When I’m focused on non-fiction writing, as I have been lately, I tend to watch TV programs that are fictional with an even more critical eye. I don’t know why. If I were watching DVDs or movies in the theater, I’d be doing the same with them. Rare it is then, when I’m in this watching mode, that a TV show would inspire an essay, but that happened this past week.
On Memorial Day evening, Me TV aired old TV war programs in honor of our troops. Both the shows, Combat and 12 O’Clock High, were favored by my parents so we would watch them together as a family. My parents saw them as giving us a taste for history. Combat focused on a squad of infantrymen on the ground in Germany led by a wily sergeant in World War II. 12 O’Clock High focused on the lives and experiences of a fictional bomber squadron and its general based in England during WWII. This show was based on the movie of the same name which was based on the novel of the same name. I found the novel in my local library. The movie is available on DVD.
As I watched these two shows, I noticed first how well written they were, and how simple the plots were. In the first, the squad’s goal was to capture a German soldier and bring him back to camp. In the second, the general’s goal was to lead a successful escape from a POW camp in order to demoralize the German soldiers there and gain the advantage over the German commandant. Neither of these plots would have worked, however, if the sergeant and the general had been wimps in any way.
They were heroes. What does that mean, exactly? First of all, most heroes, but not all, are protagonists of a story and drive the action. They do not need to be the point of view character, although a lot of them are. They must have certain characteristics that lift them above all the other characters — leadership qualities, nobility, honor, trustworthiness, courage, ambition, intelligence, and often, stubbornness. Other characters needn’t like them but they need to respect them. In war movies, commanding officers are prime candidates for heroes, but the lowly grunt can rise to the challenges of the story, too. Often, these heroes have little to help them in the way of weapons, intelligence or personnel.
Heroes also need flaws. Not all need hubris, either. In fact, war heroes usually have been affected by combat — think Saving Private Ryan for example and how Tom Hanks’ hands shook — or they have some other flaw. In Combat, Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) has a temper that’s balanced by his empathy for his squad. He’s also a risk-taker and often his decisions to take risks get them all in trouble. But that makes him human and someone we can relate to. In 12 O’Clock High, General Savage (Robert Lansing) is also dealing with the pressures of command on top of his own terrifying experiences in air combat. Now we’d diagnose him with PTSD.
Need I mention how compelling and satisfying it is to watch heroes in action? I’ve been trying to think of what heroes we have now on TV, whether male or female, and most of them are cops, lawyers or doctors. Reality shows are really non-fiction, and we have quite a few of them on TV now, consuming the time that could have gone to dramas with heroes. As a writer, I really miss being riveted and satisfied while watching a TV show. Seeing these two classic war TV shows last Monday sparked lots of thinking about heroes in stories that relates to my writing, too.
In fact, some of the most suspenseful, riveting TV I’ve seen recently has been classic old TV shows in which the hero and the villain are both well defined and developed. This is indeed a good lesson to learn for writing fiction….