As a State College hometown boy and PSU alumn, I’ve been reluctantly following the Penn State scandal, and it’s got me thinking about what makes a hero a hero.
I write what is often called Heroic Fantasy, which generally involves strong, active men or women running around killing monsters or evil villains with swords or axes. These are known in the trade as heroes. But those kinds of heroes are usually people who have been left with few options.
MOVIE TRAILER VOICE
They killed his family and burned his village.
He had two choices, give up and die…
Or seek vengeance!
When you think about it, that’s kind of an easy choice. What was shown to me this morning while reading John Scalzi’s essay on the PSU situation (which is much better than this one, by the way, and you should go read it) is that a true hero is a man or woman who makes a hard choice.
It’s pretty easy to go after the bad guys when you’ve got nothing left to lose, right? But what if you’ve got everything to lose? Imagine you are a man in a comfortable position, doing a job you love, and that you have thrived in for more than forty years. Imagine you are living in a nice house, with a nice family, in town so serene and secure they call it Happy Valley. Next imagine you discover that a friend and employee has done something horrible to a child. Then imagine what will happen if you say something. The confrontation with your friend. The disruption of your job and your life as investigations begin and the media swoops in. The uncomfortable public conversations about topics men of your generation just don’t talk about. The damage to your community and the image of your much-beloved institution.
To throw your life and the life of everyone you know into chaos, upend the routine of your job, expose a man who had been your friend, and start shouting things in public that you don’t even like to talk about in private until the victims are saved and your friend is caught is a hard choice – a heroic choice. Paterno didn’t make that choice. That doesn’t make him evil – but it doesn’t make him a hero either. He’s just a man, and after all this time as JoePa that’s kind of hard for us old Penn Staters to accept.
What’s even harder to face this morning is that I can’t say, putting myself in the same circumstances, if I’d have made the hard choice either. How many times have you been driving somewhere and seen something that wasn’t right – somebody sideswiping a parked car and racing off, somebody else graffiting a home or business – and thought about doing something about it, but then the light changed and the guy behind you started honking his horn, and you were late for your appointment, and getting involved would mean talking to the police for hours and hours, so you drove on, feeling guilty and hoping somebody else would do something about it.
You’d like to think that, with something more serious, you’d actually stop the car, but would you?
As writers, I think we owe it to our readers to force our heroes into making hard choices – even in fantasy fiction – because, while it’s unlikely that those readers will ever be faced with a slavering monster while armed only with a sword, there’s a very real chance that someday they might learn that something terrible has been happening under their noses, and have to decide whether or not to stop the car and do something about it.
A good story could help them make that choice.