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).