The Greatness Inspired by Bad Things
Like the other bloggers posting here this month, I’ve done some terrible things to my characters. You can’t throw twelve-year-old boys into war, as I do, without some horrific things happening. My boys have been forced to cross enemy lines in the midst of a great battle, slip across an icy harbor in the dead of winter (and the dead of night) to try and save a revolution, and even withstand Gestapo interrogation. Without overtly asking it, I was answering the question that @Bob Krech shared in this space, via Bruce Coville, earlier this month: What’s the WORST thing that can happen now?
As an aside, isn’t that brilliant? I plan to be asking myself that question when I’m plotting and revising from here on out. Because what are we here for if not to torture our characters?
Of course conflict is what keeps readers turning the pages, but in thinking about this month’s theme, I realized that there’s a common thread that weaves its way throughout my books. Not just my Boys of Wartime novels, but also throughout my middle grade biographies of George Washington and Harriet Tubman, and my book for younger readers, I Grew Up to be President. I realized that what I’m really writing about are ordinary people, ordinary kids, who find themselves in extraordinary situations. And in those situations, my subjects discover that they can be extraordinary.
Harriet Tubman began her fight for freedom the first time she ran away from a master at the age of five or six and hid in a pigsty for days to avoid a beating.
All of the men (and soon women, I hope) in I Grew Up to be President started out as ordinary kids—exploring the woods like George Washington, sneaking away to read in his grandfather’s library like Benjamin Harrison, or working the family farm like James A. Garfield. Ordinary kids, and for the most part ordinary childhoods, but yet they grew up to be president.
And of course in my Boys of Wartime novels things get really bad. Daniel, a spy for General Washington, finds himself trying to save the American Revolution when he discovers a traitor in the Commander-in-Chief’s inner circle. Will, after working tirelessly to help the Union during the horrific three-day battle, finds an unlikely friend, a Confederate drummer boy, wounded and in desperate need of medical attention. And Michael, poor Michael, thinks he has led the Gestapo right to his own front door when he brings an ill American pilot home rather than see him arrested by the Nazis in World War II Paris.
But in each of these terrible situations, my ordinary characters, my typical twelve-year-old boys, find the strength and the courage within themselves to be extraordinary.
I’ve never been tested like my characters have. I’ve never sat across from an enemy soldier and thought I might lose my life. I’ve never had to make a desperate journey to save myself and others, but I like to think that in a moment like that, when things are as dark as they can possibly be, I would rise to the occasion like my characters do. And I hope my readers, inspired by Daniel, Will, and Michael and all the real heroes out there, believe that they, too, can do the same.
What I wish for my readers to know is that in their dark moments they can trust themselves to find the strength, the courage, and the daring they need to survive. And so I torture my characters, not only so that my readers will keep turning the pages, but so that they can believe in their own potential for greatness.