Literary Role Models and Self-Revelation

Greek city on a mountain at sunset.
Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

I first wandered into the wild garden of Greek myths in second grade, during our private reading times at school. The classroom bookshelf had a huge picture book of gold, copper, ruby, and charcoal illustrations and (censored) versions of the most famous myths. I learned the melodic Greek and regal Roman names, magic on the tongue (Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno), personalities, and powers of each character. Picking my favorite stories, and my favorite characters, was self-revelation and self-identification.

I picked my favorite goddesses: Athena and Hestia. I liked the serenity of Athena’s name, by her grey eyes, and her domestic and military powers – wisdom, craftsmanship and artistry, and battle strategy. I liked that she stayed relatively innocent amidst the other gods’ drama.

I liked the sweetness and peace of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. I liked the comfort and safety of home that she represented, the love and fellowship that her fire symbolized, and her quietness.

I didn’t like Aphrodite. Her taunting, flaunted beauty and airy carelessness reminded me too much of the pretty, popular, and mean girls whom I judged (unfairly) and envied (foolishly). Her arrogance reminded me too much of what I disliked in myself.

My favorite story was Cupid and Psyche’s. Psyche represented the woman I longed to be: beautiful, desirable, kind, and courageous. I’ve heard readers and scholars complain about the fairy-tale convention of “princesses who just sit around and wait for princes to rescue them.” I liked the idea of being rescued, but I also dreamed of being brave. Psyche was both; she went on a difficult quest, but still was rescued by a handsome husband and lived happily ever after.

These preferences have become valuable memories in adulthood, amber-frozen longings of my eight-year-old self. Though I found many other literary role models, these three help me understand myself better now. I recognize my longing for the qualities that Athena, Hestia, and Psyche symbolized: wisdom, confidence, freedom, security, and of course, unfading beauty.

In college, I struggled to find a paper topic for my “Classical Literature” course (you’d think after a few thousand years there would be more scholarship on ancient Latin and Greek texts), and finally contrasted the character of the goddess-guides in the Aeneid and the Odyssey. My old loyalty to Athena, and dislike of Aphrodite, held up under my research.

In the Odyssey, Athena shepherds her friend Odysseus with compassion and concern. She restores the peace to Ithaca and a joy to his and Penelope’s marriage bed and hearthfire that must have pleased Hestia.

In the Aeneid, Aphrodite hauls her son Aeneas across kingdoms and continents in total indifference to his happiness. She forces him to love, and leave, Dido of Carthage, and brings war and chaos to Italy.

I began my paper with the underlying truth behind the goddess-guides, though now I think my thesis sounds pretentious: wisdom is a better guide than passion.

Eight years old is so young – but remembering my eager search for role models reminds me that yearning to be something more than who we are begins early. My yearning helps me see who I was and who I longed to be.

For Creative Writers

Think about your favorite characters from childhood reading. What did they tell you about your own nature, and what you wanted to be? You can use these reflections in self-examination in personal essay and memoir, as well as in building believable characters.

For example:

Self-reflection

  • If you loved Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter series, was it her intelligence, her kindness, her sense of humor, or her friendships that attracted you? What does this tell you about your self-image?
  • Which is your favorite Marvel or DC Comics superhero, and why? Is it the character’s personality or superpowers that you find most attractive?
  • Have you read a book or watched a movie with a protagonist who you strongly disliked? If so, consider why: what does this tell you about yourself and your own relationships?

Character-building

  • Write down 10-20 fictional characters from various mediums (books, movies, TV, etc.) and genres on pieces of paper and mix them up. Pick 5 and make those the favorite characters of your own character. What does this say about your character’s personality and dreams?
  • Create a map of character traits (cheerful, angry, intelligent, anxious, etc.) for your character: three things they are, three things they want to be, and three things they don’t want to be. Match each character trait with a role model and show how your character’s actions are shaped by their self-perception and dreams.

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