Yesterday we as a nation honored the heroes of 9/11/2001. The brave men and women who risked their lives to save others, the ones who lost their lives at the hands of people who had no regard for the value of human life, the ones who lost loved ones in the worst attack against America in our short existence.
In our books, our heroes are usually tall, dark, and handsome. They are good, kind, extraordinary men. Or at least they are by the end of the book. But real heroes aren’t always the hunks you see on a book cover. Sometimes they’re short and bald, sometimes they’re young or old, sometimes they’re female or even furry. They might be law enforcement, laborers, or accountants. They might be shy and quiet or loud and gregarious.
So that made me think. What is a hero?
Typically we think of a hero as someone who risks, and sometimes gives, his life to save others. But it can also be someone who stares death in the face and stands firm, refusing to give in to overwhelming fear. Someone who continues on in spite of impossible odds, like a mother dying of cancer who keeps her family on an even keel even while her world is falling apart. A child with a terminal illness, or a debilitating one, who is determined to get every moment of joy they can. A soldier horribly wounded in battle who refuses to let his wounds define him. It can even be an animal who risks its life to save the ones he loves or to find those buried in the rubble of destruction.
A hero can be someone you know, or a total stranger. Either way, they are always someone you wish you knew, someone you can admire, even if only for a period of time. If we don’t have any real heroes in our own lives, we can find them in the pages of a book, learn about them, grow with them, and hope for them. We can be there when they are struggling, rejoice when they find what they are looking for.
In romance novels, our hero’s journey is what makes or breaks a book for us. If a hero doesn’t grow and discover things about themselves that need to change, and have the courage to make those changes, we’ll leave the book dissatisfied. Maybe even throw the book against the wall. And we might not even realize why we didn’t like the book. We just know it left us feeling deflated instead of sighing.
Think of it like the passengers on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. They were normal people, just like you and I. People traveling for business or to see family and friends. Until they learned from phone calls what had happened to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they were afraid and confused and compliant with the terrorists’ demands. But something changed. They realized they were going to die, and a lot of other people were going to die with them. The moment they made the decision to try to stop the terrorists from killing a lot of other people, they became heroes, willing to die to save others. And they made a difference.
If I were writing a novel about that fateful flight, I’d pick one person and show their inner struggle from the moment they kissed their wife and children goodbye that morning to the moment that plane hit the ground. From their ordinary life to the moment their life changed. I’d show their desire to fade into the background and not draw the terrorists’ attention. The thought processes and conversations that changed them into a person who decided to take action, to say “let’s rock and roll”, right through to those last moments before the plane hit the ground. That’s the hero’s journey.
Do you know any real heroes? For me, I’ve known several. Not heroes who made headlines, but quiet ones like my husband who stood between two drug-crazed men trying to break into our house and me and my children, standing firm with a shotgun in his hands while police on the phone ordered him to put the gun down. He refused until police arrived and had the men in custody. My father who joined the Merchant Marines at sixteen because his father refused to sign the papers that would allow him to join the army during World War II. He sacrificed any chance at benefits, he was exposed to asbestos that eventually took his life with lung cancer, all because he wanted to do his part. My two brothers-in-law who worked as police officers for many years. My friend Edna who bravely fought the good fight against breast cancer, continuing to work with children right up to the very end. My dog Blue who nearly gave his life to save my kids when he thought they were in danger and would have given his life for me at any time if I’d been in danger.
Tell us about the heroes in your life. And never forget to honor those who continue to fight, to struggle, to have courage no matter what the circumstances.