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What makes a character heroic?

Most people have heroes, those larger-than-life individuals that inspire us and motivate us to pattern ourselves after them.
Initially, I found my heroes in books and later in television and movies as well. Over the course of my life, I added new heroes, sometimes briefly. Vercingetorix, Boudicca, Brian Boru, William Wallace, and Martin Luther King Jr. are some ones that never lost their appeal.

My childhood heroes were King Arthur, Robin Hood, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Daniel Boone.

My mother couldn’t understand why I admired Robin Hood. She insisted he was a criminal, a thief, a lawbreaker. And of course he was all those things, yet that is an incomplete description. It doesn’t take into account the social setting, his motivation, or even the full extent of his activities. One couldn’t liken him to Al Capone, for instance.

The stories I read about the knights of the Round Table led me to expect men to be like that: gallant, brave, protective, moral. It wasn’t until later than I saw the darker side, the treachery and adultery, and later still before I realized the stories portrayed women as weak and needing men to take care of them. Of course, in my imagination I wasn’t one of those women, anyway. I was Lancelot or Galahad, depending on my mood.

Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett were different. They were actual people who did adventurous things. I craved adventure, and it seemed there was no adventure left in the world I grew up in, though it was barely a hundred years after Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie died at the Alamo.

A couple of years ago, I finally got to visit the Alamo. While there, I purchased a book Three Roads to the Alamo, detailing the lives of those two and William Travis. It’s an excellent book, well-written and heavily researched. But it gave at least one of my heroes feet of clay.

Popular culture has portrayed both Crockett and Bowie as brave frontiersmen, exploring and taming the wilderness and preparing a way for others. They did indeed live on the frontier, but mainly not in the way they have been portrayed.

Jim Bowie may have been brave (though foolhardy might be a better word) but he was a cheat and a thief. He was also, among other things, a slave-trader. Given the mores of the times, that isn’t surprising, although it makes me cringe. He was intelligent enough to manipulate the strangely conflicting laws about slavery, breaking them in one place and taking advantage of them in another. And therein lies the difference between himself and, say, Robin Hood. He broke the law for his own advantage, not to help others. I will never again be able to see him as a role model.

Davy Crockett also turned out to be far different from the heroic adventurer I previously imagined. His adventures in the wilderness were a form of escapism, a way to prove himself.

However, if a hero is someone who espouses a lofty goal and works toward it, confronting and overcoming obstacles in the attempt, then Crockett certainly qualifies. He succeeded well enough to become a legend in his own time. But, oddly, those aren’t the efforts depicted by Walt Disney and other image makers. Crockett was a man who spent his life trying to overcome his low birth and raise the status of others like himself. There is much in him to admire, and I liked him even better after reading this book than I did before. I could empathize with him.

And of course both Bowie and Crockett achieved hero status by their defense of the Alamo.

There are no heroes without stories to tell about them. People may do heroic things, but without immortalization in story, they don’t achieve the status of hero. We all need heroes to remind ourselves that we can attain great things from lowly beginnings.

What is it that draws us to our specific heroes? Is it that the waters of time wash away the dross, leaving only the shining gold of daring deeds and romance? Do they feed an unknown need deep in our psyches?

The answer is probably different for everyone. When I look back on my own, I see people trying to change the world, fighting for freedom and against injustice. My heroes are human. They had flaws and shortcomings, like everyone else. But those flaws didn’t prevent them from making their mark on the world and lighting a flame in history. The flaws are part of the story. Indeed, the flaws may be what drives the story.

It’s a lesson I can apply to my own writing.

Who are your heroes? How did they change your worldview?

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