Saturday, September 18, 2010

How Heroes Are Made

Gah. I've had this post ready for nine days, and I'm just now getting around to posting it. T-T I fail.
Anyway... Here it is:

Part two of my ‘Musings from the School bus’ burst of inspiration. ;)

Alternatively titled: ‘The Writer’ thinks about Heroes. A lot.

Heroes are brave, and strong, and sure of themselves. Very rarely do they start out that way, though. The few that do are mostly stupid, and get themselves killed before they can do anything really impressive. Real heroes start out like everyone else: as screaming, squirming babies. And you can take that figuratively, OR literally! It works either way! :D

Often they’re small, and soft, and scared.

Or selfish, and mean, and refuse to help anyone but themselves.

They go quietly about their lives, caring for things and getting hurt by things, over and over again, their experiences laying down foundations for greatness. Dead/killed family, insults that can’t be overlooked, consequences for hasty actions… All of these things – and more – are triggers. All of our hero’s experiences up to the current point decide how he’ll react to something.

They are what decide whether a girl standing in front of a burning orphanage – the remnants of the best home she’s ever known – takes charge and leads the other survivors through bandit-infested hills to the safety of a city she’s never been to… Or if she breaks down and cries, and lets the girl standing next to her rise to the occasion instead.

Everything brings her to this point. EVERYTHING points her toward her transformation from a mousy, bullied girl into a leader. The string of rotten homes that made her so grateful to the orphanage for taking her in… The cruel sneers on the arsonists’ faces as they set her home ablaze – so similar to the cruel sneer on her step-brother’s face when he left her for dead on the side of a road. The kindness and gentleness of the nuns who sacrificed their own lives getting the children out of the fire. All of it spurs her on towards action.

Not just one event. ALL the events. Even the ones we never saw. They’re different than the events that turned the strong, bullying girl into a mouse in the face of danger (her parents killed by bandits, she herself caught in a forest fire she barely survived when she was young).

Hints of the mousy girl are still present in our hero, but out of necessity they get pushed to the side and the hero ignores them. Ignores everything that tells her, “YOU CAN’T DO THIS.”

The hero grows throughout the story, settling into the new skin they’ve been forced to take on. Slowly they become more confident, growing used to the new bravery, and the defiance, and the responsibility for the ones they care about.

As readers, we love to see our heroes grow into stronger people. We love to pick out the events that caused them to behave in such a way. The REASONS for what they do. The things that make their story one that can be told only by them, and them alone. The things that make them the single person in the entire world that’s fit for the job.

Unimpressive people don’t sit at the breakfast table and decide out of the blue that they’re going to save the world, any more than you could decide, spur of the moment, for no reason at all, to go out and track down a missing little girl and her kidnapper. You might do such a thing, but you would need something to spark the decision. Maybe the little girl was a close relative. Maybe your own child/sibling/friend was kidnapped once and found later, dead, and you don’t want anyone else to go through that. Maybe you see the girl, and she’s within your reach, if you just TRY to save her.

Maybe there’s a million dollar reward.

Why do people decide to be cops? Or firefighters? Or – in the case of a villain, which follows a similar pattern – a suicide bomber?

There are REASONS for these things. What are the reasons behind YOUR main character’s actions?

"Heroes are people who rise to the occasion and slip quietly away."

-- Tom Brokaw

^^ A site I stumbled across looking for the exact wording of my quote, full of good, heroic quotes.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Absolutely NO Absolutes

First, we’ll just get this out of the way.

“OMG, I haven’t posted in SO long, cause I’ve, like, been busy with my flourishing social life, school starting, and blabbidy, blabbidy, blah.”

Now, on to the post!

I do a lot of musing on the school bus. About myself, my writing, and all of the things I’m doing wrong (with BOTH those subjects). As long as I’ve got my MP3 player blasting in my ears, it’s a surprisingly good place to think, while staring out the window and watching the corn go past. I’ve had a lot of story breakthroughs on the bus – and also a lot of random, semi-profound thoughts that pop up out of nowhere. It’s like the bumps and jolts in my areas horrible, horrible roads shake ideas loose. The only problem? How to write them down in legible writing so you can make sense of them later.

