The Power of the Human Spirit

I have no doubt we’ve all seen the images from Paris yesterday of Notre Dame burning. While I disagree with the opening comments from Robin Roberts this morning that we will remember where we were when we saw the spire falling, the sight of the historic cathedral engulfed in flames will remain with us. So will the image of the cross over the altar taken afterwards, with the cross seeming to glow in the smoke and dark. But it is the story I heard this morning about the men and women who volunteered to face the danger and go inside while the cathedral burned in an attempt to save the treasures still there during the renovations that caught my attention.

Think about it. All around you are flames and danger. Yet you step up and brave what is one of my biggest fears, burning alive, in order to save priceless artifacts that are your country’s and your faith’s history. I haven’t seen much about these brave volunteers yet, but I have no doubt we will in the future–whether they want it or not. But that’s not the point of this post.

What we see with these men and women is an example of what humans will do to protect what they feel important. We’ve heard stories of mothers suddenly able to lift weights they never should be able to when their child is trapped. We’ve seen images of people racing headlong into danger to save someone. Going back to World War II, or any other war for that matter, we can find stories of those willing to put everything on the line to fight tyranny. These are the stories of every day people doing extraordinary things in circumstances that are often the things of nightmares.

And the stories don’t always have happy endings because this is reality and bad things happen to good people.

So what does this have to do with writing?

It’s a challenge, in a way. How do you, as a writer, put your seemingly normal characters into situations that take them out of their comfort zones, possibly at the cost of their lives? How do you do so without your readers thinking you’ve turned them into Mary Sues? The former is easier to do than the latter in a lot of ways because the definition of a Mary Sue has expanded in some readers’ minds to becoming almost any character who overcomes the odds without suffering a major loss of some sort.

So how, as writers, do we make the situations believable and our characters realistic?

There’s no easy answer and no one right answer. I wish there was. It would make this job of ours so much easier.

They key, in my opinion, is making any actions your character takes be “in character:”. Your mother doesn’t have to be a gym addict, always stepping up to protect the underdog to suddenly stand up to the armed addict who’s broken into the house and is threatening her family. But she needs to have been seen as a loving mother. You have to lay the cookie crumbs for having her try to stare down the strung-out junkie.

It’s the same for the overweight, bumbling accountant who is walking home to is lonely apartment one night. In the scenario of him passing the church he’s attended all his life, the one constant in his otherwise mundane and boring existence. Seeing flames flickering behind the stained glass windows, what does he do? Does he stand outside, affixed at the sight and unable to move? Does he call 911 because that’s what he knows he’s supposed to do as a “responsible” citizen? Or does he reach up and touch the cross he wears on a chain around his neck, the cross that had been his mother’s or father’s? Does he remember in a flash walking toward the altar for his first communion? All the Sundays he served as altar boy and then lay reader? Do those memories turn the bumbling, forgettable accountant into someone willing to risk everything to protect something he loves more than life itself? And, once inside, how does he react?

I’m rambling. But I hope you get what I’m trying to say. You can have unlikely heroes or have your characters take unlikely heroic actions without them becoming Mary Sues. But you have to set the groundwork. It is more difficult to do than writing the typical “hero” because you have to be subtle about it. You want those readers to have an “ah-ha” moment as the character acts, realizing that they’ve seen this coming and didn’t realize it. When done right, it’s a wonderful moment for both the reader and the writer.

So, what are you favorite examples of such characters? (Okay, I’ll admit it. I have an ulterior motive. I need something to read.)

In the meantime, some self-promo. Nocturnal Revelations is now available as an e-book. The print version will be available next week (if not sooner).

Featured image via suhasrawool/Pixabay and licensed under the Pixabay license.

26 thoughts on “The Power of the Human Spirit

  1. I find the most moving stories are when the hero makes the save, but loses their life doing so. That may epitomize most of the motivation of military members, cops and firemen; the “Greater love hath no one than to lay down his life for another.” Done well in a story, it brings tears to my eyes and chokes me up. Do it poorly, and it’s a bad joke, and usually wall-able.

