We read stories to get experiences we've never known firsthand, or, to gain a clearer understanding of experiences we have had. In the process, we follow one or more characters the way we follow our 'self' in our dreams; we assimilate the story as if what happened to the main characters had happened to us. We identify with heroes. As they move through the story, what happens to them, happens to us. In comedy, heroes go through all the terrible things that we fear or face in our own lives - but they teach us to look at disaster with enough distance that we can laugh at it. In non-comic fiction, the hero shows us what matters, what has value, what has meaning among the random and meaningless events of life. In all stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and if we are to be that hero's disciple for the duration of the tale, we must have awe: We must understand that the hero has some insight, some knowledge that we ourselves do not understand, some value or power that we do not have.
- from "Characters & Viewpoint," Orson Scott Card
Preparing for an upcoming speaking panel for Bouchercon 2016, a mystery writers conference in New Orleans this September, I reread this paragraph by science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card from his popular writing guide, "The Hero and the Common Man." I frequently write about human duality. Mankind's possession of tandem weakness and potential greatness. Joseph Campbell famously explored the attraction of the heroic ideal in his groundbreaking work on the psychology of the mythic hero, writing we are both the ordinary and the extraordinary in any given moment.
In choosing what we read, we predominantly seek characters who inspire us through their vulnerabilities and predicaments. Fallible characters who uncover a surprising ability to rise to the occasion. We seek the ideal: To be brave, compassionate, courageous, inventive, adventurous, just. Powerful in defense of truth and right.
In the individual stories of the athletes of the Summer Olympics in Rio we confront the heroic and personal cost of heroism at every turn. How situations that bring out the best in us are often the most difficult to endure. Events we respond to bravely are often the ones that cost us the most. If the gift of triumph is permission to define ourselves as great and capable, future challenges will be met with battle-tested courage.
I confess I do not know whether challenge strengthens our vitality for life or merely toughens us with protective scars. Perhaps we exist on a pendulum between the two responses - boldness and aversion. The heroic stories we read challenge us to imagine greatness for ourselves, explore our own courage. And in our mental shadowboxing, realize a true, real world strength. As readers we use story. Stories are allegory. A call to action. We embolden ourselves to undertake the unimaginable, to find our personal greatness.
Push your boundaries. Celebrate the day and its challenges. Be in awe. You are the hero of your story.