Monday, October 01, 2007

Heroes in Storytelling

I gave a talk this weekend to the San Diego Christian Writers Guild. The talk was on heroes in storytelling and in society - why we need them and what they should look like. Lots of people asked me for my notes, and as I only had my computer with me, I told them I would post the notes here. Sorry if what is here is too sketchy. It may be that this was one of those talks where you had to be there.

I. Intro

II. Some signs of the times

a) Last year for the first time, American high school students listed as their #1 Hero "no-one." (and I don’t think they are being too cynical. Because really, who should be a hero today?) And Is it good or bad that kids have no heroes?

b) An interview with one of the hoards of fans on the news the night of Paris Hilton’s release from prison. “Paris Hilton is my hero – she’s so glamorous and famous.” (Hmmmm... in the words of The Princess Bride, "I don't think you know what that word means.")

c) Where twenty-somethings in the 1940's found a hero in Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca, today's coming of agers are more likely to want to be Napoleon Dynamite – where the new heroism is just to be able to look the world in the eye and spit. It’s some version of be true to yourself… But what if “yourself” is really screwed up? Would you want your kids to be true to themselves if they were nuts?

III. Why should we care if there are no heroes?

a) What does a kid (and by extension, a society) look like who has heroes? Idealistic, hopeful, imitative, open, eager to please, reverent, grateful

“A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around.”
Edgar Watson Howe

b) What does a kid look like who has no heroes? Cynical, haughty, suspicious, jaded, irreverent, entitled, self-absorbed.

“Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.” Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881)

c) As a child, a hero provides a teaching example of a life worth living. In fact, the “no greater life” of one who gives his life for his friends.

d) As an adult, heroes should engage us in a holy rivalry; to shame us into being more generous and tireless in doing good. Mother Teresa shamed me into facing what a schlep I am. In some ways, because she could pick a maggot ridden poor person out of a gutter, I was able to be kinder to the annoying guy in the next office.

e) In a society where the family has broken down, the need for heroes becomes even stronger. (Can I please just appeal to the Baby Boomers out there to try and make the last years of your lives heroic. Just heard the other day fromone of my students how her 53 year old father just walked out on the family – two teens at home and an eight year old – and moved in with his 26 year old receptionist. He told his daughter he was bored and feeling unfulfilled. Enough of this nonsense! We don’t want to hear about your need to be having fun anymore! We need you to be brave as you face your elderly years – you will be wrinkled and sickly and forgetful – and your heroism will be to be uncomplaining, and wise and solicitous and serene for the rest of us! “ heard on the radio the other day, “70 is the new 30!”

"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being." May Sarton

e) But it is also true that not all stories need to be hero stories, and that adult should be able to handle a lot more ambiguity. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha makes a huge inward step, by shedding his protective idealism and accepting the complexity of life. “Hurrah for Karamazov!” I get that reading Harry Potter/fantasy is diverting and on some level edifying, but if all the grown ups are reading about Harry fighting dragons, who is left to be reading Crime and Punishment?

IV. What is a hero?

a) A story will be illustrative here.... (I found this on the Internet somewhere, but there wasn't a writer credited, so to whomever write the following, thank you!)

The time is about four in the afternoon of January 13, 1982. The place: Washington’s National Airport, blanketed in snow and ice. After several delays, Air Florida’s Flight 90 had finally received clearance to take off and was roaring down the runway. Like his fellow passengers, Arland Williams, a forty-six-year-old senior examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, was just getting settled in for the flight when something went wrong. After a dramatic shudder, the Boeing 737 smashed into the Fourteenth Street Bridge and fell into the icy Potomac.

Once the initial shock passed, onlookers could see a piece of the plane ís broken-off tail section afloat in the river, with four people clinging to it. Then a fifth person bobbed up to water’s surface and was pulled to the tail section. Given the freezing conditions and their distance from shore, survival was uncertain at best.

