I’ve “discovered” that my novels have a common thread: a reluctant hero. “Discovered,” in that I’ve known that subconsciously all along, but haven’t verbalized it (to the extent that writing it in electronic bits onto ether paper is verbalizing) before.
Reluctant also takes a common form among most of them: caught up in the inertia of their everyday lives, which are pretty good . . . but. The essence of the stereotypical middle age crisis: you “make it,” and then look around and wonder, “Is this all there is?”
Walter (Strange Bedfellows) had inertia in spades. Although when “The Call” came, in the form of a winning lottery ticket, he wasn’t reluctant for very long. Good for Walter.
Arnie in Return from Avalon (and Points West) keeps asking, “Why me?” Reluctance in its more traditional form. But he is also driven by mild discontent with his life. Plus he’s 39, one of those birthdays on the cusp of a big round number. Where we tend to evaluate where we are, which frequently leads us back to that deadly question, “Is this all there is?”
The Hero’s Journey, as formalized by Joseph Campbell, pays particular attention to the Reluctant Hero, although not all heroes are reluctant. The first steps along the journey are:
- The Call to Adventure. Something jars the hero out of her normal, everyday existence.
- Refusal of the Call. “Nuh uh, not me. I’m perfectly content in my mild discontent. Why me? Go find somebody else.”
- Supernatural Aid. “OK, whatever it was that jarred our hero out of his normal everyday existence wasn’t quite enough. He’s going to slip back unless we do something quick. Let’s intervene.” The Greek Gods do that a lot, but supernatural aid doesn’t have to come from a god (alternately, your definition of God may be broad enough to include any source of supernatural aid along the Journey, in which case: good for you).
- Crossing the First Threshold. “OK, I’ll give it a try. Here, let me stick my toe in the water.” Unspoken but clearly in the mind of the hero: If I don’t like it, I can always go back.
- The Belly of the Whale: Oops. You can’t go back now.
Rick Whittaker is a special kind of reluctant hero. He’s not reluctant to leave the discontent of his existence–he didn’t spend much time pondering whether he should stay at his crappy sports desk reporter job, waiting for forgiveness and atonement from his boss. But then, finding George Foster isn’t really his “call.” Rather, he’s called to leave behind his normal life and his conventional set of beliefs–and symbolically, his television–and open himself to possibility. And he’s more than a little reluctant to do that.
So now I’ve leapt into a new novel with–oh, you’re gonna be astonished by this–yet another reluctant hero. Sir Kay, starring in Middle Ages Middle Age Crazy at its best. I mean, he’s a freaking knight of the round table, an unsung hero of the Saxon wars, essential to the health and well-being of the kingdom, and well-paid. And yet he still asks, “Is this all there is?”
I think next time I’m going with Girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo type who isn’t at all reluctant to drop everything and kick some ass.