Channeling Your Childhood Heroes

by James Scott Bell

When I was a kid the hero I most wanted to be was Zorro.

I never missed an episode of the Walt Disney series starring Guy Williams. What I loved about Zorro was … everything. Cool black mask, black outfit, cape, hat, horse. But most of all his sword. Man, Zorro could blade it with anybody. And whenever he carved a Z in a shirt or on a wall, I thought it the neatest calling card ever.

In second grade I went to Halloween dress-up day as Zorro. I even sang the theme song for the class. Zorro! The fox so cunning and free! Zorro! Who makes the sign of the Z …

I remember finishing the song and waving, just like Zorro does. Check it out:

Some years later I was enraptured by the classic Rouben Mamoulian version of the story, The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power. (I was thrilled, as a film major at UCSB, that I got to chat with Mamoulian, who was our guest one fine day.)

Talk about a perfect adventure movie. First, you have Power at his most handsome (most people don’t know that he was a superb, stage-trained actor as well) poised against the quintessential villain, Basil Rathbone. Lovely Linda Darnell was the romantic interest, and frog-voiced Eugene Pallette played the padre (carrying over from Warner Bros. his Friar Tuck act in The Adventures of Robin Hood).  

Plus, it takes place in Los Angeles! What more could I ask for?

You know the basic story. A corrupt Alcalde has deposed Don Alejandro Vega. He levies heavy taxes on the peons, enforced by his militia. Vega’s son, Don Diego, arrives from Spain to find all this out. Posing as a dandy who dislikes violence, he secretly becomes Zorro to steal the tax money for return to the people, and eventually forces the corrupt Alcalde to leave Los Angeles and re-appoint his father.

It’s all great swashbuckling fun, and leads to what I consider the best swordfight ever filmed. And why was it so?

Because both Power and Rathbone were expert fencers. That was part of their theater training. So there are no doubles and no trick photography. These two really go at it in a choreographed masterpiece.

In fact, take four minutes to enjoy it:

Now, I have a theory that the heroes we loved as kids greatly influence what we write as adults. In my own novels I know I’m always looking for justice. I love characters with a moral code and who know how to fight—physically or mentally. Some wit helps, too.

Just like Zorro.

So … when you get stuck wondering what to write next—either in a WIP or in developing a new idea—go back to your childhood. Brainstorm with:

  • Who were your heroes?
  • What was it about them that you loved?
  • If they could talk to your protagonist and give advice, what would they say?

In fact, why not answer these questions in the comments about one of your childhood heroes?


23 thoughts on “Channeling Your Childhood Heroes

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve thought about my own heroes many times (in a nutshell, Willie Nelson had it right–my heroes have always been cowboys. 8-), but I’d never thought about this angle in relation to my characters. And it immediately gave me a lead for a character in a novel series I’ve been puzzling out. In particular, you just sparked a brainstorm about how a man might go about tracking down his father. Love moments like this! I’ve still got some digging and drilling down to do, but I think it’ll turn out to be a nice lead.

  2. Humphrey Bogart in the four with Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews in Laura, Jimmy Stewart in Dial Northside 777 and Rear Window, and well you get the picture. Then there’s Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past and Farewell, My Lovely, and …….

  3. I, too, loved Zorro. But back then, being a girl was tough. Annie Oakley was a character who wasn’t a sidekick. We didn’t have a lot of heroic female role models.

  4. Pete Rose.

    He laced ’em up tight every game.

    Pete would tell Roy, “don’t do it, man. You’re going to get caught.”

        • Whenever you go to the Hall of Fame Induction and game in Cooperstown, you still see people carrying signs in support of Pete Rose. He was my hero during college (75-76) and for a while after I became a teacher. I loved the irony when Pete was let out of prison early and allowed to finish his prison sentence as a teacher (in Over-the-Rhine).

  5. Ah, justice. And I would add – honor.

    My childhood was full of children books that glorified friendship, unity, small groups working together for the big cause, loyalty, and honor. ( Not like ‘5 friends’ series – I’m too old for that. Those were ex- Yugoslavian books, along with many Polish, Czech, Italian and Hungarian).

    What you get when you add Zane Grey, John Ford, Star Wars and Star Trek into that mix? A LARGE group of friends, consisting of outlaws and semi-criminals, fighting for justice.

    I can’t get rid of that mind set. :/

    I’m unable to write about a single Main Character. I did try. It went well until he started meeting people, and guess what? All of them ended in his group, helping him with the Big Bad Boss. And then sequels.

    When I was in college I wrote westerns for living, about a group (sic!) of Texas Rangers riding around and solving crimes. In fifty-ish novels/novellas I haven’t managed to lose even one episodic character. They all joined my Company. How could they do different when faced with that amount of loyalty, honor and guts? 🙂 Good thing I became aware of my problem, so I made a recurring joke out of it – rangers made bets about every episodic character – would he stay, or would he go.

    Now I’m in thrillers that started with only three main characters doing their justice thing, (a huge improvement) but that first book isn’t written yet. I jumped directly onto number 4, where there are five of them.

    I’m afraid, simply afraid, what would happen if I ever decide to write romance. :/

    • Unless you set that romance in California….

      Fascinating about the group dynamic, Mike. But it clearly informs your work, and gives it your special stamp. Thanks for the input.

    • Mike, your post really resonated with me. Especially this: “books that glorified friendship, unity, small groups working together for the big cause, loyalty, and honor.”
      You are one of the few I’ve read a post on who also gears toward groups.

      Now I can’t say I write exactly that way–I do (thus far) have a key lead character in all my books, but it tends to be at least a few people grouping together to achieve a certain end.

      Glad there are other people out there writing with that thought in mind.

  6. Growing up in the morning shadow of New York City during the hegemony of the Yankees, Mickey Mantle would have to be a major childhood hero. I always wore number 7 on my P.E. uniform. Of course I didn’t know about his personal demons at the time. Winning the Triple Crown, chasing Babe Ruth’s record. What’s not to like.

    I’m not sure his message would be relevant to my current protagonists, but surely his later-in-life mantra about his being a hero but not a role model is worth saying to some protag or other. His basic human story of public stardom combined with private demons can be handled in any number of original stories. Pete Rose and his personal demons too, of course. (Apologies to readers for whom this is obscure ancient history.)

    • All that makes for a deeper protag, doesn’t it? That’s one reason I wasn’t into the super heroes.

      Which reminds me that some of the best 50s Westerns had leads with demons—The Searchers, The Naked Spur, The Tall T.

  7. I can’t believe this…we must’ve been separated at birth.

    Guy Williams as Zorro was my first major crush. Never missed an episode. I had a picture of him on my bedroom wall that I probably cut out of TV Guide. He was major league gorgeous. Never considered that he could have been a seminal influence for my writing…

    Geez, don’t get us in a bar together…we might have to sing the Zorro theme song. Both verses. 🙂

    • You’re on, Kris. I’ll buy!

      I remember having a plastic sword with chalk on the end, they sold that as the Zorro sword and you could use the chalk to make a Z on the sidewalk instead of on somebody’s pants.

  8. Fantastic clip of Power and Rathbone. The wordplay is as sharp as the swordplay. When Power sees the fresh wound on his shoulder, he says, “I needed that scratch to awaken me!”

    Now THAT’S bravado!

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