At 4:20, a U.S. Park Police helicopter arrived on the scene. Hovering over the floating debris, they lowered a line to Bert Hamilton, one of the five. Hamilton grabbed the line with all his strength and was soon being lifted out of the water and whisked through the wintry air to safety on shore.

The helicopter returned and dropped its line to Arland Williams, who quickly passed it to Kelly Duncan, a flight attendant. Duncan was carried safely ashore. The helicopter returned and dropped the line once more to Williams. This time he passed it to Joe Stiley, a severely injured passenger. By now, all the victims were suffering badly from the icy exposure, and it was vital to get them ashore as soon as possible. Stiley grabbed another passenger, Priscilla Tirado. A second line was dropped this time, and it was passed to Patricia Felch.

As the helicopter again lifted higher in the air, it became evident that too much had been attempted in one trip. Both Tirado and Felch fell back into the water during transport. When the helicopter rushed back to rescue Tirado, she was too weak to take the line. At this point, an onlooker standing on the shore, Lenny Skutnik, leaped into the icy water and swam out to get her. The helicopter then proceeded to where Felch had fallen, and Rescue Officer Gene Windsor dropped into the water to attach a line to her.

Four lives had been saved. Now, thirty minutes after the crash, the helicopter returned to the floating tail section for Arland Williams, who had repeatedly passed the life-saving line to others. Williams was gone. His heroism had cost him his life. Gene Windsor wept as he described what Williams had done that day in the middle of a freezing river: "He could have gone on the first trip, but he put everyone else ahead of himself. Everyone."

b) (from What sets heroes aside from the rest of humanity is the willingness to assume a personal responsibility for public problems. As I will use the word, responsibility is assumed, not assigned, undertaken rather than imposed. I am interested in responsibility as a function of declaration rather than duty. This book is about people who take on responsibility where no one else would regard them as responsible.

c) So in a story, a character to be a hero must assume responsibility for something that is not theirs by assignment. But it falls to them in their mind.

d) And it seems clear that heroism always has to involve someone dying so others can live. Now, there are many kinds of death.

1. Luke Skywalker has to die to his sense of being in control. He also has to risk his physical life.

2. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddel has to die to his ego and his plans for the future by being willing to lose the Olympics and not run in the race on Sunday.

3. In The Fugitive, Dr. Shepard risks his life and freedom to save a child he happens to meet while he is on his quest at the hospital.

4. In Casablanca, Rick needs to lose the woman he loves.

5. CLIP from One Against the Wind

e) And because a story needs to be better than the real, the stakes of a character have to be higher. The risks to himself must be bigger. The good for the world more urgent.

V. The kind of heroes Hollywood too often provides are not doing the job that the audience needs in its longing for heroes. Too often, these are the kinds of things we see set up as the lead character/the one in the movie to whom we are supposed to relate:

a) People who are purely about self-survival. Napoleon Dynamite.

b) People who are in the service of a false good. Million Dollar Baby or ER Christmas episode in which people euthanize other people. Like it is ever a heroic idea to murder someone!

c) People who aspire to nothing outside of their own pleasures. Knocked Up and Superbad.

d) People who become worse than their rivals. Kill Bill. The Brave One.

e) Comic book heroes. Which are perfectly appropriate for kids, but weird and ultimately unsatisfying for grown-ups.

f) People with disordered souls. Craving some evils in some quarters. The Departed. Or the doctors on ER who in the later seasons have become self-absorbed, whining narcissists. It's the Bill Clinton problem in which we are asked to believe that you can be a lie and cheat on a small scale, but that it won't effect the decisions you make on a big scale. As my pagan Hollywood agent told me once, "People who will screw anyone will screw everyone. Cheaters cheat."

g) Hollywood creatives are very often jaded. Because most don’t have the example of the Crucified Jesus, they are very suspicious about the idea that people can really do selfless things. They are also bloated with false goods, so that they can’t be sure anymore if it is better thing to save a stranger because who can say whose life is more valuable? But I think the real reason we so many schleppy heroes on the screen these days has to do with the being shamed by the good thing I mentioned before.