    1. There’s a scene in the risible low-budget fantasy movie Dragons of Camelot where a kindly farmer is killed stupidly by a bad CGI dragon. Seeing this, his wife runs towards the dragon, wailing in a high-pitched, squeaky voice: “I want to diiiiieeee with myyyyy husband!” and is also stupidly killed. It’s bust-a-gut hilarious.

    2. I totally agree. My point in the post was how do we do it well with the character we don’t expect such actions from? That’s what is really hard to do and, when done well, is so fulfilling for our readers.

  2. As a writer, I think you need to convince your readers from very early on that the character has a belief in something. Unless you hint that early, the later scene falls flat.

    I wish I could recall the short story I’m thinking of, but the protagonist has NO indication of faith in anything, no hint as to why he later does his heroic act, and not reason given at the end. I do recall that the story was considered “new wave sci-fi” so the lack of motivation may have been the point – human irrationality. Alma-the-Reader was just irritated. (Yes, short story, so less room for background, but still, a few hints, please?)

    1. How does that saying go? “A hero is the one who runs toward the screams?” It’s the reluctant heroes who step forward when the leader asks, “Men, there’s a frightened little girl out there who’s going to die if we don’t get to her in time. It’s dangerous, and you’ll be putting your lives on the line, so I’m only going to ask for volunteers for this rescue.” Funny thing is, it’s human nature for most of them to try; and it takes overwhelming considerations to make them do otherwise.

      1. Mike, so true. And yet, that is something we often forget when we read. I’ve seen so many reviews condemning a character and calling them a Mary Sue or unbelievable for doing exactly what someone would do in real life under similar circumstances.

        1. What SOME people would do under similar circumstances. If the reader would not, that would be an uncomfortable realization, to realize that some people would

    2. TXRed, exactly. You hint and foreshadow. You do it in a way you give your reader that “V-8 moment” when the sacrifice, or potential sacrifice, occurs. It can’t come out of left field without warning.

  3. I don’t think you necessarily always have to fore-shadow unexpected heroism, but you do have to make it make sense somehow.

    Like if you have a morally deficient character. Dude is all about himself, a real “what’s in it for me?” type. Dude-ing his way through life. Believes in nothing. A real smarmy a-hole. You get the picture.

    Then he sees one of his fellow Dude-animals “playing” with a little girl that he snatched from somewhere, and forgets to ask “what’s in it for me?” and does the world a favor by puting a bullet into the pedo’s brain. Maybe he doesn’t really even understand it himself, maybe somehow seeing someone so young and innocent being tortured got to him. You don’t necessarily have to answer that question, just having the now a tiny percent better than worthless person question himself over it would be enough to allow the reader to fill in with their own morality. But you do need to do something with it or the whole thing is fluff that doesn’t really forward the story.

    Turning point? Enough of a distraction so that the MC can slip past him and complete the mission? The tiny little bit of humanity that pushes him to give up his contact at mega-evil-corp, that allows the MC to solve the crime/rescue the… whoever. Maybe a full blown “HEY I LIKE BEING A HERO!” re-dedication of his life? Maybe some, also broken lady sees what he did and falls in love with him… and him with her… and they both are inspired to become better people. Each one wanting to “deserve” the other. Her, wanting to be worthy of a “hero” in spite of his other faults. Him wanting to be “deserving” of the love of a woman. Squeee?? (yea, you’re right, cheesy LOL!)

    1. I think we’re saying basically the same thing, just disagreeing on wording. However, that action can’t come out of the blue. The reader needs to have some sort of cookie crumbs set out to explain why the character reacted as he did in the situation. It can be, as TXRed said above, that he has a level of faith that requires it. It can be that, even though he’s a really bad guy, his personal ethics don’t allow a child to be harmed. But it is something the reader needs to be let in on. Otherwise, the urge to wall the book might be too great.

  4. It is okay for the person to be a total jerk, as long as you show that he has strong convictions even when being a jerk. Or that he is a jerk because it irritates him that he is not as great as he wants to be, or because he cannot do what needs doing.

