I saw this documentary recently called 10%: What Makes a Hero? It's by Yoav Shamir, and it explores heroes, trying to find a common denominator from genetics to psychology. There are some very stirring images in this. The one that really stuck with me was a black-and-white photo of a Nazi rally, where the crowd is giving the Nazi salute, but if you look closely, there's one man who stands with his hands crossed. I might be imagining it, but I think he looks uncomfortable and a bit defiant. That must have taken guts to do.
The ten percent in the title refers to an old psychology experiment where they took people and split them into students and teachers, or so the teachers thought. The experiment had the "teachers" give electrical shocks to the "students" when they gave the wrong answers. The shocks grew progressively higher, up to life-threathening levels. The students were really actors, and they weren't really getting shocked, but their responses had been pre-recorded. The hypothesis was that most people wouldn't give the shocks when they knew they were hurting another person, even though the guy in the white coat (i.e. authority figure) pressured them to continue. Imagine their surprise when only 10% of people refused. This has been seen as proof that good people can do contemptible things when the environment encourages it. Everybody wants to think that they'd be part of the 10% who refused, but really? The odds are that most of us would have done what The Man said. Shamir postulates that maybe the 10% who refused are the heroes.
He goes on to interview heroes, takes a gene test for a gene that is associated with altruism (turns out 70% of the population has it?!), and interviews psychologist Philip Zimbardo about his study to find out what traits heroes have in common. He is also the scientist who conducted the (in)famous "prisoners and guards" experiment in the seventies.
The interesting thing is that the study actually turned up seven things that the heroes they interviewed had in common:
- attachment to a male parental figure at an early age
- having been through some kind of trauma, working through it, and growing as a person
- some kind of practical realisation or growing up, maturing. (Things like a gang member realising that he wants to get married and have kids, and seeing that his lifestyle stands in the way of that.)
- separating oneself from the group
- role models
- being a born leader/rebel
In the interviews of real-life heroes, the thing that separated them from the rest of us was that when the opportunity for helping someone came, they saw a choice, and then chose to help.
I find this fascinating from a writing perspective. We writers know what makes a hero, right? We make them up every day. I started thinking about how this relates to the writing advice on creating characters, heroes in particular.
According to most writing books, to make a hero, you take a likeable character, mix in some personal quirks and flaws, and then add a "ghost" or "wound" (traumatic secret or event), and bring to a boil. Then you send him on the hero's journey. Usually the character is pretty happy with the status quo at the start of the story, then something happens, and he gets reluctantly dragged on a quest of some sort, usually by the mentor, who is often an older male figure. Usually there is some lie the hero believes about himself, and he spends the first half of the story banging his head against the wall, trying to solve his problems the wrong way, because he still believes the lie. At midpoint, he usually realises the truth, and then goes on through tons of conflict to use it to defeat his antagonist/complete his quest. This usually involves great sacrifice and a hard choice between the lie and the truth. The hero changes in some fundamental way during the story, that's important, too.
Sounds kind of familiar, right?
Let's look at that list again:
- attachment to a male parental figure at an early age -> The mentor?
- having been through some kind of trauma, working through it, and growing as a person -> the ghost or the wound?
- some kind of practical realisation or growing up, maturing. (Things like a gang member realising that he wants to get married and have kids, and seeing that his lifestyle stands in the way of that.) -> The Lie He Believes vs. the Truth?
- ideology -> The Truth?
- separating oneself from the group -> going on a quest?
- role models -> the mentor again, or other characters like the best friend, the love interest etc?
- being a born leader/rebel -> most fictional heroes are, at least the traditional ones.
Heroes also have to make that hard choice at some point. In the documentary, one hero was a Palestinian woman, who tried to commit suicide by a terrorist bombing on an Israeli military checkpoint. She ended up as a peace activist.
That's some change arc right there. I bet she had to make a hard choice to get where she ended up, too.
So turns out that writers have been using these heroic traits all along.
That's kind of awesome, if you ask me.
Here's to all the heroes, real or fictional. We need more of you in the world.