Where do heroes come from? Exploring the bond between writer and characters.

 

Where do heroes come from? Exploring the bond between writer and characters.

 

It’s pretty rare that I write about writing on this blog; in that sense this is far from a Writer’s Blog of the classical kind. But the last few days have brought up a variety of issues and while boiling the kettle a short while ago, I had a bit of an aha moment.

Let me backtrack a little. Stay with me; I’ll get to the point as soon as I can.

Yesterday I got walloped with the worst attack of severe, paralysing anxiety I have had in many years. I teetered on the brink of all-out panic attack for about fourteen hours, before finally taking some sleeping tablets and going to bed. I woke feeling a bit better, more able to function but deeply disappointed in myself for not coping better with something I really thought I had overcome years ago. I’ve learned dozens of ways of dealing with it but none of them really worked yesterday. One of the keys to making it through to bedtime without slipping into panic was a comment by one of my Twitter friends; Christophe said “It’s just an excess of adrenaline.” Oddly enough being able to reduce it to a named hormone made it much easier for me to deal with, because it was finite. It was such a masculine approach to the problem and it really struck home more than anything else might have done.

But today, I started thinking about the novel I am close to completing and remembered that the hero of that novel has been suffering with some severe anxiety and panic issues(for good reasons, I must add) and in exploring his journey through this, I do wonder if I have stirred up something unresolved in my own. This set me to thinking even more about the deep link I have with my characters.

In Strangers and Pilgrims, each of the six protagonists reflect aspects of my own character, translated into a life and a person. Each of them has endured some pretty heavy duty suffering but writing it in a way that compartmentalised this suffering, spreading it among six people, meant that I never got the full force of it while I was writing it. When one became too much, I could just shift to another and spread the pain more thinly.

I know there are plenty of writers who see their characters as just characters and no more than that; essentially puppets or pawns to move around to serve the purposes of the plot. But that’s not the way I work. My writing is a symbiosis between the characters and a thread of story that has wormed its way between the worlds and often come to me in dreams; these stories are living, evolving beings who shift and change and demand things of me I would give to no human. And the characters come from somewhere deep, often very deep, within my own soul, emerging like old friends fully formed but with surprises in store for me. I don’t ever really know who and what they are; I listen to the tale they tell me in the darkest hours of the night and weave the words and the images I see until I am ready to write.

The novel I am working on is the third in a series and it came to me today that the connection I feel to the hero is deeper than almost any because the hero is in effect my soul’s attempts to translate my animus into a real being that has existence beyond the psyche. Is it any wonder that the last day or two have been a struggle, as I seek to bring a conclusion to this story where no ending is really possible without my own death?

I am bound up as much in my own stories as I am in my own external life, and the bond between them is such that for the years where I didn’t (couldn’t) write I knew myself to be living a half-life, barely alive and out of touch with my soul. I think that this may also be why I feel so powerfully the need to have others read my stories. John Donne wrote that No man is an island, and I believe this to be true. Who I am and what I create are so closely bound as to be inextricably linked, Siamese twins joined at the heart and mind. Without one, the other will die.

The Hero-an analysis

This is an article I posted a good eighteen months ago but bears reposting. I’m too tired and unwell still to write anything new just yet. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

The hero

Once upon a time- that’s how fairytales begin. Or it might begin, in a kingdom far, far away. In days of old when knights were bold… but how old is old in a time when last season’s clothes are absurd antiques and doubts are cast not just on the courage of those bold knights but on everything else as well? The jury is out but the evidence is that they were anything but gentle, and the average modern football hooligan probably has more courtesy and honour. After all, even in today’s allegedly lawless times, it’s not considered honourable or even legal to strike the head from another man’s shoulders. There are some, I admit who practically beg for such treatment but I doubt politicians have ever been popular; the high king’s advisors have ever been known as lickspittles and toadies, and are so today whatever names they bear.

