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?