What is a Hero?

A reader recently asked me about why I write characters the way I do in my novels. This reader was complaining that my characters seemed unrealistic because the heroes were not riddled with self-doubt or other near-fatal flaws. This reader felt my characters were too “good” and “successful” to be believable. Thinking about this feedback, as well as questions I have been asked in interviews about my books, prompted me to craft an explanation about what I consider to be a “true hero.”

Looking at what this reader (a young adult) typically reads and watches on TV makes it easier to understand the questions about my characters. Today’s more popular novels and shows/movies targeting the younger audiences are filled with angst-ridden, selfish and self-indulgent, ethically and morally lost, misguided, spiteful, disrespectful, or otherwise pathetic excuses for lead characters. Characters, such as the military leaders and superheroes I grew up with, are being deconstructed so that they no longer stand for anything worth emulating. Traditional villains and tyrants from throughout history are being rewritten to make them look like they were just misunderstood victims of bad press, rather than mass murderers of the innocent who should be reviled and condemned by all peoples for all time. Today’s characters are muddled to the point where they represent the worst in human nature, rather than the best of human nature.

Look at what we see on “reality TV” today. Between the Kardashian family’s relentless self-promotion and media whoring, the “Jersey Shore” and “Bad Girls Club” self-indulgent narcissism and pathetic behavior, the girls of “16 and Pregnant” giving other young girls the green light to ruin their lives and the lives of the poor babies they bring into the world because of their “it’s my life and I’ll do whatever I want” attitude, the “Octomom” proving that there are no limits to how low TV can go, and perhaps the worst example of the decay of modern civilization: “Honey Boo Boo,” it’s no wonder that young people today, and many older people, have absolutely no concept of what a hero is or should be!

When I was growing up, heroes set a standard that represented the best of humanity and gave young people something to aspire to in their own lives. Now days, most of what we see and read are actually “anti-heroes” who represent the least desirable in humanity. I have concluded that this is because we are so concerned about making people feel bad about themselves that, rather than show them something better than themselves that they can emulate, we only show them something worse than themselves so they will feel they are better than someone or something else. This is the same kind of mentality that gives out trophies just for participating, that work harder to make losers feel better about themselves than they do to celebrate the efforts of the winners, and that, in the workplace, reward the lowest and higher performers with almost the same pay so that there is no incentive to work harder because it’s impossible to reap any rewards for that hard work.

I cannot abide by this mentality, and therefore I do not write characters like that. I do not write about characters who are anti-heroes, I do not deconstruct my heroes to the point there is nothing heroic about them, and I do not exalt personality types that I believe should never be emulated. When I write about people who represent the worst of humanity, I do so to show the bad things that will happen to people like that. I do this because my books have very clear messages about right and wrong and the consequences that result from the choices we make.

When bad things happen to good people in my books, I don’t let those characters wallow in self-pity. I show them rise above the bad and overcome whatever obstacles are in their way because I believe that is what we should all do when faced with the same challenges. My heroes do extraordinary things in my books, but that is not what makes them heroes. They are heroes because, regardless of the circumstances, they do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t sacrifice their principles because of popular opinion or to “fit in” with the crowd. They are willing to stand alone for what they believe is right, and their example inspires other to do the same. They accept responsibility and accountability for their actions – something that is sorely lacking in today’s “me, me, me” culture.

My heroes embody the best qualities of human nature. They are good at what they do, they work hard, they respect others and themselves, and they earn the rewards for their efforts. There are clear winners and losers in my books, and there are clear messages about what happens to losers and what happens to winners. I don’t write about characters that are so angst-ridden and filled with self-doubt or self-loathing that their ability to be successful is accidental at best. When I write about journeys of self-discovery, it’s so the characters can discover what their role in the world needs to be, not so the characters can discover how to get away with disobeying their parents or breaking the law without getting caught.

My characters are people who have skills and talents that are put to the test, sometimes in extreme ways. They may have to learn new skills to resolve the challenges I write for them to overcome, but the plotlines I create are about how talented people rise to the occasion and are ultimately successful. I cannot write about “heroes” who are so pathetic that they cause most of the challenges they face because of their own incompetence or flawed character. From my perspective, this is nothing to emulate, it is not entertaining, and is not real-life. The authors who do write about characters like this, as well as the producers who make television shows and films about characters like this, would have us believe that these characters are just like you and me, but all they are doing is giving readers and viewers permission to give up on themselves and accept for themselves the worst in human nature, rather than hold to their better natures and rise above such a dismal view of what constitutes normal behavior.