    I am currently watching some of Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro again. And yeah, he is one of those guys who is a jerk or a hero in turn, because he is impulsive and selfish, but also has good instincts. A lot of the show’s suspense is whether he can learn to be a man with self-control and common sense, or whether he will stay a big cunning baby who skates on his talents.

    So in that case, you have to do a lot of characterization and backstory, but still acknowledge that maybe he will always be a bit of a jerk.

    1. Yep. As I said above, your character can be an evil bastard but there are lines he won’t cross and won’t let others cross. That doesn’t make what he does otherwise any less bad, but it do give him motivation to act in certain circumstances in what could be considered a “heroic” manner.

  5. If its a “literary” story, then the main character stands uselessly on the sidewalk endangering himself and everyone else, like a stunned sheep. Because that’s what Normies do when shit happens, they stand there. Or they run up and down crying and get in the way.

    If its a Hugo Award winning story the MC is too busy saving his goldfish to bother rescuing a woman, and casually watches her fall to her death. The goldfish lives.

    If its a GOOD story the MC sees the fire/accident/whatever and gets his ass in gear doing something about it. Live or die, win or lose, at least he’s in motion. That’s a hero.

    Like this guy:

    1. I just saw this part, because reading too fast:

      Amanda said: “The former is easier to do than the latter in a lot of ways because the definition of a Mary Sue has expanded in some readers’ minds to becoming almost any character who overcomes the odds without suffering a major loss of some sort.”

      James Howard from the link above is a Mary Sue to these individuals of whom you speak [swearing deleted by The Phantom]. Also a wish-fulfilment character, and a self-insert. This despite him being an actual dude who actually, you know, did all that stuff.

      The only characters that are “Relevant!” and “Important!” are the nebbish losers paralyzed by indecision over what sandwich to order while the city is being devoured by Godzilla, or the ones taking video of it with their phones.

      1. Oh gawd, yes. The navel gazers and self-loathers. Give me someone who acts, even if they make a mess of it, any day.

  6. I’ve heard that when danger is clearly present, there are three typical responses to it:

    1) Run toward it to do something about it.
    2) Summon help.
    3) Freeze.

    Running toward danger is rare, but apparently so is freezing. Sure, people do freeze, but the most common response is to get help. And it’s not a bad choice, all things considered. Many problems will respond well to a group effort at fixing them, for example: putting out a fire.

    The area where humans tend to fall down is when the danger is not clear. Then they are likely to tell themselves that their hunch that something is amiss is mistaken. And when the ambiguous signs of danger become clear ones, it can be much too late.

    1. That is why practice is important. American soldiers are trained to run to the sound of battle. In times of stress our subconscious is the first to act.
      Just finished reading “Voices of the Fall”, the latest John Ringo “Black Tide Rising” book. Dave Freer’s story “The Cat Hunters” features both those who do and those who freeze. Brendan Dubois story “The Downeasters” features a 4th category, those who bug out and abandon their friends.

      A good book. Too short, only 316 pages.

    2. Apparently (see the Violence books referenced here a while back), freezing is quite common. The trick is to realize you are frozen and break it by doing something, anything. Then the brain starts working again.

      Freezing is getting stuck in the OO part of the OODA loop. One’s brain cannot orient before the next observation comes in. It’s the “this can’t be happening” reaction. Apparently (it’s never happened to me; I’m just reporting), an action, any action, reconnects one to reality and breaks the cycle.

  7. Though the foreshadowing can be a shock to the character. . . .

    Doing something without even realizing you were doing it and then wondering.

    1. Ah, but you are assuming the character notices the foreshadowing. Remember, it is for the reader, not for the character. The characters isn’t going to think twice about his level of faith or love of her kids, etc. But yes, what the reader will realize as foreshadowing can still lead to shock for the character when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

      1. No, I am assuming it can be noticed. And sometimes it can be, and should be. Surprising conduct helps keep things from getting pat.

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