Why Introverts Make Great Heroes

I wasn’t a novelist when I ran over the Brooklyn Bridge to lower Manhattan and caught the ferry to Hoboken on a whim.

The truth? I was playing hooky—from myself.

I was a solo stage storyteller and journalist. A voice-over artist. The owner of a one-person business who worked alone in an office in Manhattan, across the river from my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Normally in the mornings, I’d do a solo run across the Brooklyn Bridge, turn around once I touch Manhattan, jog home, shower, dress, and ride the subway to my office for a full day (and, sometimes, a full night) of work.

But as much as I liked my own company, there was something about that sunny spring New York City day that made me want to break my own rules.

That day—blame it on the perfect blue skies you can get in New York sometimes—I kept running through Manhattan after I crossed the bridge. The island is pretty narrow there, at the south end. It didn’t take long to run out of land to jog across. And that’s where the ferry came in.

The ferry pulled up to the dock as I was running out of runway. I don’t believe in coincidences. My choice at that moment was pretty clear: I could hop on the ferry and sail off to a place I’d never been before (fun!). Or head back so I could get to work on time (sensible).

As I boarded the ferry, I smiled at the memory of a young man who had approached me in a coffee bar in Italy years earlier. “What sign are you?” he flirted. “I’m a Capricorn. But I don’t believe in astrology,” I rebuffed him.

“But of course, you don’t.” The young man smiled. “The goat, she does not believe in signs.”

It was a pretty weak pick-up line, I admit. But it made me laugh then. I still didn’t believe in signs. But then… Bump! The ferry touched the Hoboken dock. Have you ever seen the Hoboken ferry terminal? It’s a soaring Beaux Arts structure, built in 1907. The waiting room has Tiffany windows with Greek revival motifs.

Beneath this soaring structure (and in my sweaty jogging clothes), I heard myself tell my Self: “I need to write a romantic comedy based on Cupid and Psyche, set in Hoboken. An upbeat, mid-1960s-style movie musical in a book. Soaring and hopeful and gorgeous like this ferry terminal. Funny! With a serious mystery at its heart.”

If you’d heard the way my brain told my Self about this project, you might have thought, as I did, that realizing it would be as easy as heading to my office and typing it out.

“How hard could it be?” I thought as I jogged home from the ferry. Until now, all the stories I’d written and told on stage or the radio had been non-fiction or at least based on a true story. But I’d always wanted to write a story about an invisible hero. The Hoboken ferry terminal had just given me permission.

The Cupid and Psyche story was my favorite tale in Bulfinch’s Mythology. Here’s how I remember it: Psyche, a girl different from her sisters in many ways, is getting the “why don’t you find a nice boy and settle down?” speech from her family.

Psyche’s resilient, odd-duck awesomeness attracts the attention of Cupid, the son of Venus, who’s in town on business. So far, so good. Except that Cupid’s not allowed to date mortal women. So he figures out a plan: he comes to Psyche by night, in the dark. The pair hit it off on what we could call literature’s first big Blind Date.

But when Psyche tells her sisters she’s dating a guy she’s not allowed to see, they think she’s nuts. Or dating a monster.

Since Cupid and Psyche is a story from Greek mythology, things get dark and dangerous. But it’s also a story about misfits on a mission, whose love triumphs in the end.

I knew nothing about introverts when I created my story’s heroes. But from the moment they appeared on the page, I admired how this pair stood up for their unusual dreams and how they used their brains to make their dreams come true.

What defines an introvert heroine or hero?

To me, the difference between traditional and introvert heroes aligns with the classic George Carlin sketch about the difference between football and baseball. In football, opponents fight to claim territory. In baseball, the objective is coming home.

Where traditional heroes use force to fight The Forces of Evil, introvert heroes use their powers of mind as their secret weapon.

Traditional heroes often achieve large measures of personal acclaim in the wake of violent events that leave others injured or lesser-than.

The heroic introvert approach to righting wrongs is more puzzle-master than commando. They deploy skills in place of weapons—a mind attuned to puzzles and riddles, an ability to notice and recall vital sights, sounds, and interpersonal dynamics. The result: solutions to problems that bring people together. Is that sexy in a Hollywood way? Maybe not. Introvert characters are often “unsung heroes” to the world at large. And that’s fine with them. Righting wrongs is its own reward.

The more time I spend with my characters, the more I admire their way of doing things. In heroic terms, Caroline—my Psyche—checks all the boxes. She’s brave, loyal, and devoted to her good works, her friends, and her passions. She’s a tour guide who specializes in overlooked landmarks: glass bottle fish hidden under a highway rampart, a pair of whispering benches in an out of the way park, a minor poet’s gravesite that will change the lives of everyone in the story. Caroline’s a quiet hero.

Jimmy—my book’s Cupid—is a rougher kind of hero. But then again, he’s had a rougher life. Brainy and pushy, he literally became invisible to his peers, his teachers, his family, and the world as a teenager. By the time Caroline meets him, he’s turned his invisible disability into a strength. Cupid’s arrows let him unite couples from a distance. Jimmy, unseen, shoves potential couples together with impunity and great success.

And he rises above his situation with a hero’s grace, New Jersey style. When Caroline asks him why he is the way he is, he answers:

“’Why’ is a question for guys with bigger brains than mine. And if I had the answer to ‘how,’ trust me, Toots, I’d bottle the formula. I’d be rich. You know how many people would like to disappear but still be around?”

Caroline and Jimmy are quiet, quirky heroes who use logic and poetry and math and riddles and music to solve the story’s core mystery and find happiness for themselves and the people they love. Where Hollywood heroes use weapons or chase scenes, Blame It On Hoboken’s dynamic introvert duo relies on their powers of insight, optimism, and kindness—a combo that can melt any shield.

I don’t believe in signs. But on the day I finished Blame It On Hoboken, I handed a print copy to my local mail carrier. He handed me two letters: the lease on my office and my apartment, which were both up for renewal on the same day, two months hence.

My dog and I moved to Colorado a few weeks later. Life was short. America was large. In my suitcase: a novel of bravery and daring, creativity and caring, fueled by quiet heroes I could believe in. As I landed, I thought others in search of quiet heroes might find them good company too.