Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Of Protagonists and Heroes - Part III of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 As a historical novelist, I am drawn to historical events in which humans — ordinary humans — have done something extraordinary. I suppose one might argue that that is the very definition of “heroes.” Yet, thinking of them in that way can detract from an empathetic and compelling portrayal. 



Let me give you an example. In the Battle of Britain a few hundred RAF pilots changed the course of history by halting Hitler’s aggression. As Winston Churchill famously said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” But those young men were extraordinarily ordinary and not terribly heroic — except in their dogged determination to “do their job” despite the odds against them. I’ve read too many novels that, seeing these young men as “heroes,” transform them into superheroes.  In other words, rather than showing them as immature young men with fears, insecurities, and underdeveloped flying and fighting skills, depict them all as hot-shot “aces.” On their very first combat sortie, they go out and shoot down four or five enemy aircraft. That’s not the way it was. It took time to learn how to dogfight, and most RAF pilots were shot down more than once before they were able to register their first victory — assuming they lived that long. Even top-scoring aces didn’t shoot down more than one or two enemy aircraft in a sortie. Most RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain were insecure when their arrived, all of them experienced fear and terror at times, and the bulk of them were also immature and often terribly irresponsible. They did silly things and they made lots of mistakes. I think that showing them as the immature, fallible, and yet frightened yet enthusiastic and irrepressible young men they were is both more historically accurate and makes better fiction. By making them less heroic as individuals, the reader finds it easier to fully identify and empathize with them. 

 On the other hand, some heroes are not simply “doing their job” but rather behave in a way that is extraordinary. They do something positive that is above and beyond the call of duty or reasonable expectations. Such heroes, I believe, are most effective in fiction if they are not depicted as something other-worldly, supernatural, or inherently different from the rest of us, but humanized instead.  

An example of this is my Balian d’Ibelin. Ibelin was without a doubt an extraordinary man. Although a landless younger son, he married a dowager queen, founded a powerful dynasty, and ultimately earned the respect of both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. He defended Jerusalem against Saladin’s victorious army with no knights or trained troops, depending on women, boys and priests to man the walls. Yet his moment of greatest heroism, in my opinion, was when he offered himself as a hostage to save 15,000 paupers from slavery. For the reader to fully grasp just what that gesture meant and cost, however, they first have to care about Balian as a husband and a father. He has to be human first — and heroic second.

In both examples, the key is to view and to treat characters as fallible humans who do heroic things rather than as heroes, much less superheroes.

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