The age of chivalry was in fact a brutal one but pictures are painted and poems penned that portray it in the glowing pink light of artificial nostalgia. But that romantic world has grown brighter than the shadowy one that was real. We don’t want to know about the sweat and the dung, the short brutish nasty lives; we want mysterious ladies in gowns of floating silks. We want a hero whose armour shines and whose sword is never red with the blood of the innocent or of the incidental casualty. We want those rules that can never be kept, to have been kept: a code of impossible honour, a world of justices and joys. And we seek it not in our world now for we know deep down it can never be. So we seek it in the past: an ancient shining past where our dreams might once have been true. Atlantis and Camelot are both children of the same yearning dreams.

There is a Jewish proverb, better a live dog than a dead lion, and it sums up the kind of practicality we have deep down and yet are somehow ashamed of. Running from a defeat is never seen as sensible, practical or even right; we prefer death-or-glory stands to the canny retreat. In cinema, literature and in our view of history, our preference is always for the glorious defeat, the captain going down with the sinking ship, the king dying on a bloody battlefield surrounded by the slaughtered heaps of his faithful bodyguard. We don’t laud those who saw which way the wind was blowing and left before disaster struck; it’s not memorable, it’s not honourable and it certainly isn’t romantic! History and literature are littered with the bodies of lovers who said, “If I can’t have you, then I shall have nothing.” A myriad Miss Havishams wander the corridors of our consciousness, clad in wedding rags and one silk slipper like an elderly Cinderella who never got to go to the ball in the first place. We don’t applaud those who survived, moved on, thrived and found new love. The star-crossed lovers are not Darby and Joan, celebrating sixty years of happy marriage. No, they are the teenage Romeo and Juliet who died at their own hands rather than lose that one bright moment of perfection.

Let’s face it, when it isn’t us, we adore tragedy. I hesitate to say it but that’s why piles of flowers and teddies materialise at the site of an untimely death. That’s why Diana will always hold a place that Camilla never can. Live fast, die young- one way to achieve a kind of cheap immortality. Surviving, moving on, rebuilding simply don’t hold the same glamour. Rags to riches stories only really appeal because secretly we all hope for an equally meteoric fall back to rags. We say. “Oh how nice,” but I’m not sure how often we mean it. There’s almost always a secret shiver of spite and jealousy that quibbles, “Why them? Why not me? I’m as good as they are.” It feels better when we can say from a safe distance from a tragedy, “What a shame! Oh how sad!”

Arthur lies sleeping, our once-and-future king, but we should take great care we never wake him. There’s too much blood-and-guts reality in the true Arthur for us to stomach these days. We’ve grown beyond true monarchy. I’d rather we had our rough approximation of democracy than have the tyranny of the old kings back and tarnish and fray our romantic visions of the past.

But we need heroes- no I shall go further and say we are desperate for heroes. And so we try and create them out of what material we think best: film stars, models, TV celebrities, pop and rock stars, and God forgive us all, footballers. And they fail us and we vilify them for merely being ordinary fallible venial human beings. They disappoint us and yet we create more.

Are there any real heroes left? Any lantern-jawed Lancelots left to charm and enthral us, fallible enough to be likeable but heroic enough to still command our respect and even our love? There are worthy men and women, heroic ones even but they lack that certain something, that magic ingredient that makes them special like Arthur, Gawain, Percival and dear old Lancelot. So I shall have to create my own heroes, spinning them out of my own yearnings and dreams like gold from spun straw. Arthur can live again, a modern Arthur born of this our real world but with some of the glitter and glamour of the Round Table, and his knights and ladies can dance their graceful steps around him. We all need heroes, but these days I prefer to make my own. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a pattern. It isn’t like painting by numbers or knitting. It’s more like freestyle climbing- massive risk taking, surges of adrenaline that might rocket fuel an elephant and the sense when you’ve completed it that you have done something hardly anyone else can do. I admit that failure doesn’t result in a plummet to the death but emotionally it can feel a little like that. And at the end of that creation process, there stands blinking in the sunshine a shiny newborn hero, fresh for a new world but with ancient genes that stretch back into the oldest memory, the oldest stories. We’ve all changed since our first ancestors told tales round the fire at night-so why not the hero too? Because there is something eternal and unchanging about an archetype- the hero simply adapts and grows with the generations but remains in all essentials the dream we all dream: the Hero.