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Posts Tagged ‘heroes’

And by that I mean, did you ever read a book — at any age, but particularly when you were younger — where you thought to yourself: That’s the person I want to be!

Wait! Wait! I didn’t throw a monkey wrench into it yet!

The book can NOT be a fantasy or science-fiction title.

Did that ruin it for anyone? Everyone?

See, last week there was this article in the NYT about boys and reading and yadda yadda yadda. But out of that I found myself wondering what, if any, characters in literature really made me sit up and really wish I could be that person.

We talk so much in the craft of fiction about identifying with characters, empathizing with them, sympathizing with their plight, but how many of them represent who we would actually, willingly want to be identified with?

Did it stick? Did you change your life, your environment, your personality to be more like that character?

Now, why am I removing fantasy and sci-fi from the mix? Well, I have a theory, but it’s only that, that readers might be more prone to adopting a fantasy persona than one from a more realistic or historical setting. Who wouldn’t want to do something impossible, like cast spells or fly to other worlds? Yes, yes, I know that character traits are universal and the setting shouldn’t matter, but my curiosity and my intuition are strongly leaning toward the idea that it is harder to find realistic characters we can identify with.

Still with me?

Please, post and discuss in the comments below. And invite everyone you know to join in.

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I was talking to another writer a while back and he said something that’s been sticking in my craw ever since. We were talking about a recent writing project of mine and he started asking some questions, the type of questions where you can tell someone is dancing around what they really want to say. Finally I managed to get that he liked the premise of the story but that it lacked an exceptional main character.

“That’s why people read fiction, to feel like they are special and exceptional, like the main character.”

I bristled.

This notion that everyone is exceptional, I used to see this every day when I worked in retail. It’s a variant of this idea that everyone feels they are entitled to things simply by virtue of their existence. It’s a very American stance, I’ve decided, and the more I thought about it the more I realized how both right and wrong this writer friend of my is.

The problem I have with this idea of the exceptional character in fiction is that a steady diet of this brings about a sort of literary malnutrition. Yes, given the choice, we might all want to have endless days of cake (or chocolate, or whatever your particular fancy may be) at every meal, but to do so would risk your physical health. Yet when it comes to reading or movies or television it seems, according to this friend of mine, that we would desire nothing less than a main character who is exceptional, able to overcome all obstacles, save the day, and with whom we need to identify with in order to not feel cheated.

And now I finally understand what bothers me most about a lot of middle grade books and a great deal of genre fiction in general I’ve read lately. I realize that’s a fairly wide brush I’m wielding, and it includes a lot of sacred cows for some people, but on the whole there are way more books out there that are feeding young readers with the literary equivalent of chocolate cake for no other reason than the fact that it sells. Well, naturally, if you asked your average teen or tween if they wanted broccoli or ice cream for every meal how many would and how often would they choose the broccoli?

It’s no surprise that superhero movies are the mainstay of the industry right now because we have grown culturally inured to this idea that unless our main character has superhuman strength or intellect then we are somehow being given an inferior product. Even in “realistic” stories where an amnesic spy is on the run for his or her life they must be able to perform at a punishing level of abuse no human could endure. And so it is with books for children and young adults, where the hope of the world rests on a group of teens (exceptional wizards at that) to battle the ultimate evil in order to save mankind. Or it becomes the tale of adolescence viewed through the skewered lens of a bunch of teens who discover they are the offspring of Greek gods. Or that the ultimate sign of devotion is the one that waits hundreds of years and uses their vampiric strength to fight for your love.

Gone are the stories of kids behaving like kids. These are the “quiet” stories agents and editors reject because they know it is an uphill battle against a marketing department charged with finding the next flavor of excitement that generates quick sales. Like an addiction where the pain of withdrawal can only be erased with greater and greater doses of the chemical of choice, any fiction now requires heroes of increasing peril and impossibly raised stakes. Zuckerman’s Famous Pig would require more than a trio of words gingerly woven into a web to save his bacon today, he’d need to be saved from the sluices of the meat-packing plant with a last-minute rescue and a Rube Goldberg series of actions orchestrated by a spider in order to survive publishing today.

Perhaps this is why adults have been drawn to YA literature lately. Regular fiction, with stories about people (and animals) dealing with the heroic struggles of everyday life, pales in comparison alongside glittery vampires and futuristic games where children battle each other to the death. But what of the generation of young adults coming up? Having been feed a steady diet of action adventure and having their every literary whim filled will they continue to expect that of their adult reading? Will we see an ever-increasing level of fantasy infused in every successful fiction that is published?

Personally, I reject this idea that a main character must be exceptional to be accepted. This same writer friend, when I offered this counter-statement, warned me I might have a difficult time getting published if I didn’t acquiesce in some way.

I hope in the end I’m right and he’s wrong.

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I was a weird kid growing up. I never really saw the world the same way other kids did and never understood why everyone wanted to be the same as each other. In kindergarten when kids wanted to be doctors and firemen and nurses and whatnot I wanted to be a swimming pool builder. When it came to music there were divisions between the Jackson 5 lovers and the Monkees fanatics, but I was grooving to Argent. Eventually it got to the point where expressing these opinions stopped getting shrugged off and instead became the focus of taunts. It became safer to outwardly blow with the prevailing winds while internally sailing at different tides. Suffice to say I got so good at keeping things to myself that sometimes I even forgot what I truly believed.

