What does it take to become a generation worthy of respect? Is there really something special about some generations? Is there something wrong with others?
At a recent book club meeting, we were discussing The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. (This novel depicts the lives of two sisters during World War II, their association with The Resistance and resistance in France during the occupation.)
A few of the members of the group brought up the idea that the characters were indicative of a different generation, of folks who were made of stronger stuff than “kids today.”
Tom Brokaw called those who grew up in the U.S. during World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Certainly, there were tough times: growing up during the depression, facing ration cards and draft notices and becoming Rosy riveters. But would we go so far as to say that people of that generation were somehow better stock than say Generation X or Generation Y (A.K.A. The Millennials)?
There are about a million things wrong with this idea, but I’m going to name just a few.
First, History is Not Written by Minor Characters
Never mind that the book we were discussing was fiction, when you look at history, the person who gave up doesn’t get a lot of screen time.
One of the characters in The Nightingale does almost die of starvation, and if she had, her heroic acts would have never taken place.
Lots of people did not survive even childhood a couple of generations ago. People died. Sometimes for no good reason.
Second, Ordinary People Rise in the Face of Extraordinary Circumstances
In The Nightingale, the characters are not necessarily heroes or would not necessarily have become heroes if they had not been tested.
One of my favorite things about fiction that depicts world-changing disaster is how they often depict how ordinary people with otherwise less-than-noteworthy skills become integral to a decaying landscape. For instance, in The Walking Dead, Glenn Rhee is a pizza delivery guy who benefits the group with his ability to navigate Atlanta and to find supplies.
In the face of World War II, housewives could quietly save lives doing anything from planting gardens and making do with the barely edible to hiding or escorting targeted people to safety.
The idea of adversity turning people to tempered steel is wisdom that goes at least as far back as the Bible (Romans 5, if you’re interested.)
Third, It Was the Best of Times and the Worst of Times
Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities summarizes times of war in the first line:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Troubled times bring out the worst and the best in people. World War II was the time of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, so, it can be argued, there were some villainous people running around during that period in history. In addition, you had men who carried out atrocities in their name.
You also had people who benefited legally and illegally from World War II: war profiteers, bankers, and others. Foyle’s War is a British drama series that highlights how evil money grubbers benefited from wartime.
If you lay claim to all that is good about a generation, you need to look at the bad, the evil, and the cruelty.
I like the idea of creating hardships in my stories, opportunities for characters to become tempered steel. Human beings are at their best during the worst of times. Often our favorite heroes are those who began their lives in very ordinary ways. The more ordinary the beginnings, the more extraordinary the heroism.
And, in any novel, a good protagonist needs a vile villain. Heroism doesn’t spring out of nowhere; rather it is the product of the forces the protagonist must fight, including the antagonist.
Greatness, it would seem, is created against the fire of evil times. Pray that Generation Y know no such need for heroism.