The true meaning of heroism (by Patty Blount)

This post includes my personal politics. You have been warned.

Last month, I was on a business trip (for my dayjob) and the flight attendant announced our plane held some very important people: three former service men -- one who fought in Korea, another who fought in Desert Storm and a third in uniform, barely old enough to shave, heading home to surprise his mom. 

That got me thinking (the flight was several hours plus I had a connection, so yeah -- I did a LOT of thinking) -- thinking about the people we call HERO and the word's connection to our work -- creating fiction. 

Let's start with the word. We slap it on quite a few people don't deserve it and rarely, if ever, apply it to those who do. 

The dictionary definition of a hero is "a brave person" and willingly marching into battle certainly takes bravery. First responders fall into this category... everyone else runs from danger while they run into it. But I think it's dangerous to assume that just because a person is wearing a uniform, they're automatically a hero. Sometimes, even the most elite organizations sees its fair share of jerks. Sometimes, a person in uniform exploits their power to suit selfish agendas. We've seen this in the Catholic Church, and we've seen it in various police forces. 

Who stops this corruption? Who shuts down this level of deceit? 

Protestors. (Let me be crystal clear on this: protestors, NOT rioters. There is a difference.)

It starts with a single injustice that compels one person to step outside the bounds of what's 'acceptable' and raise a little hell. And that one voice becomes two. And then many. 

And that's how change -- real, positive change -- finally gets made. 

Bill Cameron's amazing post on 11/4 mentioned Colin Kaepernick -- arguably the most hated athlete in sports right now. 

To me, he is a hero. 


Because he didn't remain silent about injustice. You know, America is often called the Great Experiment in Democracy. We're full of ideals about freedom and liberty and civil rights. But for most of us, those are nothing but pretty words. We pledge our allegiance, we stand up for the anthem, but when it comes down to DOING anything? Most of us go back to our sofas and TVs. 

We're hypocrites. 

Unless it's our OWN freedom, liberty, and civil rights under threat -- then it's a different story. Then, we want blood. Take the concept of flag-burning, for example. In 1969, the Supreme Court decided it's not illegal to burn the flag -- and then the Flag Protection Act was passed in 1989 -- and then in 1990, the Supreme Court again ruled flag-burning is protected under the First Amendment. 

It's an act of the utmost insult because the flag represents those ideals -- freedom, liberty, rights. So, I ask you a philosophical question -- when somebody decides to set fire to that symbol -- an act of protest if ever there was one -- doesn't it stand to reason that this person must have witnessed or experienced some horrible form of injustice? For what better way to call attention to that injustice than by using an equally horrible form of protest?  But most of us rarely see the protest itself in such terms. We call it treason, betrayal, and all manner of insults instead of recognizing this as the opportunity it truly is -- an opportunity to continue the great experiment.

Colin K. was outraged by abuse by people in uniform. He protested that injustice in a profound way...a way that caused no physical damage to people or property, and that caused no interference with anyone else's rights. It is a legal protest -- in fact, it's an act that many other countries might punish with prison or death. He carried out this protest fully knowing and accepting the fall-out -- loss of income or even his place on the team, loss of popularity with fans, even threats -- and did it anyway. 

That, right there, is the literal definition of heroism -- "a brave person." 

In a world whose motto has become "Not my circus, not my monkeys," I am inspired by the acts of protest and heroism I'm seeing. Here in New York, a man on a bus saw a pervert touch a child and stopped him, getting arrested in the process. That's heroic. The story unfolding in Standing Rock as I write this is full of heroes. Do you remember the iconic images of Tiananmen Square -- of one lone figure staring down a tank? 


Coming from the romance-writing world as I do, there's a lot of emphasis in creating alpha heroes, the "man's man." In one of my contemporary romances, the hero I'd originally envisioned for the story was slightly goofy, maybe a bit of a nerd. He was quickly vetoed and I wrote the stereotypical alpha. But in YA fiction, we have a lot more flexibility. In young adult fiction, we have the unique opportunity to craft characters who are on the cusp of being heroic. 

SPOILERS: Let's look at some popular fiction -- Harry Potter is a protestor. While most of the wizarding world supported Voldemort or at least, remained silent, he began Dumbledore's Army to fight him. Katniss Everdeen is a protestor...refusing to murder her friend and threatening to kill herself instead. Ian in my own Some Boys, is a protestor. Though he spends a good portion of that book confused, he decides -- and ultimately takes action based on that decision -- what it means to be a good man. He saw an injustice and protested it, knowing he could lose friends, lose his spot on his team.   

I've been paralyzed by fear since the U.S. elections and mourn the loss of the America I knew. I've been forced to listen to people demand that all the protestors be arrested, that flag-burning be made illegal, that it's really not such a bad idea to force Muslims to register and I want to cry. 

Does no one understand that protestors are the heartbeat of America? America was literally BORN in an act of protest -- the Boston Tea Party, which led to the creation of the first Continental Congress. Does no one understand that by legislating displays of patriotism, we would be OUTLAWING freedom? And does no one understand that forcing registration upon segments of our population by basis of their religion or nationality violates/negates/spits in the face of the very civil liberties we boast of?

The groups protesting are increasingly comprised of high school students and this lifts my bleeding heart. As authors, this is our target audience. Young adults who are witnessing things they don't agree with and refusing to stay silent about it. Young adults who will FIX what we just broke. Young adults who are showing us that "America" is not a label you display on a t-shirt -- it's a verb -- it's an ongoing, long-term fight. Our country, our democracy, is only as strong as the citizens who actively and purposefully engage in it (and in this vote, about 46% did NOT).  We get to create the stories and characters who inspire this next generation of heroes -- the next generation of protestors. 


  1. Thank you for this. Watching from Ireland, it sometimes feels like I'm helpless to do anything to affect change in the UK or America. Every extra voice I see raised against what's happening gives me a little more hope.

    I think this is where we, as writers, (and all other creatives) can be a force for good. We can show people sides to an issue they wouldn't normally consider. We can show them the traits that will be needed to pull the world back from the abyssal edge it sits on, and make them root for those heroes to win. The world needs heroes.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Paul. It's so important, now more than ever, to show young adults that one voice can be heard.

  2. As a historian, it is immensely frustrating for me that the very same people protesting the protests idolize our "Founding Fathers." I'm always like...and um, what do you think they were doing?

    1. Yes! That's precisely what I meant by 'hypocrites' in this post... We Americans do a lot of chest-beating and boasting how great we are, how great this country is, but when it comes down to a philosophical argument over what it means to be "free," everybody wants it defined by their terms only. Flag-burning makes me blind with rage, but I will NEVER insist on making it illegal.

  3. A thoughtful, well crafted post. I'm looking forward to our radio interview.


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