“The presence of the just one is obnoxious to us. He reproaches us with our laziness and failures to live up to our training.” Isaiah

h) So, btw, if you are in a committed relationship to evil, I suspect you will lose the ability to write a selfless character. In the same way that if you smoke pot on the side, it is really hard to tell your teenager not to. (As long as you hate your sin you might be able to do it. But there is no voice of authority like purity. Ref. Lancelot in Camelot.)

i) There is a positive side to Holywood's desire to create heroes with a dark side. It is coming from a rejection of melodrama and sentimentalism. SENTIMENTALISM IS THE PROBLEM FOR US CHRISTIANS. We want to show that God is basically in charge of the world so everything is really okay. We want to give God the benefit of the doubt.

j) Facing the Giants is anti-heroic because it costs the hero nothing. The Christianity depicted in the movie is a rejection of the cross and presents a fantasy religion in which believing in Jesus means no suffering. “Give me some of that Jesus stuff!” The truth is Christianity promises that we will suffer without despair...and probably we will suffer more than others!

k) Flannery: “Sentimentalism is the one inexcusable defect for the Christian storyteller because it is an overemphasis on innocence.” We know that there must always be original sin in the story. No human person is perfect and immune from temptation.

VI. So here is the paradox: The world needs heroes from us as writers. It needs examples of people to model our lives after. But we have to tell the truth for adults and show that heroes are also human beings with failings.

a) Here’s the trick: your story hero can and must have weaknesses, but the character must be consistent in the conviction that leads him to his heroic act. As Aristotle says, in the Poetics, we don’t need unity of character in a story – that is, a story in which all of a characters problems are resolved – but to be a hero, a character has to have an almost supernatural understanding and commitment to the value that will allow him to embark on his mission in the story.

b) You have to figure out in your story, what is the characters’s dawning, and defining conviction. Then, you have to make sure that he/she is consistent IN THAT CONVICTION. She may be, as in One Against the Wind, snippy and proud, but she is absolutely unconfused about the fact that we are to save each other from being killed.

c) This kind of conviction can not be contradicted by his defects or you undermine the hero and make his choices seem random.

d) So, in Million Dollar Baby, the character of the coach is anti-heroic, because his one vision was as a coach “You never give up!” And he had already given up on his daughter before and now he had a new daughter. So when he euthanises her, it shows he never really got the one lesson of his life. (Now, the movie suggests that letting go of his coachly convictions was a growth for him, but that is twisted and bad writing. It was his one understanding to give to the world.)

e) In The Departed, the character is lying and cheating with another man’s fiancée. Well, why is it worse for the mob to be lying and cheating then? Who is he to try and stop them? And the suggestion that he would have the moral energy to do risk his life to stop some men from doing what he himself is doing on the sly is absurd.

VII. Things That Are Not Heroic:

a) To have an illness. To be a victim. To have a bad hand dealt to you. HEROISM is in still serving others with an illness or bad thing.

b) To survive your own iniquity. (In the Bill Clinton sense. I heard a lady on TV say that she admired Clinton because he was "a survivor." Well, by that standard, you could admire roaches.) HEROISM for a person in habits of iniquity would be in full repentance, and in heading back into the sewer you once created to repair it.

c) It isn’t heroic to have a great talent or skill. To be able to run fast or sing well. It might be heroic to develop that talent to your utmost and at great price – as long as it is in response to the cosmos and not for your own glory.

d) It is not heroic to fight for the wrong thing. To build a business or buy a house or paint a fence or go on a trip or make a million dollars or win an award.

e) It is not heroic to fight using disproportionate means. Someone attacks your son, and you nuke their country. The whole vengeance thing is essentially anti-heroic.
f) It is not heroic to do an evil to achieve a good: Torturing someone to save the U.S.

VIII. The world needs from us:

a) The conviction that there is something worth dying for. That suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to us.

b) The conviction that some things that people are dying for are the wrong things! (Money or fame or to be a size zero...)

