“I was coughing so hard I could hardly stand up, and I wished I had time to take off Dally’s jacket. It was hot. We dropped the last of the kids out as the front of the church started to crumble. Johnny shoved me toward the window. ‘Get out!’ I leaped out the window and heard timber crashing and the flames roaring right behind me.”
— “The Outsiders,” S.E. Hinton
Reading this scene, I am glad that I am on the other side of the page, yet I can feel Ponyboy’s heat and adrenaline as though it were my own. After all, he is about my age. But when he sprints toward the burning church to save the children stuck inside, he seems suddenly older than I am: separate and superior, like a man to a boy. He faces a choice of ultimate consequence, and he chooses well. And I am still sitting on the couch.
Human nature draws us to books, movies and television shows with relatable main characters. We watch them succeed, fail and grow like a childhood friend, or sometimes like a different version of ourselves. We follow the characters through their epic challenges and wonder if we would be the hero were we in their place.
My friends and I are a prime example. After watching any given movie about zombies or an apocalypse or a zombie apocalypse, our conversation usually goes like this:
“Dude, that part when he was in the house and they were jumping out from everywhere? That was freaky! I had to cover my eyes the whole time.”
“That was so scary!” A pause. “But what if that actually happened? Like if everyone we knew turned into zombies, and we had to fight them?”
“Aw, that would be awesome! I’d go all ninja and beat the crap out of them!”
Our genuine excitement almost matches our terror. We are horrified by the prospect of danger and death, but a real crisis would be a rare opportunity to prove ourselves and impress our undead peers. Next comes the frustration that this opportunity is somewhat unlikely, scientifically speaking. This sparks envy, envy towards the guy in the house getting jumped by brain-eating friends and family. That’s just how desperate we are.
Even more desperate, though, would be to don masks and pretend to be the heroes from the big screen taking on street criminals. This is the premise of “Kick-Ass,” a movie featuring a young man who embodies the terror, excitement, frustration and envy felt by those starved for adventure. His methods may be extreme, but his motives are relatable. The rest of us simply use our imagination to fulfill the desires that fate and circumstance never will.
Although not everyone can be Superman, everyone is called to be a human. Most of the time our lives revolve around routine and normalcy, a controlled, synthesized, air-conditioned environment that prevents us from experiencing that other side of the bubble.
Life, the real, raw kind, only exists in moments of bravery and vulnerability, when all padding and pretense are stripped away. A job interview, a camping trip, a freshly met stranger. As Neale Donald Walsch puts it so eloquently, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” We are each the main character in our own story.
The more we exhibit the qualities of our favorite characters, the more our lives will be worth reading. Our stories’ villains may not wear masks and may not plot to take over the world, but they still must be defeated. We may not save the day in a climactic battle of good versus evil, but we define ourselves in the way we respond to the conflicts that come our way, big or small.
And unlike our fictional characters’, our victories are real.
Aidan O’Neill is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, though his secret identity is a freshman at Santa Clara University. If without a working bat signal, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.