The Remarkable Life of a Reluctant Hero
All authors are emotionally engaged with their protagonists. I am no exception. I want readers to love my characters as much as I do. That means creating a flawed, three-dimensional protagonist who still has “things to work out.” The Finding Billy Battles series follows Billy from his roots in Kansas, through his career as a journalist, to his final years. Along the way, Billy makes both good and bad choices–just as we all do. He does some extraordinary things–things that some might call “heroic.” But is Billy a hero?
Today’s post is meant to introduce the topic of “heroes”–and heroines–and get us all thinking about what kinds of heroes and heroines readers will love.
What Is a Hero?
The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission defines a hero as “someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety to assume life risk to save or attempt to save the life of another.”
Does that describe William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, the protagonist in my Finding Billy Battles Trilogy?
Yes and no. There are definitely times in the three books when Billy risks his life for others. So, I guess Billy might fit the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission’s definition of a hero. But I don’t think Billy would think of himself that way. Does Billy display courage? Yes, but in most cases, those displays are in response to an attack on him, his family, or a friend.
In Book One of the trilogy (Finding Billy Battles), Billy learns at an early age that there is a thin line between courage and survival. He is just nineteen when he confronts the murderous Bledsoe clan on his old homestead in Western Kansas. During that confrontation, he accidentally kills the malicious matriarch of the clan. It’s an act that will follow and haunt him for the rest of his life. The Bledsoe gang, he soon learns, has long memories and this single violent act will make him a marked man for decades.
As the story evolves, a young Billy interacts with several legendary people who will shape his view of the world and how a man should behave in it. From Wyatt Earp, he learns about nerve and understated courage. From Bat Masterson, he learns about unswerving responsibility and steadfastness. Even the infamous and misunderstood Doc Holliday unwittingly schools Billy about loyalty to one’s friends and comrades. Then, there is his semi-outlaw cousin Charley Higgins, from whom Billy acquires the traits of mental toughness and strength.
Last, but not least, Billy learns a lot about dependability and rectitude from his mother, who was widowed on the wild Kansas plains less than five years after her marriage. Of course, Billy doesn’t recognize or appreciate these life lessons from his mother until much later when he approaches middle age. In that respect, I think he’s like a lot of us. We take our parents for granted, and then they are gone.
These are the attributes and qualities that Billy is fortunate to absorb early in life and shape his character until his dying day. All rolled into one, they provide Billy with the stuff with which to survive and persevere on the wild American frontier and later in places like French Indochina, the Philippines, Mexico, and Germany.Long before the Vietnam war, the French sent troops to Indochina. This image was taken in the 1890s when Billy Battles stepped into a conflict zone.
Is Billy an “Everyman” Hero?
Does that make Billy an “Everyman” hero? Once again, he would contest that description. Billy describes himself best in his introduction to Book One:
“Let me begin by owning up to some pretty terrible things I did during my life. That way, you can make up your mind right now if you want to read further.
“I have killed people. And I am sad to say the first person I killed was a woman. It was entirely unintentional, and to this day, the incident haunts me. The next person I killed was that woman’s grown son, and that was intentional. If you decide to read on, you will learn more about these two people and how they came to die at my hands.
“You will also learn about other things I did—some of which I am not proud of, some of which I am. In the course of my life, I got into a lot of brawls where I had to defend myself and others in a variety of ways. I did so without regret because in each case, someone was trying to do me or someone else harm.
“Now I know the Christian Bible says it is a sin to kill, and in some of these imbroglios, I probably could have walked away and avoided the ensuing violence. I chose not to because I learned early in my life that walking away from a scrap is too often seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice and merely incites bullies and thugs to molest you later on. There were a few individuals who tried their damnedest to put an end to me, but fortunately, I was able to dispatch or incapacitate those malefactors before they could apply the coup de grâce.
“So there you have it—a forewarning about me and my sometimes-turbulent life. As the Romans used to say, “Caveat emptor,” if you decide to continue reading.”
The violence of frontier Kansas, Arizona, and New Mexico was the crucible that transformed a naïve nineteen-year-old teenager into a man. Without a doubt, the young men and women today who are serving in war-ravaged Afghanistan and the hostile Middle East are learning the same lessons Billy did.
Courage, however, is not just a physical manifestation. There is another kind of courage; that unspoken resolve deep within us that permits us to handle tragedy and heartbreak. That’s the kind of courage that Billy lacks early on and that he doesn’t find until later in life.
As Book One ends and Book Two (The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles) begins, Billy, who is now a successful journalist, is struggling with a profound personal loss. His response is to leave those he loves behind and journey to French Indochina. This is not the behavior of a courageous man. In fact, as Billy himself acknowledges, it’s the action of a selfish absconder. Yet, off he goes.
Cowardice and Heroism
As we soon learn in Book Two, Billy is not a physical coward. In fact, he becomes embroiled in the native uprising against the French in Indochina and later is roped into the war in the Philippines—first against the Spanish during the Spanish-American War and afterward against the native Filipinos who wage war against thousands of American troops who refuse to leave after defeating the Spanish.
