Digging into History: A Writer’s Guide to the Perfect Hero

Humans LOVE a hero!

Times change, but people don’t. Contrary to what some believe, we’re all born with a human nature that binds us together, forcing us to grow and learn. But along the way, academic progress notwithstanding, mankind has always enjoyed a vicarious thrill. Humans love to cheer champions who pull off glorious feats in battle and game. Add a dash of Cinderella and a hero is born.

But there’s no need to look to the Marvel Universe. Ancient Rome’s chariot racing superstar, Flavius Scorpus, was everything this writer could want. He was born a slave, forever subject to the whims of another who held the power of life and death over him at every turn. But by way of skill, daring, and an incredible lucky streak, Scorpus rose from obscurity to mainline celebrity in the heart of the great empire. In the real world!

Scorpus rocked his world in the only way he could. Full throttle and in front of a crowd of adulating fans.

“Scorpus began racing as a teenager in the outer provinces of the Roman Empire, arriving at the Circus Maximus — Rome’s biggest stadium and racetrack — in A.D. 90, when he was about 21 years old,” according to Fox News.

But how did this slave feel about what he did for a living? Was it the threat of torture, death, or who knows what that led him to risk his neck? A chariot race was no ride in the park.

“A typical Roman race featured 12 chariots, with 48 horses lined up abreast. When the race began, it would have resembled a stampede. Because of this crowded field, one of the most frequent risks on the racetrack was “shipwrecks,” as the Romans called them — when chariots would tumble and crash on the track, becoming harrowing roadblocks for the remaining racers.”

Seriously dangerous sport!

Charioteers tied themselves into their rig in order to keep from falling out. A good thing on one hand, but an obvious disadvantage if one’s chariot was overturned.

Check out this scene from the epic sword and sandal classic Ben Hur. (We are gaga Charleton Heston fans in this house, going so far as to celebrate “Hest-Fest.” I’ll supply details for anyone who’s interested enough to ask. ;^)

The shot of a spirit-filled Judean flying out of his chariot actually happened. It wasn’t planned, but thankfully Heston’s stunt double, a trained rider, managed to survive. White-knuckled cinema history was made. The action happens at the .47 mark but never really ends because this clip is tame compared to real life.

So what do you think? Was Scorpus forced to race? Did he love to race? Did he enjoy his life? His accolades?

Rodin’s “Thinker” makes us think as well. What is the human condition? What bind us all? What drives us?

These are the questions we writers—we humans—attempt to answer in our novels. Insight into the human condition is a writer’s must-have. If you don’t touch the soul, if you don’t key on what drives your reader—or your protagonist—your work is often left to molder. Translation: Give readers what they crave. A hero. Obstacles. Real ones. Give them internal conflict. HIGH stakes. Drama and that conflict of everyday living that forces us to think…especially when we’d prefer to look away.

A young Scorpus may well have been afraid to ride. He may have longed to ride. A part of him may have hated pleasing his masters, and yet the classic teenage condition that leads many young men to believe they’re indestructible may well have driven him. It sure does today. (That’s why car insurance rates for young single men are so high.)

Sometimes it’s not about the gold but the glory!

The lauded charioteer is reported to have earned gold purses equivalent to $15 billion over the course of his ten year career. The Romans loved their games. And they certainly worshiped their heroes.

The following is written of Scorpus:

I am Scorpus, the glory of the noisy Circus, the much-applauded and short-lived darling of Rome. Envious Fate, counting my victories instead of my years, and so believing me old, carried me off in my twenty-sixth year.               Martial, Epigrams 10.53

If you’d like to learn more about this ancient celebrity, check out “Rome’s Chariot Superstar” premiering on the Smithsonian Channel on April 21 at 8 p.m. EDT. And understand that inspiration for our writing–for our heroes–is EVERYWHERE. In current times, and more often than not, in the past for those curious enough to look.

Write ON!

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