The word ‘hero’ is bandied about a lot, especially by the media. But the very fact that it is used so much gives me pause for thought.

What is a hero (or heroine)? What makes a man or woman become a hero? I’m interested after all, because I write stories and, sometimes, they have a hero in them. And, in writing, the term ‘hero’ is one which is applied to the principal character in a story. In other words, it’s not quite the same use as when a person in real life is called a hero.

The definition of a hero in real life, surely, is someone who does something amazing and incredibly brave and saves lives through extraordinary means. In fact, a hero is defined as, ‘a man of distinguished bravery’, and heroic as, ‘supremely courageous; using extreme or elaborate means to obtain a desired result, such as the preserving of life’.

Which begs the question, what is bravery? If a person is trained and equipped and knows the dangers of a situation well enough to act according to their training, can that person then be considered to be a hero, or merely brave? I’m thinking of people like firefighters, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I think what they do is very important and scary. But is it distinguished bravery? How about the soldier faced with enemy fire in a carefully planned battle with huge amounts of support and equipment? Without training any soldier would be useless. But sufficiently trained to not run away and instead deal with the issues in front of them? Is that bravery? Sure, it’s not something I am capable of doing, but I haven’t been trained like them.

But what about the man in street? Let’s say that some disaster has occurred and Joe or Josephine Bloggs is nearby. Let’s say a large passenger ship is in danger of capsizing. People from below decks are striving to reach the surface but there is some sort of blockage. Here, without apparently thinking, and certainly with no training, Joe positions himself so that he can be climbed over and those people can reach safety. But it hurts him so much that he can barely make it out alive. And Josephine, elsewhere, spends time when she could be leaving calmly talking to terrified children, reassuring them that all will be OK and passing them along, one by one until they are all safe. Shouldn’t they be heroes? After all, the situation was new and unexpected, plus they had no training or equipment, yet they saved lives.

What if two firemen with equipment had done the same thing? Does that make them equally heroic?

My point is, i think we need to consider what exactly we mean when we use terms like hero or heroine. Because the more we bandy them about, the less meaning they have. A hero or heroine is not normal. There can never be many of them or else we are all heroes. In a book, it’s easy to write heroic actions, to make a character perform the necessary functions to be called a hero. But in real life, perhaps it’s not so easy.

As an end note, the drug heroin is so called because it has an exhilarating effect, and takes its name from the Greek word for hero. Is being a hero truly intoxicating?

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