In French Indochina, Billy is quite possibly the first American combatant in a country that will eventually become Vietnam. While there he reunites with a Vietnamese man he once met in the New Mexico desert. This man, Giang Văn Ba, is now one of the rebel commanders leading the insurgency against the French. Billy sees that the struggle is hopeless against a more powerful enemy with a trained military using superior weapons, but he respects Ba’s doggedness. This man, Billy comes to believe, is a hero, if a doomed one.
Later in the Philippines, Billy is persuaded to take a temporary commission in the Army. His job is to serve as a liaison officer between the commander of U.S. forces and the Twentieth Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment led by a fiery colonel named Frederick Funston—a fellow Kansan.
For the next year, Captain Battles finds himself fighting an enemy that he secretly respects and sympathizes with. The contradiction of that situation is painful for Billy to abide. Nevertheless, he performs with courage while feeling like the unwelcome invader he and the other American troops are.
The courage Billy displays inspires the men around him. But once again, if you were to attribute the “hero” label to him, Billy would undoubtedly object because he performed his duties as a liaison officer while swallowing a generous portion of guilt.
The Third Book Brings New Challenges
At the beginning of Book Three (The Lost Years of Billy Battles), Billy is fifty-four years old and content with his somewhat sedentary life as a newspaper editor in Chicago. He and his wife Katharina have just celebrated fifteen years of married life, and then the bottom falls out. They are persuaded to take on a secret surveillance assignment for the Army officer Billy and Katharina had befriended in the Philippines. Frederick Funston (now a general) sends them to the Mexican city of Veracruz.Veracruz, Mexico Ca 1900
That assignment triggers a series of other dangerous missions that Billy undertakes. Once again, even at the half-century point of his existence, Billy’s life is charged with danger. If I were to interview Billy and ask why he decided to embark on such perilous assignments at his age, he would no doubt answer: “Because I felt it was the right thing to do.”
A Reporter in Real Life
There is an undeniable similarity between Billy’s later life and mine. For example, I decided to stop covering war when I hit fifty. Of course, unlike Billy, I never participated in any of the wars and revolutions I covered. I remained, as much as possible, strictly an observer.Ron Yates in Bangkok, 1985.
That said, in El Salvador, I did carry a 9 mm automatic pistol on those occasions when I was in a dodgy area. El Salvador was maybe the most dangerous revolution I ever covered, and I was determined to go down fighting rather than allow myself to be helplessly executed by some revolutionary guerilla band or a government death squad.
I genuinely enjoyed writing about this time in Billy’s life because it mirrors my current stage of life and I could identify with him a lot more than I could a thirty-year-old man. Does that mean that after his adventures in Mexico I allowed Billy to retire to a rocking chair in Chicago? Not on your life. In the wake of another personal tragedy he once again fogs it out of the country and back to Asia where twenty more years of adventure and peril await.
At this time, Billy is living in the Philippines attempting to ease back into a conventional, non-violent life. And he does, up to a point. But after a few adventures in the Philippines, he once again finds himself in French Indochina helping an old friend and risking his life once again. That’s Billy, through and through. He is always there for his friends—even if it means putting his life on the line.
During this time Billy often thinks about those from his past who had an impact on his character—Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Bill Tilghman, his cousin, Charley Higgins, and, of course, his mother. By now, Billy is a man well into his sixties who is extremely comfortable in his own skin. He knows how he will react in a crisis or when his life, or that of others, is on the line.
He is, shall we say, “battle-tested.” There is a scene in Book Three when Billy is about ninety that he finds himself forced to respond to a minor threat. His “past self” kicks in and the men he’s facing back down, mumbling that even at his advanced age, Billy has “eyes that would chill a side of beef.”
The more I wrote the trilogy, the more I began to feel that Billy and I have a unique bond. After all, we lived together almost every day for the past six years as I told his story. I have no doubt that he knows me just as well as I know him.
Heroism and Flaws
As with most human beings, Billy made mistakes during his life—some pretty big ones. I did too, maybe not quite as big as Billy’s, but like his mistakes, mine had an impact on my life. As for Billy, at a couple of points, he looks back on his life and decides that despite some significant regrets, for the most part, he lived his life as he wanted—with courage and integrity.
Of those two words, I think Billy and I both find integrity the most important. Courage is a quality that can be summoned from somewhere inside us when it is required. Integrity, however, is an attribute that dwells closer to the surface of our being; a quintessence that guides our everyday conduct and actions and helps us live righteous and honorable lives. Billy and I are undeniably in agreement on that point.
Funny. Now that the trilogy is finished, I find myself having “conversations” with Billy. In a way, I wish I could resurrect him, but that’s impossible. Instead, I find myself sometimes wondering, “I wonder what Billy would do in this situation?”
Sometimes he answers.
That’s when I decide to retreat to the patio and drink a cold beer.
Here’s where you can order the Finding Billy Battle Trilogy: