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Me, A Hero?

Ever wanted to save the city you love? Or be part of a legendary group of heroes who protect (or avenge) the world? Chances are, you’re not alone. What Makes a Hero? In today’s entertainment culture saturated with Marvel superheroes, […]
| Dec 15, 2015 | 6 comments |

Ever wanted to save the city you love?

Or be part of a legendary group of heroes who protect (or avenge) the world?

Chances are, you’re not alone.

What Makes a Hero?

In today’s entertainment culture saturated with Marvel superheroes, teenage girls saving their worlds, and powerful characters defeating equally powerful adversaries, it’s easy to develop a skewed concept of what a hero is.

What pictures come to mind?

  • Superman hovering in the air, his cape billowing behind him?
  • Katniss as she refuses to admit defeat and struggles against the Capital with every ounce of strength remaining?
  • Barry Allen zipping through Central City, putting the baddies away and using his spectacular speed to save people?

Heroes, yes, but they only reveal one side of the coin. What do we find when we flip the coin over?

The Ordinary Hero

Image from lotr.wikia.com

Image from lotr.wikia.com

This is the unassuming, not-hero-material hero. Look at Sam Gamgee. An ordinary hobbit whose claims to fame were gardening and serving Master Frodo. In fantasy, you have plenty of examples of the farmboy whose naivety and inexperience outweigh any impressive heroic qualities.

Last time I checked, I’m not an Asgardian god who wields a magical hammer. Pretty sure you’re not, either. (If you are, send me an email. I’d love to get your autograph.) We identify with the lowly characters because they remind us of ourselves.

The more we can relate to them, the more real they become and the more we care about them. Which probably explains the phenomenon of farm boys becoming heroes (but that’s a topic for another time).

Wok Dinners and Heroes

This random quote popped into my head one day and I wrote it down:

One hot summer night, I decided to be a hero. I started by cutting vegetables for a wok dinner.

That seed of a story idea hasn’t gone anywhere to this point, but it illustrates an important point easily lost amid the noise of modern entertainment.

Heroism isn’t a lofty goal attainable only by a select few—the summit of a mountain we could never hope to climb.

You don’t need a cape, a brilliant mind, or staggering powers to be a hero. Neither do you need a vicious foe, an impossible quest, or thousands of lives at stake.

What does this have to do with wok dinners? The reason I included it is that the character saw heroism in the simple task of making dinner. Nothing world-shaking or newsworthy.

That’s the point. We don’t consider ourselves heroes for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the assumption we’re not in any situations where we could be heroic. There’s no dragon threatening to burn down our town, no grand quest overthrow the evil lord.

Chances to be heroic might come, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Unless you shift your perspective.

Think Small, Not Big

Sam didn’t do anything extraordinary—except for sticking by a friend’s side through a trial. His loyalty and love shine out through his actions. His heroism stems from the hundreds of inconsequential things he did for Frodo.

In a similar fashion, maybe we can comfort a hurting friend or support someone through a rough patch in life.

You can’t go around saving lives like Captain America? No worries. People surround us every day who could use a boost or a friendly ear to hear their troubles.

I’m not saying all this to be legalistic and point out all the ways you’re failing at life.

  • “Shame on me, I didn’t take time to notice this problem.”
  • “I could have been a better sibling.”
  • “Why did I let my temper ruin that situation?”

Not at all. What I am saying is this: oftentimes, being a hero isn’t about the big things.

Yes You, a Hero

What makes a hero isn’t power, prestige, a worthy adversary, a world to save. It’s the willingness to sacrifice for someone else, to put the needs of others before your own. Maybe it involves a journey akin to the quest to Mount Doom.

Or maybe it’s as simple as seeing every part of life as an opportunity.

Look around. There are plenty of ways to be a hero. You never know when an act of kindness, encouraging email, or small gesture of assistance—like making dinner—will have a huge impact, a heroic impact, on those around you.

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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Parker J. Cole

So very true. I love Sam in LOTR. His role evolved in such a way. I remember when he stuck that nasty looking spider thing and how I remember thinking, “After a while, you can’t be scared of everything. You gotta fight!” You can’t always ignore the fight around you. Sometimes, you gotta step in and do something!

Rebecca LuElla Miller

When I was reading this, Zac, I remembered an assignment I used to give my English classes—a short paragraph describing your hero. I was blown away the first time because so many picked a superhero. I intended “hero” to mean someone you want to be like, and they missed the point. They immediately thought “someone who saves the day.” Hehehe! Next time I gave that assignment, I was a bit more specific!


R. J. Anderson

Lovely post, Zac. Thanks for writing it. Your comments about Sam reminded me of a LiveJournal post I wrote back in 2002 about a conversation I had with two of my brothers, where we started by talking about the moral underpinnings of LotR, ended up discussing the state of the church and what could be done to improve it, and came to a similar conclusion:

… the church would be much better off if we were all more like hobbits in general and Frodo in particular. Not trying to take the spotlight, not wanting power or glory for ourselves, not even imagining that we could make everything right if we only had the means (i.e. like Boromir with the Ring), but humbly serving each other and quietly doing what God wants us to do, even if other people think we’re crazy to do it.


This is why I often wish for more…well…weak characters in the fantasy I read. I like cool magic as much as the next person, and it can be great fun to watch the Average Hero of the quintessential fantasy story gain awesome powers and pulverize the villains. But sometimes I wish for a character without special powers, Chosen One status, high birth, or even unusual cleverness. I find it very moving to watch someone look frankly at what abilities they do or don’t have, and then faithfully, stubbornly work at what they can do – however small it is.

Sam is a great character in this vein, probably my favorite in LOTR. (Gosh, I need to read those books again!) The obligatory Sanderson reference is Marsh from the Mistborn trilogy. He got the absolute worst deal of any character in the ~20 Sanderson books I’ve read – to expound on why would require spoilers, but suffice to say that he went through a great deal of death, pain, and inner turmoil. Time and time again his plans are foiled and he’s forced to abandon them. But he stubbornly refuses to give up on his ultimate goals. He doesn’t think he can overthrow the Lord Ruler, but he still decides to help Kelsier in the hopes that a future leader can overthrow him. He doesn’t think he can keep Ruin from using him as a pawn, but he still decides to mess up Ruin’s plan as much as he can. In the end, he was arguably the most responsible for the final victory – even though we get maybe 100 pages of him across a ~2,000-page trilogy! He isn’t a Chosen One, his awesome powers and high birth only cause problems for him, he lacks Kelsier’s brilliance and charisma – but he will do everything he can to save the world even if it destroys him.

Ultimately, these characters are the most moving to me because, in a way, I can be them. I can’t get cool magic to help me accomplish my goals. But I can look honestly at my strengths and weaknesses and then do what I can wholeheartedly – trusting my Author to weave me into His story.