Friday, September 11, 2020

Writing and the Unwilling Hero

 As the last post was a discussion about heroes (yes, I took Labor Day off), I thought it would be appropriate to make today a special discussion about a certain kind of hero writers can explore – the unwilling hero. My last entry hinted that a hero is often a reluctant role, where the main character doesn’t always jump to the call to adventure, and only takes it step by step, not racing along the path to heroism. Today we talk about those who would hear the call to adventure and curl up under their blankets. Adventure of this order is not their thing – until the blankets get pulled away.

Today in particular, I think about a clear blue sky nineteen years ago, a beautiful morning full of promise and not the slightest hint of what was about to happen. Did anyone going to work that morning thinking that particular September 11th would be etched into history? Doubtful. Rather, disaster came to them whether they were prepared or not. Many people changed from just employees going through another Tuesday at work to someone evacuating their office, applying first aid to someone they’ve never even met, perhaps even pulling someone out of harm’s way at the last moment. They became heroes without even knowing it.

The unwilling hero is not, by their nature, a selfish character. The unwilling hero is someone who is minding their own business when the call to adventure is forced upon them. As the saying goes, some heroes march off to war, others are drafted – but both are heroes nevertheless. This is a more dramatic version of the hero’s journey, as it pushes them onto an adventure they do not want to take. In this regard, there should be internal conflict as well as whatever external forces move them along. There should be the “I want to go home” urge fighting with them, the impulse for flight rather than fight. 

The journey of the unwilling hero becomes two stories – the external conflict forcing them along and the growth of the hero into someone who can accept what has happened. These are unusual heroes in that their growth is, at first, not instinctive. They are not the noble first responders running toward trouble while others run away – they are very much among the crowd running away. It is an outside force that trips them up, sends them into harm’s way. As they try to escape, they discover the path toward heroism. They can choose to run away, but in true hero form, they take that one step toward a new direction. 

The most difficult part of writing the unwilling hero is eventually giving the protagonist a reasonable choice. The hero’s journey is a path, not a railroad track, and at some point, they have to make the decision to answer that call and take the step they may never have dreamed possible early in the story. People drafted into the military are forced along this railroad path for a while, but eventually they get that choice to hide or fight, to take cover or risk everything for their buddies, and they find their moment of heroism. This is what makes this hero type such a satisfying character to read – their growth arc is clear and distinct, and its completion resonates with the reader.

Today we remember not just all those who died nineteen years ago, but also those who became heroes and changed of the world for the better – often losing their life in the process. As people, we should never forget these heroes. As writers, we should commemorate them with our words.


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