Read author Rio Youers's exclusive guest post about the unlikely hero in all of us, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his upcoming supernatural thriller, The Forgotten Girl!
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of us didn’t disarm a nuclear weapon today. Likewise, we didn’t parachute out of a burning helicopter or get into a knife fight with an army of muscle-packed henchmen.
Or maybe—depending on the book we’re currently reading—we did.
In a recent interview, Lee Child said that there was an element of wish fulfillment involved in the creation of Jack Reacher—an empowering response to the vulnerabilities of everyday life: to see the world through the eyes of a character who could walk down any street, day or night, and not feel threatened. As a writer, I can see the appeal. We inhabit our characters. It’s as close to body-swapping as we’ll ever get. So why not swap with a total badass?
In good fiction (and Lee Child gives us very good fiction), the same is true for the reader. I love the vicarious rush of stepping into an action hero’s boots—feeling the bullets zip past my head or the sickening crunch of my fist connecting with some thug’s jaw. Most of us teach or work in construction or sell cars/insurance/appliances, but we get to cast aside our normal lives for the ten or so hours that we’re in the company of our favorite badass, whether it’s James Bond, Katniss Everdeen, or Uhtred of Bebbanburg.
Fiction, at its best, elevates and inspires, and the unlikely hero embodies the fight in us all.
But what about the unlikely hero and the very different (but equally worthwhile) thrill they provide? Isn’t there a greater emotional investment in rooting for someone who isn’t ex-special forces, who hasn’t killed 186 people (and counting), and who doesn’t know the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique?
In short, someone just like us.
The unlikely hero is a recurring theme in my fiction. I’m fascinated with the warrior within and often place my everyday characters in dangerous situations where they have to reach deep—draw on their own limited skill-set—to find a resolve.
This is certainly the case with my new novel, The Forgotten Girl, where my protagonist, Harvey Anderson, finds himself in a world of trouble. In his search for a girl he loves but can’t remember, Harvey goes up against a former US senator (and future tyrant) with formidable mind-control abilities, not to mention the relentless, malevolent thugs he surrounds himself with. This sounds like a job for John Wick—heck, even for Captain America—but Harvey is just a regular guy. He could be your brother, your son, or your old pal from high school. He doesn’t have John Wick’s martial arts or firearm skills. He’s a 26-year-old street performer, a pacifist, and a vegetarian.
At one point in the novel, his dad offers him a gun for self-defense, but Harvey turns it down. “I open windows for houseflies,” he says. “What makes you think I could shoot a human being?”
“What if your life depends on it?” his old man says.
And that’s what attracts me as a writer and a reader: the push. How do we react when we find ourselves stacked against the odds? At what point does the warrior within (we all have one) rise up?
Writing The Forgotten Girl was a serious and wonderful challenge, throwing Harvey into some deeply perilous situations and seeing how far he could go purely on the size of his heart. I was also determined that the “thriller” element not be sacrificed and that the reader experiences the same vicarious rush that they get from a Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler novel. It does, however, elicit a different emotional response—one rooted deeply in empathy.
The unlikely hero—not to be confused with the underdog (Rocky Balboa), the reluctant hero (John McClane from Die Hard), the antihero (Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill), or the unsung hero (umm … the cat from Hong Kong Phooey)—has long been an endearing feature in fiction and film. Frodo Baggins is perhaps the greatest example, with his dear old Uncle Bilbo being the second greatest. There’s also Shaun from Shaun of the Dead, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, and my personal favorite, Johnny Smith from Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. The list goes on, with the common denominator for these everyday folk being their ability to rise to the occasion—to unleash the warrior within.
And we root so tirelessly for these characters because we see ourselves and the people we love in them. Simply put, we care. The fact that they're so relatable amps the reader’s interest and emotional investment.
But there’s more to it. Fiction, at its best, elevates and inspires, and the unlikely hero embodies the fight in us all. In a world where the rich and powerful can seemingly get what they want and step all over the little guy in the process, we need characters like Johnny Smith and Frodo Baggins to prove that the mouse really can roar and Goliath really can fall. We don’t have to be Natasha Romanoff to fly in the face of evil and come out on top.
We face challenge and adversity every day. I’m obviously not talking about disarming nuclear bombs or parachuting out of burning helicopters. I’m talking about real, human battles that make us no less the hero: the 60-year-old construction worker training for his first marathon; the insurance salesman enduring his fifth round of chemotherapy; the teacher trying to get her pupils to put down their smartphones and pick up a book.
I get a huge kick out of Lee Child’s novels, and the wish fulfillment he talks about extends to his millions of readers. With Jack Reacher, we invariably say, “I wish I could do that.”
With the unlikely hero, we say, “I can do that.”
And it’s true, you know … we really can be heroes.
Heck, we already are.
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Rio Youers is the British Fantasy Award–nominated author of End Times and Point Hollow. His short fiction has been published in many notable anthologies, and his novel Westlake Soul was nominated for Canada’s prestigious Sunburst Award. Rio lives in southwestern Ontario with his wife, Emily, and their children, Lily and Charlie.