Recently I ran across one of those “greatest” lists. You know the ones: greatest comic book characters, greatest children's literature characters, greatest video games ever made, etc. This one was “the top 25 anime characters of all time” by IGN. I ran into it by accident but before I knew it I was scrolling down, reading every entry in great detail. I was there when things like Toonami first began, and looking through that list I realized that some of my most treasured childhood heroes were on that list. And yes, I mean that. These people weren't just characters to me, they were freakin' heroes. They effected my growth, the way I thought, my views on life, even my very perception of my ideal self and what it means to be the good guy.
This got me thinking. I believe the often underrated power of stories is their ability to influence our lives and shape our views. So, how have stories guided me?
For your enjoyment, I present to you the 11 works of narrative art that shaped my life. Not just caught my imagination or touched my mind, no these are the stories that actively shaped my soul. Without these stories, I would not be the man I am today.
- Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs
I hesitated to include this one, but the list didn't seem right without it. I don't remember a dang thing about this show. Except Fireball lost his memory once, and Colt had a coin that had tails on both sides, and I think there was a girl in there somewhere. And yet, some of my earliest childhood memories are of me and my older brothers bouncing on a trampoline playing Star Sheriffs. It was the first TV show I ever saw that gripped me with its story, that rocked me with drama and adventure, and gave me compelling characters I wanted to get to know. To my little boy mind, Colt the slick blue cowboy was perfection, (but of course John would always call Colt, so I had to be stupid Saber Rider.) I can't even imagine what life would have been like without this beginning, and so this piece of TV history will always have a place on my list.
- That One Book.
That's not the title. I really can't remember what it was called. I have gone to libraries and bookstores to try and find it, but few librarians can help you when you say you're looking for “a book, probably twenty years old or so where a girl and her brother go to another dimension, and there's witches, and the girl's a witch, but at the end she cries and that means she has a soul and that's big because witches, you know, they don't have souls...” Yeah, that never goes well. But while I don't remember much of this book, what I do remember is how I felt as I read it. The friendship between the girl and her brother was so deep that it struck a cord with me. I wanted to be that loyal. I think one of the reasons I loved hanging out with my younger brother, (even at the times we wanted to kill each other) was because of that book. To this day I still hope I'll find it again and rediscover what it was about it that changed my life so profoundly at such a young age.
- Red Dwarf
British humor at it's finest. (sort of.) I loved this show. Even though sometimes it got so dirty that my brothers and I turned it off (little boys either think that stuff's awesome or gross. We were in the later category) we would still be there, week after week, hoping for a great episode. This was my first exposure to British humor, and that taste of Britain has stayed with me my whole life. These weren't heroes to be emulated by any means, but they did more than that: they taught me to laugh. As a boy I never found Looney Tones funny at all. I watched it because it was on, but never because I really enjoyed it. Red Dwarf, however, was the comedy that made me want to be witty, that taught me about humor, turns of phrase, and has fueled my love of British humor ever since. Plus it taught me that sometimes you shouldn't emulate the idiots on TV, and that's an important lesson for anyone to learn.
- Indiana Jones
When I was young I wanted to be an archeologist. In reality I didn't want to be an archeologist, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I must have seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a hundred times growing up, and it's still one of my favorite movies. Here was a man who was manly without being vulgar, strong without being dumb, heroic without being crazy, and dramatic without being serious. To me he was the perfect role model for what a hero should be, and my personal definition of manhood was and still is colored by this story. Here was a guy who could destroy tanks, solve puzzles, fix personal problems, speak fluently in Latin, bow before God and shoot Nazis on his way out the door. And the best part is I always believed in him. James Bond is an icon because he makes you want to BE him, but you know people like him don't actually exist. Indiana Jones, on the other hand, seemed to say to me “Look, I'm manly, strong, smart, and fearless, but not because I'm special. I'm just a guy doing his job; every man should be like me.” Every boy needs a hero to emulate, and Indiana Jones made me feel like I could. And that's pretty awesome.
- Final Fantasy 1
Growing up, my brothers and I had a Nintendo and for years I patiently sad and watched my brothers play their favorite games. Years later, when they'd moved up to Super NES games, I still loved those old titles I'd watched them play and I decreed that with my own money (and a little borrowed) I was going to buy my own Nintendo, and my first game would be Final Fantasy 1. That game, more than any other video game I can recall, changed my life. It was the first time I got to plug into a different world, all my own, and explore it my own way. In a way it was the first sandbox game-not at all like the ones we have now, but it felt that way to me. I could name my characters whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted (if I could beat the wandering monsters of the region) and while there was a main quest to finish and a progression to doing it, when I decided to proceed with that quest was entirely up to me. I was in control, exploring a virtual world at my own discretion. And that twist right before the final battle? No point except to tweak your mind a little? To me, that was the greatest literary twist since learning Samus was a girl. This game turned me on to the power of interactivity, and so will always have a special place in my heart.
When my brothers and I got this table top game, I was put in charge of game mastering for the first time. In my own little boy way I wove together plots, formulated villains and spun stories with my brothers. My grasp of how to create good combat was off, but looking back I actually did a good job with my stories. I was good at it, and that both surprised and delighted me. Spinning stories has been a part of my life ever since. When I think back about that game now I'm sad I don't play it more. And besides, the Sega game based on that world was awesome. Literally, one of the greatest games I've ever played. Any game where you can be greeted at a bar's entrance by a troll wearing a tie deserves respect.
- Star Wars
Denying the impact of Star Wars on my life would be like denying the impact of air. I could quote these movies long before I actually knew what half the lines meant. Star Wars was the epic cycle, the hero's journey, and an education on good and evil all wrapped up in a story my younger mind could understand and my older mind still enjoys. Luke Skywalker was the ultimate hero not because he was great, but because he illustrated perfectly how a whiny little boy could learn to grasp powers beyond his own and become a man. Darth Vader was simultaneously the perfect villain and an illustration of how anyone can be redeemed. And Han Solo? That man was walking proof that you could be edgy, cocky, dangerous, shoot first, and still be a hero in both name and deed. Sometimes I run into film critics that don't like Star Wars and will argue that it's just a campy melodrama. You know what I say to them? EXACTLY! The beauty of Star Wars wasn't and never will be in the film-making used to create it, the beauty of Star Wars was and is in the actual story being told. Critically speaking, Star Wars is narratology at it's finest, and I cannot understate the importance this story to generations of Americans. There are reasons why certain stories and myths survive the ages, and Star Wars has all of them. May it always be counted in their undying ranks.
This post has gone on long enough, so I'll list the top 4 next time. But what do you think? What are the stories that defined your life? We've all got them, (it's why we still tell Grimm's Fairy Tales to our kids) so what's yours?
Thanks for reading,