Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why Fictional Heroes Improve the Quality of Our Lives

Think about the fictional heroes you have known throughout your life. If you're an avid reader, if you're consumed with the written word, you've rubbed elbows with many. They've been with you through the ups and downs of your life, haven't they? They've comforted you when you lost that job. They've encouraged you in the wee, small hours of the night, when you couldn't sleep because you were worried. They've inspired you to try a little harder to be more like them.

When you think of Atticus Finch, what springs first into your mind? A man of courage and conviction?  What about his two kids? Did you envy them for having such a wise father growing up, even as you pitied them for being motherless? Emma, Jane Austen's well-meaning, yet bungling character, stepping on her own tongue -- how many have taken comfort in the fact that we can make mistakes and still turn out okay? Hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe isn't exactly your typical warm and fuzzy icon, is he? He's tough, gruff, less than patient with idiots, and he's got his own demons, but that doesn't stop him from figuring out the mystery. Jane Eyre perseveres, even as she is holed up in that Gothic nightmare. Even as we admire her, would we ever want to trade places with her? And what of Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton, the two men in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...." What kind of man sacrifices himself for another that way? What does it take to do that?

We all have fictional heroes who helped to shape our thinking, our morals, even our choices in life. Sometimes we underestimate the impact that these literary imaginings can have on our everyday choices, but that doesn't stop them from pushing us forward as human beings. We are only as good as the company of characters we keep.

Consider what reading does for our minds and why. When we read non-fiction, we're often looking for information -- concrete, relevant information of which we have a need. Maybe we're trying to learn a new skill. Maybe we're tackling a new subject. We have a goal, a purpose in opening that particular tome. We have a clue where we're going with it and why it's necessary. But fiction?

Fiction is meant to be an adventure, even if it's the gentlest of tales, filled with beautiful prose and vivid images. We are exploring life through characters that never existed in the flesh. And when we read those last few words, we want to feel satiated. We want to believe that the time we invested in an author's novel rewarded us as readers. What did we learn on this concocted journey? Where did we go that we wouldn't have gone without that "ticket to ride", punched by the author?

Books are so integral in our lives for what they can and can't do, there is no substitute. Watch all the films and television you want, and you still won't have the same experience you have as a reader. Why?

Part of it is about the written or spoken word. Whether you're flipping through a hardcover or paperback book, doing the digital equivalent, or even listening to an audio book, you're using certain mental processing skills that you, and you alone, control. You're taking your own experiences in life, unique to you, and you're using the wisdom you gained to now process what fictional characters experience. The richer your life, in terms of challenges, accomplishments, and even lessons learned, the more you will expect from the novels you read, be they mysteries, love stories, or even war stories. The better we know ourselves, the greater our demands on our fictional heroes.

But the best fictional heroes are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. They have no super powers. None of them are vampires or fairies or mystical beasts with extra limbs or home planets other than Earth. There's a world of difference in our ability to relate to Spiderman and Zorro, for example. We get that Spiderman can climb a skyscraper with his sticky hands and live to tell the tale. In terms of super powers, that would come in handy. But at the same time we know it's not real life. Zorro, with his swashbuckling ways and his dual personality, is a writer's dream character. At once pompous and yet of the people, Zorro concerns himself with a principle bigger than his role as a man, as a human being. He's willing to take many risks to engage in the greater good. We come to understand his duplicitousness as he parades his smug persona around as Don Diego de la Vega is a mask for his true self, so we find amusement in his efforts to hide in plain sight. We pay attention to his techniques to protect his secret, in case we ever find ourselves in similar straits.

One of my all-time favorite characters is the mail order bride from Maine in Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall, a children's book. As a heroine, Sarah's top shelf. She had the guts to pack up and hit the road, all because of a widower and two kids she never met. How lonely she must have been as she made her way across the country. How frightening it must have been for her to think that she could make a new life with these strangers. This is the epitome of a fictional hero, a woman willing to take life-changing chances, who uses her wits to survive and thrive. Sarah makes it work by being herself, by recognizing the tender feelings not only of Caleb and Anna, but also of their father, Jacob. She knows the man loved his wife, every bit as much as she knows she's nothing like the dearly departed. Sarah's got spunk, and that's what enables her to go on, even when things aren't copacetic. That spirit, that magnificent courage is what finally makes those four people a new family. Ordinary people with an extraordinary outcome.

Books that have memorable characters bring new meaning into our daily lives, both as readers and as writers. When I am writing a novel, I am first and foremost interested in what I will learn from my characters. As selfish as that sounds, I genuinely want to understand the people I create, because I want to tap into their wisdom and learn from their mistakes. The more I learn from them, the more I understand about life.

