Tuesday, June 14, 2022

What Makes a Hero by Merrillee Whren

As writers we are storytellers, and every story needs a hero. The ancient Greeks told stories of their heroes, Jason, Heracles, Perseus, and Odysseus. Slavic and Eastern cultures also had their heroes in stories passed down through the generations. These ancient heroes were often associated with military success, but they often had a fatal flaw that brought them to their demise.

Modern romance stories have a different take on heroes. They often have a flaw, but it isn't fatal. It might be something they work through in the story to become a better person. Here are some of the qualities we find in modern romance heroes: compassion, patience, courage, empathy, humility, confidence, ingenuity, selflessness, perseverance, and honesty. Sometimes romance heroes are working to improve on one of these heroic qualities.

My most recent book is titled Hometown Hero. Zach Dawson doesn't consider himself much of a hero, but Maisey Norberg has thought of him as a hero since she was a little girl. Here is an excerpt that explains why.

“What’s Zach doing now that he’s not playing football?” Maisey walked a fine line between too much interest in Zach and not enough.

Wes shook his head. “Don’t know that either. Haven’t heard much about Zach since he had that terrible injury in the football game right after Christmas last year.”

Maisey tried to block the vision of Zach sandwiched between two monstrous defensive linemen and how his seemingly lifeless body had lain there while medical people rushed onto the field. Even a year later, a sick feeling sat in the pit of her stomach as the images stuck in her mind like a piece of gum on her shoe.

She’d followed his football career along with her parents and most of Kellersburg. High school. College. The pros. She’d watched every game he’d ever played.

And she’d loved him that whole time.

Maisey busied herself by untangling cords and flipping through her sheet music. It wouldn’t do to let on to Wes that Zach interested her. “Yeah, he just kind of fell off the radar.”

But not Maisey’s radar. She hated to admit she cyberstalked him. And now she would share Sunday dinner with the man she’d had a crush on forever. Did Wes even have a clue about her obsession? Hopefully not. Wes had been twelve when Zach went away to college. Slim chance her brother would know about her bad case of puppy love.

Maisey was Zach’s superfan, sometimes an overexuberant one. What would he say if he knew she had saved video clips of his most memorable moments on the field or that she had a scrapbook of articles clipped from newspapers and magazines? What would Wes say?

Wes grinned. “Cool that we’re having dinner with a celebrity.”

“Not cool if you gush over him.” She’d remind herself not to do just that.

“Yeah, I suppose, but I have no idea how to act around someone who’s famous.”

Maisey chuckled. “He used to babysit you. Think of that.”

“I barely remember.” Wes shook his head. “I just remember him playing football. Mom and Dad would take us to the high school games to watch him play, and we would sit with the Dawsons.”

Maisey remembered that, too. She also remembered how her heart almost beat out of her chest when their families spent time together and when Zach smiled at her. Sometimes she’d thought she might melt into a puddle right there in front of him.

And mostly she remembered the day he had rescued her from the class bully.

That day would be forever etched on her mind, the day he’d become not only her crush, but her hero. On a spring afternoon at the end of her second-grade year, as she walked home from school, a boy in her class followed her. She’d ignored him when he called her the teacher’s pet. She’d just prayed she would get home before he carried out his threat to steal her backpack.

She had walked faster and faster, hoping to outdistance him, but her short legs were no competition for the biggest kid in class. Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them away. As she hurried down the sidewalk just a block and a half from her house, she tripped on a crack and sprawled face first on the hard concrete, scraping her hands and knees. The mean kid snatched the backpack that lay beside her and raced away.

Pain radiated through her body as she sat up. Tears stained her cheeks, and she sniffled. She scrambled to her feet, determined to retrieve the backpack. Blood dripping down her legs, she charged after the horrible boy who was only half a block ahead of her.

She ignored the pain as she raced down the sidewalk. “Stop, stop, you meanie! Give me my backpack!”

Just as the boy reached the end of the block, someone sprinted across the street and grabbed the kid by the arm and jerked him to a stop, then grabbed the backpack. Panting and out of breath, Maisey slowed her pace as she squinted and tried to figure out who had rescued her backpack.

“Don’t you ever let me catch you doing that to anyone, especially Maisey. Now get out of here.” The words of the raised voice carried all the way down the block.

Maisey’s heart jumped into her throat as she recognized Zach Dawson, who lived across the street and three doors down from her house. She watched him approach with her backpack slung over his shoulder. Her heart pounded in her chest, like the thundering herd of unicorns that graced her backpack.

“I believe this is yours.” Zach held the pink-and-purple backpack out to her.

Maisey couldn’t find her voice. She merely nodded as she took the backpack and held it close, all the time thinking that Zach had touched it. She would never get a new one.

“Whoa. Are you okay? Looks like you took quite a tumble.” He glanced down at her legs where blood still formed little red rivers.

She nodded again, still unable to speak. Why had she chosen a dress today instead of pants? Pants would’ve given some protection for her knees and hidden her skinny legs from Zach’s eyes.

“You don’t look okay. Let’s get you home.” Zach picked her up and cradled her in his arms, as if she weighed next to nothing. “You let me know if that kid ever bothers you again.”

Maisey still hadn’t found her voice, and she nodded for the third time. Was she dreaming? The pain in her knees told her no.

When Zach reached Maisey’s front porch, he rang the bell with his elbow, then turned the doorknob with the hand of the arm he had under her knees. The door swung open. “Mrs. Norberg, it’s Zach. Maisey’s been hurt.”

In seconds her mom, Annette, hurried into the living room. “Maisey, what happened?”

As Zach set Maisey on the couch and sat beside her, he explained about the bully. After he finished, her mother cleaned and bandaged the wounds. The whole time Zach didn’t move from his spot, and Maisey had relished every moment. Every day for weeks she remembered how it felt to have him hold her.

A grown-up now, Maisey knew her romantic thoughts were the stuff of puppy love and crushes, but that didn’t keep her from thinking about Zach. Today he would grace one of the pews in this church. Could she find her voice to sing with him sitting there? She had to, even though Zach was certainly more famous today than he was all those years ago. She wasn’t a starstruck little girl anymore.

What attributes do you think a hero should have?

Merrillee Whren is the winner of the 2003 Golden Heart Award presented by Romance Writers of American. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of forty-plus years, and has two grown daughters. Connect with her on her Facebook page and sign up for her newsletter.

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