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What My Military Experience Taught Me About Creating Heroes

In order to write a complex, realistic hero you should get to know one. Luckily, they are all around us.

by John Mangan

Must you be in a war to write about warriors, or be in love to write about lovers? How can you, as a writer, conjure situations that you have never actually experienced?

We all know the story of Hemingway going off to war and how it influenced his writing. But we also know authors who write with convincing authority about environments and people they’ve never actually encountered. How do they do it? What bank of experiences do they draw from to create those believable worlds? And what about those amazing characters they create? Those unforgettable heroes that they spark to life and send rambling through the corridors of our imagination, smashing expectations and thrilling us to the core. Surely, the author must have spent a season campaigning with Spartans to write such heroes.

But the cold reality is that few of us know any actual heroes, and can thus write about them from a place of experience. So, how can we know what they do when the action cools? How do they spend their time when they aren’t kicking ass and saving babies? What do they put in their coffee each morning, villain tears?

Fortunately for me, my years as a combat rescue pilot in Afghanistan and Iraq gave me the opportunity to live and fight alongside genuine heroes. I’ve seen them in glorious action, I’ve also seen them at their weakest and most vulnerable, I know their families and personal struggles intimately. Because of those experiences, creating characters for my novel Into a Dark Frontier came quite naturally. I merely put to pen what I had seen in real life.

But that doesn’t help you out now does it? My experiences are my own, and unfortunately, you can’t dip your pen in my inkwell.

If war taught me anything, it was the banality of heroism. I learned that heroes are ordinary people that find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Heroes, by their very name, are set apart from us common folk and given a title replete with privilege and social standing. We place them on a pedestal, separate them from the general population and turn them into an other. But the truth is they aren’t others—they are us. They don’t teleport in from some alternate universe, they are the men and women we grew up with and work beside every day. They sat beside us back in algebra class and didn’t get elected to the student council. They went to your Homecoming dance and made asses of themselves at the after-party. Yeah, you remember that guy…

So how can you get to know a hero in order to learn what makes them tick? Don’t worry, you don’t have to endure a mortar barrage or breech a terrorist’s lair in order to find a hero. In fact, you can probably find one living quietly on your street.

[Call for Entries: The Popular Fiction Awards]

The truth is that most heroes never joined the military and never went off to war, nor did they ever put on a blue uniform and walk the dark alleys of our cities. Instead, many of them chose to raise a family in a good neighborhood and commute to work each day in a sensible station wagon. Life never afforded them the chance to earn the hero label, but that doesn’t change the inherently heroic nature of their character.

Just pay attention to the people around you, there are subtle tells that give them away. Look for people with an innate sense of duty to their neighbors and co-workers. They do not seek applause and acclaim because their natural focus is on the welfare of others. When there is a crisis they do not flee or stand in stunned inaction, instead, they run to the scene of the disaster. And by disaster, I don’t mean a physical calamity of blood and flames. The disaster may be a friend battling cancer, or suffering a financial setback, or simply nursing a broken heart. Look for people who give of themselves and help others without recompense or recognition.

Do you know a single parent struggling to work while caring for a handicapped child or a sick parent? Do you know somebody who helps the sick and homeless and then doesn’t Facebook about it? Do you know a manager that places the welfare of her employees before her own career? Look for those that genuinely serve others and that’s where you’ll find the character of a hero. Get to know them, learn what makes them tick and how they order their lives. As you spend time with them you’ll learn how to create a complex, living, breathing hero. And when you finally feel that you have their character pegged, go and sift through the back of their refrigerator, inevitably you’ll come across a small, nondescript carton with a hand drawn label that says, Villain Tears.

Try a sip, they’re delicious.

Lt. Col. John Mangan is a decorated combat rescue pilot, novelist and coffeehouse poet. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, was an instructor at the Survival Escape Resistance & Evasion (SERE) school, and is currently an HH-60G, Pave Hawk instructor pilot. He has deployed to the Middle East eight times and has commanded the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron in Kandahar, Afghanistan. His actions in combat have been documented in the books Not a Good Day to DieNone Braver, and Zero Six Bravo. He has flown combat missions with PJs, SEALs, Delta, Rangers, and the SAS. John has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor twice, The Air Medal twelve times, and the 2009 Cheney Award.

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