Over at Minimum Wage Historian today, we have the story of Jackie Robinson. If you don’t know who he is, click the link. If you know who he is, you’ll be clicking the link anyway.

I remember reading his story for the first time when I was in sixth grade, and I didn’t understand it. I literally could not comprehend the idea that someone wouldn’t be allowed to play baseball because of skin color. I don’t mean that I just didn’t “get” it — I mean that I read the biography I was given in class and didn’t notice anything different about him. I concluded the other people were just mean. It was literally years before it finally clicked and I realized Jackie Robinson’s story was the first time I’d ever read about racism.

It’s important to look back on periods like that to learn from them. We learn how far we’ve come, from a world where you walked through a different door or used a different bathroom depending on your skin color. A world where you couldn’t get a job because of your skin color, or you were told a hotel didn’t have a vacancy, whatever the sign said. A world where — and this one is rarely taught these days — you weren’t even allowed to try on clothes before buying them, because once they were worn by black skin they could never be worn by whites.

It’s important from an historical perspective, to realize how, in the minds of Jackie Robinson’s contemporaries, we’ve practically eradicated racism today. What we have now, what reaches the news reports, is merely a thin shadow of what once was. But it’s important for a writer to understand it as well, because our task is sometimes to write a different culture. Many of you are interested in science fiction and fantasy, and there you frequently have to not only create a different culture, but its entire history as well.

And let’s face it — it’s important because he’s a real-life hero. As Zach says, Jackie Robinson was one of the Fearless. Someone we can all look up to — for his heroism, for his bravery, for his ability to withstand insult, and above all his ability to stand up to it as well. He never gave in. He never said “This is too hard.” He never said “Fine, you win” even once . . . except of course after losing a game, but he rarely lost in the first place.

Real life heroes have an advantage over those we create in stories. The heroes of our fiction have to both seem plausible and feel real. That’s hard, because our real heroes often seem implausible. How believable would he be if we said Jackie Robinson was a fictional character?

But he was real, and we can learn from him. Whether you’re writing a male or female character, whether you’re writing about a sword-wielding barbarian, a laser pistol-toting princess, or a spell-slinging American wizard private eye, you can learn to craft heroes by looking at the real thing. It’s less about what they did than who they are, and how they respond to adversity. Learn to craft that in a fictional character, and you’re halfway to heroic.