Why We Need Great Characters

Great characters teach us about ourselves and how to survive in the world.

The literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote, “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.”

That’s what stories do for us.

It’s what they’ve always done.

I’m reminded of the 1997 adventure film The Edge, written by David Mamet and directed by Lee Tamahori. It’s about two men, Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who survive a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness. On their journey back to civilization, they discover that a grizzly bear is stalking them.

As Sam Elliott says in The Big Lebowski, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes he eats you.”

In The Edge, our heroes are modern men from the big city. They’re soft and weak. They’re not trained to survive in the wild, let alone to kill a grizzly bear.

But they do have some matches, and on the cover of the match book is an illustration of a lone Native American killing a grizzly bear with nothing but a spear.

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Hopkins plays a self-made billionaire whose personal motto is: “What one man can do, another can do.”

That becomes the mantra of both characters.

And the theme of the movie.

What one man can do, another can do.

Because of that Native American on the match book cover, these modern men come to believe that they, too, can kill a grizzly bear with nothing but a spear.

The illustration becomes a story, and the story becomes a lesson, and the lesson is: a man with a spear can kill a savage beast.

It was something about themselves that they had once known but had long since forgotten.

And in their most desperate hour, when all hope seems lost, these characters are inspired to overcome their fears of the natural world, and to finally became the men they are.

They eat the bear.

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What one man can do, another can do.

This is why we need heroes: to teach us about ourselves, and how to survive in this world.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a caveman, a Cro-Magnon, sitting with your tribe around a campfire twenty thousand years ago.

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You’ve just had a successful hunt. Everyone is feasting and celebrating.

But one woman refuses to eat.

She’s been crying.

Trembling.

When the celebration dies down and bellies are full, the woman finds the courage to speak.

She turns to face the leader of the hunt, and says to him, “What happened to my son?”

And for a long moment no one speaks.

They all knew the boy. They had known and loved his father, who died in a hunt before the boy was born.

But the child grew up to be a trouble-maker. An angry child, and selfish. He was tolerated by the tribe because he was only twelve. But he didn’t have any friends. He was mean to the younger children, which angered the adults and embarrassed his mother.

She had hoped his first hunt would change him, that he would grow into a good man. That he might have something to contribute. To his friends, his family, his people.

But she secretly feared that her son would die in the hunt, killed by someone he had once offended.

So now the mother is afraid to know the truth.

But she needs to know, and so she asks again, “What happened to my son?”

And the leader stands up.

And he tells the story of the hunt.

Two hunting parties set out at dawn, one headed for where the sun rises, and the other for where the sun sets. The first hunting party found nothing, and after many days they returned home with no meat. The second hunting party, too, was out for many days, and was just about to turn back.

But then they found fresh antelope tracks.

It was the young boy who spotted them. The troubled kid nobody liked. His father had been a great tracker, and it seemed the boy had the same gift. He noticed things others did not.

So they followed the tracks, and found the antelope, and killed their prey, bringing down two young bucks.

When the killing was done, the hunting party was exhausted. Before they could start back, they needed to sleep.

In the night, the watchman dozed off.

That’s when the lions came.

They came to steal the carcasses, and when the predators dragged the meat away, it was the boy who woke first.

He gave a shout, grabbed his spear, and charged at a lioness who was stealing their food.

The boy wounded the lion with a stab to her flank.

But the lion fought back, sinking her fangs deep into the boy’s leg.

By the time the other hunters woke and chased away the lions, the boy was nearly dead.

His leg was mangled, and he was losing too much blood. They tried to close the wound with a cloth tied around it, but that couldn’t stop the life from leaking out of him.

“Go home without me,” the boy said. “You feed the tribe. I’ll feed the lions.”

Those were his last words. The boy died, and they buried him in a shallow grave by a big tree near a slow-moving stream. They covered the grave with stones to keep the lions out, and they said prayers to send the boy to their gods.

When the leader of the hunt had finished his story, the mother sat back down.

And for the first time in many days, she ate.

Not because she was hungry, but because it was the final gift from her son, from the boy she had sent away, and from the man he had become, a man she would only ever know in a story.

Also listening to the story that night was a young girl. She was only four years old, but she was old enough to understand it, and she had known the boy, and how he was.

The girl lived a good, long life. In a tribe where most members died in childhood, or in the hunt, or giving birth to their sixth or seventh child, this girl grew up to be a woman who could bear no children. But she could take good care of others, and tell good stories. She lived to be more than sixty years old, the oldest living member of their tribe.

And she kept the story alive.

There is another young boy, thousands of years later, who hears the story, or one much like it. He’s afraid to go out on his first hunt. Because he knows that he may die. But he loves hearing that story. He doesn’t know why he loves that story so much, but he wants to hear it over and over and over again.

In a cave nearby there are images of animals on the wall, left there by some great ancestor, or maybe even by the gods. The boy goes into the cave sometimes with fire in his hand to look at the animals and dream of the hunting boy.

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He thinks about that story all the time.

Because he’s afraid.

He has a deep, secret fear that he has never told anyone.

Not even himself.

Deep down, this boy is afraid of being unloved.

He needs, more than anything in the world, to be loved.

And he never thinks about it in quite this way, but the boy in the hunting story felt unloved too.

Until the very end.

When everyone loved him and remembered him.

And now that boy is a hero for the ages.

So this young boy wants to be like his hero. And when the time comes for him to go out on his own first hunt, he somehow finds the courage deep inside, right where the fear of being unloved is hidden, and he goes out with the older men, to become a man himself.

What one man can do, another can do.

And whatever happens to that boy, or to the millions of others just like him down through the ages, it is because of a story, and a hero, that young men continue to face their fears, find their courage, and join the hunt.

And so the tribe, and the human race, survives.

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