Luke Skywalker. Katniss. Harry Potter. Tris. Superman.
Why do we love them? Because they’ve suffered, they’ve sacrificed and they’ve overcome huge obstacles to save the day (or they died trying).
And they do suffer. They lose their loved ones. They are tortured, tormented, forced to make impossible decisions that no one should ever have to make. They are lonely and lost. When they hit bottom – whether it’s at the beginning of their story, the middle, or the end – no one wants to suffer what they’ve suffered because it’s truly horrible.
I wonder if people read about tragic heroes as a way to appease fate – kind of like riding a roller coaster. You’re almost guaranteed to survive when you get on that ride, but maybe you’ve fooled the universe enough so that it looks the other way when when it counts – on that winding snow-covered road when you take the curve too fast, in that crowded movie theater when the gunman shows up, when you – or your child – gets that routine scan just to be sure…
As a writer, I’m fascinated with the voyeuristic compulsion that keeps me glued to the book or screen, routing for the hero – crying with her, cheering with her, hoping against hope that she makes it. And, yes, imagining myself in her shoes.
As the mother of a child with cancer, I’m…careful…about the heroes I create, especially the ones with cancer. My daughter has asked me, in the past, why people say she’s brave, and strong – why they look up to her as a hero when she didn’t ask for this, and she has no choice.
She has no choice.
Do heroes ever have a choice? Isn’t that one of the things that draws us to them? It’s not so much that they’ve had awfulness thrust upon them – so many of us have – but it’s that they took this awfulness and they did something positive with it, maybe even helped someone else, or maybe just SURVIVED it and moved on. Survivors inspire us. They show us that life continues after the worst case scenario. This is incredibly important information to have if you find yourself living the life of a reluctant hero (I imagine).
The children in my books aren’t epic heroes because they have cancer. They are children who have cancer, who happen to become epic heroes. My goal is to accurately represent what it’s like for a child to live with this disease without glorifying it – or dwelling on it. It becomes an aspect of my character’s character – like eye color or hair color, but not the focus of that character.
Cancer likes to stand up and be noticed. It takes things away – sometimes little by little – sometimes all at once. In my first book, I didn’t shy away from this even though I wanted the main protagonist (an 11-year-old girl) to save the world. And – spoiler alert – she does.
In my new book, the main protagonist (a 15-year-old boy) is called on to save multiple worlds. He happens to be in remission at the start of the book, but has battled leukemia three times in his short life. He starts the book out as a hero (at least in my eyes.) My goal is for him to see himself as a hero by the end of the trilogy, and not because he’s survived cancer, but because he truly recognizes his own bravery. I want this character to be a mirror that makes it absolutely crystal clear why a kid with cancer is really a brave, though reluctant, hero.