In my youth I met a girl who had a litmus test for guys who wanted to date her. She would ask a potential suitor who their hero was and use that answer to determine if they were worthy. Though others knew of this test they failed to warn me in advance that there was no way to give a right answer because she only ever asked it as a way of turning down guys she wasn’t interested in. But, unaware and willing to bite, I considered the question seriously and said that I didn’t have a hero because I didn’t believe in hero-worship. I thought that might have actually worked in my favor, sidestepping the issue entirely with what I thought at the time was a clever answer, but instead she whipped back with “My father is my hero.” Trumped. How do you beat a girl’s dad in a hero contest? You don’t. End of conversation.

I’ve thought about that question a lot, especially as popular entertainment seems to have made us culturally obese with the glut of heroes and superheroes. It used to be good enough for a regular man to be a hero and make a stand, but now they have to be super in some way, above and beyond all reasonable ability, beyond pain, beyond the ability of an average man. Kids are brought up thinking the best thing to be is recognized as being above all others and invited to become wizards and fight the ultimate evil in the universe. As those grow older their heroes have to battle the undead or accomplish some heroic feats in dystopian games. Entering adulthood, their heroes must be even bigger and so they must be masters of weapons and never get hurt, or be able to perform superhuman feats either through technological or genetically modified advantages. Heroes used to fight for human things – peace and justice and poverty and abuse – but now they must save the world, battle evil beyond the scope of all out human resources, and look good doing so.

But this last week a man named Leonard Stern died. He was one-third of a law firm-sounding publishing company called Price Stern and Sloan and was generally recognized as the co-creator of Mad Libs back in 1958. But in thinking about his passing, and the business he and his partners created, I realized the answer I should have given was the one I once uttered back in the fifth grade. If there was anyone in the world at the time that I considered a hero it was the person who I wished I could be back then, Roger Price.

Mad Libs are, of course, a marvel of simplicity, pure comedic genius that took advantage of grammar for its humor. You couldn’t get any more intellectual in creating low brow humor than through the completion of a Mad Lib story. They were like an adult party game that adapted perfectly to any situation, and were just rude enough to play into a boy’s sense of humor.

But Roger Price also invented the Droodle in 1953. These were simple drawings within a box that appeared at first to be as cryptic as hobo pictographs that became humorous cartoons once you read the caption beneath them. For puzzle enthusiasts they were like visual riddles, but riddles best appreciated by absurdists.

some of these have more than one answer

As with Mad Libs, it was the deceptive simplicity of the humor that plays well with young and old. I don’t now how but I knew, back then, that this was the man responsible for both Mad Libs and Droodles and can remember thinking very clearly “This is something an adult can do for a living?” That was when I knew I wanted to grow up and be Roger Price.

Price wrote for Bob Hope, he was a game show panelist in the early days of television, he wrote for the Tonight Show and the early years of Mad Magazine. Later, with a bit of success behind him, he opened a gallery dedicated solely to cartoons. What joke-loving, art-making, dangerously verbal kid wouldn’t want to be like that when he grew up?

The problem is that there aren’t clear road maps kids in figuring out how to make a creative life. By fifth and sixth grade boys who plan to become athletes can join local teams and know the high school-college-professional progression toward their dream. Doctors and lawyers and teachers and other educated careers require good grades in school. But creative types aren’t generally encouraged in school, their individual paths aren’t clear, and in order to start at a young age usually requires some level of entrepreneurship that tends to run counter to growth of the creative spirit.

But that’s beside the point. What I realized just this week was that when I was asked who my hero was I should have been able to tap into that fifth grade moment and announced that my hero wasn’t a warrior or out to save the world but something a little more human scaled. He amused and brought laughter into the world – something heroes rarely do these days without cracking wise while someone else is suffering – and was a creative rather than a destroyer.

Roger Price, hero,  the inventor of the Mad Lib and the Droodle.

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(Doing a bit of housecleaning on the computer and stumbled onto this previously unposted bit.  I have no idea what set this off, though I do freely admit to being loopy at the end…)

There is no way on this great green planet of ours that I’m the first person to make the observation that a lot of the classic comic book heroes worked for or were somehow connected with newspapers.

Superman – Clark Kent, Lois Lane, jimmy Olsen, Perry White of the Daily Planet

Spiderman – Peter Parker, J. Jonah Jameson (and a staff of millions) of the Daily Bugle

Batman – Vicky Vale (among many) of the Gotham Gazette

Daredevil – Ben Urich, also of the Daily Bugle

Green Hornet – Brit Reid of the Daily Sentinel

Howard the Duck – Lester Verde/Dr. Bong of various tabloids

I’m sure there are more, those are just the ones I can remember.  I’ve come across Frank Miller referring to the reporter character in comics as an Everyman character, a stand-in for the rest of society, but I’m wondering if there isn’t something more in play.  Often there is a give-and-take between the journalists gathering information that the superheroes use, and sometimes the superheroes supply the news themselves.  The relationship is symbiotic, almost as if the newspapers were serving as publicity agents for the heroes, but even that’s not all.

Don’t these newspapers tend to operate under the same motto as Superman – to fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way?  I’m wondering of it’s possible that the superhero is the visual manifestation of the “mild mannered” journalist, rooting out and exposing villains, serving for the good of the public.

I think that’s something I’d like to see, but it would be tricky to pull off: the superhero journalist comic book.  I’m not talking about the reporter as a cover, but as the reporter as hero.  I look around at what passes itself as news, what passes as “fair and balanced,” and think it would be nice if we could have some better comic book role models

Yeah, I’m a bit loopy right now.

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