There are those who believe my writings are out of step with the realities of today’s world. If that’s the case, then all I can say is: “Good!” If the world truly has been reduced to the lowest, most base instincts of animalistic behavior (and I don’t believe for one second that it has, even though there are too many examples out there of people who do act that way), then at least someone is still writing about the way people used to be, should be, and hopefully will be once again. The heroes in my books will continue to set an example of what I believe all people should be. The villains in my books will continue to set an example of what I believe no people should be. I will not change the people I write about just because the world is constantly being bombarded with examples of people who are utterly different from my characters in every possible way.

Those who want to read about characters like mine will find their way to my books and, hopefully, enjoy what they read. Those who don’t believe that characters like mine are realistic or entertaining, will not read my books, and that’s OK with me. They’re not the ones I’m writing for anyway. I’d rather write a book I can be proud of because it represents my ethics and have it read by only a handful of fellow believers, than to compromise my principles just to have a best-seller that I will be ashamed of for the rest of my life.

For me and for all time, heroes are ordinary people who do the right thing for no reason other than because it is the right thing to do. Their convictions put them in situations where they are tested, but they stand firm and are ultimately successful without having to compromise their beliefs and without having to become an anti-hero to achieve personal success. They put the needs of others before their own needs, and they believe that true success is not defined by individual rewards, but by how others are benefitted from their actions and the results of their efforts. A hero puts himself or herself in harm’s way to protect someone he or she doesn’t even know because that person needs to be protected. A hero understands that he or she is part of something much larger, and for others to be successful, he or she may have to sacrifice everything so that others won’t have to. Heroes are not selfish or self-indulgent. They do not set out for glory, and often go unsung and unknown for their efforts on behalf of others. They lead by example and do whatever they can to help everyone rise above whatever challenge has to be faced. They are willing to die to ensure that others may live. They act when others just watch, they stand when other cower, they refuse to yield when others “go with the flow,” and they inspire others to be the best they can be rather than encourage others to get away with things because “everyone else is doing it.” They go out into the world and try to make a difference, rather than sit at home and expect the world to come to them.

The heroes I write about aren’t “goody two shoes” or icons that could never exist in the real world. Some have had problems in their past that had to be overcome before they could become the heroes I write them to be. But it’s not where these characters come from that matters; it’s what they do when faced with the situations they encounter in my books that determine whether they are a true hero or not.

I believe that anyone can be a hero – it’s all a question of what we do when we’re given the opportunity to act. Do we step up, step forward, and put our own interests aside for the good of others, or do we just sit on the sidelines and wait for others to act? My characters step up. If that seems unrealistic, so be it. I know these people still exist – not because I write about them, but because I see them every day. And I will continue writing about them to honor what they do for the rest of us. These heroes do exist. They are real. And we need them – more than ever!

About wbspeirjr

Award-winning author William Speir was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962. His first published work is the 2015 "Muzzle-Loading Artillery for Reenactors." In addition to his artillery manual, William has published 19 novels, including a 9-book action-adventure series ("The Knights of the Saltire Series"), five historical novels ("King’s Ransom," "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," "Arthur, King," and "The Besieged Pharaoh"), one fantasy novel ("The Kingstone of Airmid"), one science fiction novel ("The Olympium of Bacchus 12"), one geo-political thriller ("The Trinity Gambit"), and a stand-alone action-adventure novel ("Shiko Unleashed"). William is a 5-time Royal Palm Literary Award winner: 2014 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "King’s Ransom," 2015 Second Place Unpublished Historical Fiction for "The Saga of Asbjorn Thorleikson," 2017 Second Place Published Historical Fiction for "Arthur, King," 2017 First Place Published Historical Fiction for "Nicaea - The Rise of the Imperial Church," and 2017 First Place Published Science Fiction for "The Olympium of Bacchus 12." William currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, LLC. For more information about William Speir, please visit his website at WilliamSpeir.com.
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4 Responses to What is a Hero?

  1. Your view of a “True Hero” is my view of a true hero. I think the “Heroes” on TV and in the movies set too low a standard for pre-teens and teens. Do not change your characters. Young adults should aim higher!

  2. Your view of a “True Hero” is my view of a true hero. I think the “Heroes” on TV and in the movies set too low a standard for pre-teens and teens. Do not change your characters. Young adults should aim higher!

  3. Blake says:

    We create the world by writing it. By writing “proper” heroes, you not only return them to the public consciousness, you become one yourself.

  4. William Kendall says:

    I think you define the hero quite well here.

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