality.
A reader expressed impatience with the initial shallowness of my heroine Rominy in my thriller “Blood of the Reich,” fearing I’d created a female ninny of the worst cliched kind. The early chapters are indeed provocative in showing Rominy as confused victim with a dominating male, giving the young woman plenty of room to develop character as the adventure accelerated. She ultimately kicks butt in her own desperate way. But I definitely defied today’s trend of making girls chop-sockey awesome from the get-go, lethal as well as alluring.
As a matter of fact, all my heroes, male and female, tend to start out as pretty ordinary, thwarted, and at times confused – a long way from Lara Croft, Rambo, or Jack Reacher.
This is just personal and storytelling preference. I’m not as excited by indestructible superheroes as some, enjoying the tension of the little guy facing big odds – even while enjoying the suavity of James Bond or the toughness of private eye Philip Marlowe. My favorite Rocky was the first one, when he was a clumsy palooka who lost the fight…not the comeback celebrity.
Writers set heroes all along the testosterone spectrum, from Achilles to Napoleon Dynamite, and each sheds light on the human experience. Rominy proves tough indeed, but hers is an evolution.
The other incident was breaking a wrist in a bicycle fall (I’m heroically tapping this one-handed) and being reminded that getting hurt hurts, a reality sometimes glossed over in our fiction. Heroes are knocked out, crash through windows, break down doors, are winged by bullets, tortured, poisoned, and crashed, and pop back up as impenetrable as modern plastic packaging.
Why? First, gritting through is the admirable, stoic thing to do, however medically improbable. Yes, stitch up your own sword wound! Second, authors don’t want to stop the action for a three-month convalescence. Third, risk can win reward: “It’s only a flesh wound; come to bed, darling!”
But I’ve got a character not at all nonchalant about being shot in a current project…though he still doesn’t wince as much as he might in ensuing weeks. Ethan Gage sees little glory in being wounded.
My point is that making heroes indestructible makes them not just unrealistic, but less exciting and less instructive in today’s violent world.
The patriots who won independence were ordinary men and women who suffered extraordinary pain and privation, sometimes glossed over in fiction. Maybe Iron Man should cry.
But then he’d rust.