The most pitiful among men is he who turns his dreams into silver and gold. Kahlil Gibran

c) Another conviction the hero brings is that there is good and evil in the world. The hero story is a direct attack on moral relativism which, Pope Benedict recently said was the wrong idea that is at the heart of the decay of Western civilization. The only thing that explains Ahmadinijad at Columbia is that there is no more good and evil in the world. If everything is relative, then we can listen to a man in a suit share his ideas about how the Holocaust didn't happen, because who are we to judge the fact that he has murdered hundreds of American soldiers, and has imprisoned scores of Iranian journalists and dissenters, and that he has killed and tortured so many homosexuals that they no longer exist in Iran? I mean who are we to judge him, right? Just because we find those behaviors repugnant might be our problem – like the way we don’t really eat eel here. Right? See, we aren’t going to be able to hold off the conviction of Islamo-fascism with yawning relativism.

d) The mystery of immortality.

“A man of courage is also full of faith.” Cicero

e) That being a hero is not a unique call, but a universal one.

f) Being a hero doesn’t come out of nowhere. That you can’t be a hero in big things if you are unheroic in little things. You will not be up to the big moments unless you have made virtuous habits, and have cultivated a broad respect for others. And most of us are schleppy and lazy in our normal moments...

“We can't all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” Will Rogers

“It's choice - not chance - that determines your destiny.” Jean Nidetch

“A man must indeed be a hero to appear such in the eyes of his valet.” Thomas Carlyle

VIII. Let’s create a hero story. From your own life. What is there that you have stumbled over that made you say to yourself, " Somebody ought to do something about that?"

a) What would be a heroic choice/task for you to take on?

"The cowards think of what they can lose, the heroes of what they can win." J. M. Charlier

b) What scares you about it? (Or, why don’t you do it today?…”Well, I have kids.” Well, I have a job.” “Well, I have a pain in my foot.” “Well, I’m not rich.” “Well,…”)

"Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared." Eddie Rickenbacker

"Courage is being scared to death - but saddling up anyway." John Wayne

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear." Mark Twain

c) What miracle would have to come about to allow you to achieve this goal? What are the obstacles that will have to be overcome? If it doesn’t require a miracle, it isn’t big enough.
“People will never stop doing THAT.”
“That is a problem that will never go away.”

d) What good will you have to see killed to do your goal?

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

e) Has to be something good for the world, not just for yourself or your own. There has to be an aspect in which the good that is coming back to you is unknown.

f) Can’t be something that relies on other people doing it for you. It has to be obvious to you that you just have to do this thing, regardless of whether you are fitted for it, because somebody has to do it and it is in front of you.

g) Can’t be something that just needs somebody to write a check or getting a law passed. Those don’t require you to get down into the depths of yourself. Don’t require you to have to die.

IX. Test example: Yesterday, I saw that story about the little child who had been filmed being molested. And the bell went off in my head for the umpteenth time. “Pornography. Her molester was making his own pornography.”

a) I used to have an office opposite the teen canteen….”Somebody ought to do something to help those kids.
b) Task: To end the porn industry in the San Fernando valley.

c) What scares me: To be around that level of sin and degradation. To get killed by the people who make $$$$$ in this business. To be laughed at and even hated for trying to take away people’s rights to their “first amendment freedoms” (As though, by the way, the first amendment covers allowing you to exploit other people for your own self-expression.)

d) Obstacle: It’s too big. It’s in the shadows.

e) Action plan: To gradually create a climate in which porn is unacceptable - to associate it to women’s rights… To stop shows like “The Girls Next Door.”….. To pressure Madison Avenue to stop the pornification of women and children in ads… To make it a felony to ship obscenity overseas and inter-state…To address the addiction… To buy out the producers… To regulate the industry severely… To make the guilds shun people who moonlight in porn…. To give the actors other work… To save some of the actors, and then send them as missionaries back to those trapped in the industry…

f) So, what is your heroism? Write that story.

X. A Poem by Leigh/Darion.... Is this too hokey for us today? What's wrong with us?

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To be better by far than you are
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know, if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world would be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

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