l he Hero Overcomes His One Failing THE HERO who is hampered by a crippling delusion is not aware of the cause of his trouble or, occasionally, even of the fact that he has trouble. Once a man becomes conscious of his delusion, by definition he is free of it. We have seen in Chapter 5 how the false belief is the subject of a frequently used type of slick story. There is another, lesser used plot which, in many ways, parallels the delusion story. It concerns a hero who has a problem of a psychological nature, but a problem of which he is conscious.
A partner in a small air-freight company witnesses the death of one of his young pilots in a plane crash. The hero, after this experience, decides to give up flying. He quits his company and takes an administrative job with a large substantial airline. Most of his friends are pilots with whom he flew in World War II. Flying is their whole life, and now that one of their buddies has quit the air, they become contemptuous of him. They think him a coward. The hero is deeply hurt by these cuts, especially from his ex-partner who continues to run the air-freight company alone. Nonetheless, he has decided that flying is a needlessly risky business. In his administrative position with the large airline, word comes to him one day that this ex-partner has crash-landed on a mountain side which lies along the freight run he had made so many times when flying for his old company. The papers and news broadcasters give the partner up for lost. They maintain that no foot party could possibly reach him in time and that no plane could land on the mountain. It is not known whether the downed pilot is still alive, but Army planes are dropping supplies near the wreck in the hope that the pilot may be able to make use of them.
Despite the fact that the hero suffered some of the severest indignities at the hands of his ex-partner, he decides to take a helicopter and try to make a landing on a shelf on the mountain side which he recalls having observed many times when making the run. Naturally, he manages the landing and rescues his partner. He has proved to himself and his friends that he has overcome his fear of flying, but nonetheless he returns to his desk job with the big airline, more certain than ever that flying is a thankless business.
The classic story in this vein is boringly familiar. It concerns the young man who, either because of a traumatic experience or some innate fear, finds himself unable to perform his duty-be it soldiering in battle, riding a bucking bronco, boxing with a killer fighter, or performing a dangerous circus act. But, in the clutch, the fellow outdoes himself. Of course, he hardly manages the thing spontaneously. Some extraordinary stimulus for overcoming his fear must be presented to him-in the above story, a desire to save the life of a friend.
In its pure form, the story is not apt to be salable to the slicks. It has been done to death by the movies, by the slicks themselves, and most of the other media of popular fictional entertainment. To sell this kind of story there must be some strong, original content-a cop who has become afraid of handling a gun, a paratrooper afraid of jumping, a pathologist afraid of germs. Or else, there must be a switch in the story structure, as with the ex-pilot who after making the one flight necessary to prove he is not a coward then re-retires from the game.
An interesting reversal on the theme appeared recently. A harbor fireman has just been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. About this time, his chief recognizes that our hero is taking too many unnecessary chances in doing his job. The firemen under the lieutenant are coming to distrust his judgment and leadership ability.
The main dramatic incident of the story concerns an immense harbor fire. At it, the hero-lieutenant improvidently puts himself into an extremely dangerous position. His men who feel that the lieutenant is grandstanding do not follow him-except one fireman who, unknown to the lieutenant, has gone aboard the blazing vessel behind the lieutenant. The hero is overcome by smoke and is saved only by his faithful assistant. But before he passes out, the lieutenant realizes that the reason he has been taking such extraordinary chances is that the fear of fires had been growing steadily in him ever since a close call he had had some time back; and to ward off the fear, to prove to himself that he was not a coward, he had turned himself into an impractical daredevil. The rescuing fireman, having seen the fear on the lieutenant's face just before he passed out, realizes this too. After the rescue, of course, the lieutenant becomes a good fireman once again.
The mechanics of the fear that attends a hazardous occupation are peculiar and not much in line with the usual opinions about them. Most paratroopers in training will tell you that the fear of jumping increases and does not diminish with the number of jumps made, and usually has nothing to do with any particular traumatic experience. Combat flight personnel during World War II discovered the same kind of progressively incapacitating fear of combat missions for which there was no cure beside cessation of the dangerous activity.
The one-close-shave kind of thing remains, though, the most acceptable explanation of a debilitating mental block. And the resumption of the activity under stress remains the most acceptable release from that block. By no means is the "one failing" limited to fears of dangers. The problem can be, to use the pretentious phrase, any emotional wound caused by some unpleasant occurrence, association, or situation. Under the love plots, we've come across men and women who were incapable of or unwilling to fall in love because of some past unfortunate amatorial adventure. The young man who has been hidden in the shadow of a dominant elder brother or father is familiar. The feeling of inadequacy in some respect is often the consciously recognized failing of the hero. It can be alcoholism, an impulsion to revenge; on a comic level, stuttering, obesity, shyness, and so on.
But whatever the failing, the success of the story depends on the dramatic potential of the resolution.