Today, I had two random writing-related thoughts. But since I can’t remember the first (NOTE: ‘Today’ was September 7, and as I type this out, it’s the 9th. Since writing this post, I remembered the other thing, and will be posting it next. ^^), I’ll focus on the second: There are no absolutes.

This realization was somehow related to my previous, promptly-forgotten thoughts, but I recall it really was kind of out of nowhere. I’ve probably actually heard it somewhere before, but whatever the case, it’s interesting enough to think about.

Supposedly we have all these ‘opposites’ that are completely different and never, ever mix. Happy and sad. Light and dark. Love and hate.

But what about when happiness is tainted by regrets, or grief, over how much happier we COULD have been if we’d done something different, or if it’s a different happiness than the kind you were expecting? What about when we NEED to feel sad for a while to be happy? Personally, I love melancholy, bittersweet blends… And I know I’m not alone. Why else would we watch soppy, sad movies (which make us happy) or sulk and mope about for so long when something happens that we don’t like?

What about in the morning, when light and dark mix? When the sun’s just beyond the curve of the world, lighting up the sky even though the ground and everything on it is still in shadow?

Do I even NEED to come up with spiffy examples for the love-hate relationships that pop up all over in television and literature?

Things are never as clear-cut as they’re supposed to be.

How does this apply to writing?

Villains are almost never completely evil; they think they’re in the right. To roughly quote an idea put forth in the bonus features of the Pixar movie, ‘Up’, “They don’t wake up thinking, ‘What insidious thing can I do to wreck the world today? Mwahaha!’” (A VERY rough quote, since I can’t find it online. But the idea is the same).

Likewise, heroes struggle with right and wrong just as much as villains do. Some choose wrongly – though that usually doesn’t stop us from loving them. Who doesn’t enjoy a good, dark antihero?

Having saintly, good characters who are never tempted and never screw up is boring and unrealistic. Hideously evil villains who massacre entire cities and bathe in blood just because they felt like it is… Less boring, and a little more realistic (if they’re insane, anyway), but still. We like to understand WHY they do the things they do. Is it just because they’re insane? Or is it the aftereffects of a tortured past full of abuse and mistreatment? Or is it a bad role model? Or is it an act of desperation, or do they really think they’re doing good?

A thought’s been running through my mind lately. I’ve been getting this urge to take a look at my antagonists and treat them like a hero. Try it! How could you reverse the story and turn them into the good guy?

Example: That evil, aggressive nation that’s been attacking your main character’s homeland’s ships and killing soldiers? If the story were told from the POV of someone from that nation, we might find that those ships were invading trade routes that nation depended upon for survival, trying to take over, and those soldiers were really the cruel ones, corrupt and distinctly jerk-ish, picking on poor, defenseless citizens.

Yes, villains/antagonists need to have strong negative connotations associated with them so that readers will sympathize with the hero, but having some middle ground isn’t a bad thing. It can even add valuable tension to the story as your main character wrestles with inner conflicts and wonders, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Am I on the right side of this battle?’

At least think about what’s really motivating your characters, good or bad, even if it is just insanity. Give them inner conflicts to work through, and every once in a while shake up their certainty that everything they do is right. You might even want to make them do the wrong thing once in a while.

Your characters will be more complex for the extra effort.

A warning, though: I – for one – do this entirely too much. My characters are always struggling with some inner battle, to the point where they become fickle and flip-floppy, changing their minds with every turn of the page. T-T (<- This is an exaggeration… I hope).

A humorous typo: Maybe it’s just because I’m in a weird mood, but this made me giggle. Typing ‘turn’ in the previous sentence, I accidentally wrote ‘tern’. Which, as we all know, is actually a type of bird. Ha. Ha ha.

A not so humorous not-typo: At one point while writing this, I accidentally lost everything from the ‘Up’ quote down. Still don’t know what happened. Had to retype it. I love my dad’s laptop, and yet I hate it. XP