When I share their stories, with my audience, I have several goals I want to accomplish:

1. I want to entertain readers with a challenging storyline.

Books should offer readers a new perspective on a subject, new insight into the human heart or mind, or a new way of being. If you finish a book and nothing's changed about your thinking, your emotions, your perspective on life, either the author failed to reach you in a way that connected to who you are as a person or you're too set in your ways to consider things from other viewpoints. If you already know all there is to know about life, about humanity, why would you bother to read a novel? Novels are for the curious, the adventurous, the passionate.

2. I want to encourage readers to take chances that will enrich their lives.

At the end of a novel, readers should be satisfied, and yet feel the stirrings of appetite rising up once more. If you get done reading a book and just walk away,  without any interest in finding out more -- about the characters, about sequels, about other books by the same author, you haven't had your mojo tapped. Mere curiosity is a sign that your passions have been stirred, and once stirred, they may be shaken, as Ian Fleming's hero, James Bond, might advise. When you go around in a glass a few times with a spoon, you mix and mingle with ideas, thoughts, and emotions. But when you go every which way in a shaker, you have no choice but to collide with all the ingredients, to be incorporated into the passions of the characters, influenced by their strengths and weaknesses, and you should feel some kind of release and relief when the wild ride ends and you emerge from the last page, refreshed and energized. Finishing a satisfying book is like when you climb off a roller coaster and your stomach settles. Is your first thought, "Let's do this again!" or do you want to get as far away as fast as you can?

3. I want to inspire readers to believe in something bigger than themselves by believing in ordinary people.

We've all met people in real life who think their fannies are cake and everyone wants a piece of them. Smug, self-assured, cocky, and usually very self-absorbed -- these are the folks who go through life never doubting themselves, never seeing the destruction in their wake. We've also all known people who were too shy to speak up, to terrified to check under the bed or in that closet. Timid, doubting, fearful, and usually too good-hearted or weak for their own good, these are the folks who go through life all too aware of their own failings, feeling like misfits in a strange land, disconnected from the rest of the world. The majority of us, however, fall somewhere in the middle. We goof up in between bouts of getting it right. Sometimes we win, occasionally we lose. We try, even though we know we should try harder and more often. Looking around at the people we know, we sometimes think they have skills we don't. Good fictional heroes show us they're no better or worse than we are; just more determined to live life out loud. When we immerse ourselves in a story, we find confidence in characters we relate to and we root for them. It's a chance to live vicariously, but unlike reality TV, we expect the story to actually go somewhere meaningful, so that we, too, might rise as the fictional heroes conquer their demons, real or imagined.

At the end of the day, there's really only one true test of success for those of us who write novels. Did the readers buy it? There is nothing an author likes to hear more than readers who ask for the next sequel -- especially when it's in the works. If people enjoy the characters, it means they are connecting with those personality traits the characters display and with the adventures the characters have.

As an author who believes that heroes matter, I approach my stories the way I approach my cooking. After decades of busting my heinie with tedious efforts to prepare this tidbit or that, I learned the hard way that when you invite folks to dinner, most people want food that looks good, tastes good, feels good in the mouth, digests easily, and not only nourishes the body, but also the heart and soul. Comfort food makes even the pickiest eater happy. But a successful dinner party is more than just what you eat. It's the interchange with other guests that makes for a memorable occasion. Long after the last morsels are scooped off the tablecloth and the pots and pans are put away, it lingers. It's something said that struck a chord in you. It's something you didn't know about your seatmate. It's noticing for the first time that the man opposite you has amazing brown eyes, or the woman you thought was rather stuffy is actually just reserved until she's tossed back a couple of Chardonnays.

The truest test of a successful story for a reader is the way you feel the fictional heroes you meet in novels. Did you feel like you belonged in the story -- that you could be a neighbor, a friend, even a lover to one of the main characters? Did you feel like you were transported out of your ordinary existence, even for just a little bit of time? Were you a visitor who found new insight that you brought back home with you in your mental suitcase?

There's a difference between escaping and escaping into a good book. When you run away from home physically, you leave your problems behind, abandoning family and friends as you search for something more satisfying. When you run to a good book and open that door into the unknown, to escape your troubles, you're looking to find an adventure you can carry back with you.

Every good story should create a mental postcard in your mind of the adventures you had with characters who mattered to you. When you look back on the good books you've read, you should smile and remember them with great affection and fondness. Good books strengthen us. They nurture the soul and feed the heart. They open the real world to us and encourage us to venture out, to employ our new-found courage to spread our wings and fly. We've learned from our fictional heroes because they've shared their wisdom about life and love, and now it's our turn to live life out loud.

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