In Part Two of this series, “Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes,” I looked at some of the films that inspired me. In this segment, I turn my gaze some of the novels that provide me with inspiration.
Caveat: The N0-Atticus Rule is still in place… Atticus Finch is one of the most inspiring characters in fiction. However, my website is primarily about fitness and martial arts, so for the sake of simplicity I’ll be focusing on fictional heroes who inspire physical greatness. Sorry, Harper Lee.
The James Bond Series by Ian Fleming
Unlike many people, I read several of Fleming’s novels before I ever saw a James Bond movie. If you’ve never read the original books, you’re missing out on a vital part of the 007 experience. And trust me, the book Bond is quite different from the film Bond.
As a model for health and fitness, Fleming’s 007 is problematic. He drinks way too much booze, and smokes about 60 cigarettes a day. Yet throughout the series there are some inspiring passages. I particularly like the parts of Live and Let Die (a book that is vastly superior to the film) describing Bond getting into shape through long swims in the ocean and runs along the beach, followed by a massage. That sounds good to me!
In From Russia With Love, we learn James Bond’s daily fitness regimen, which consists of…
- 20 slow press-ups, done lingeringly
- As many straight-leg lifts in the supine position as will make your stomach muscles scream.
- Enough arm and chest exercises and deep breathing to make you dizzy.
- 20 toe-touchings
Admittedly, this is a pretty mild workout by today’s standards. But I give Fleming credit for bothering to address this topic at all.
There are two extremes of espionage fiction. On one hand, there is the glamorous, exciting, yet totally unrealistic world of Ian Fleming and James Bond. On the other, is the believable, realistic, but occasionally dull realm of John LeCarré. Straddling the middle is Adam Hall (pen name for Elleston Trevor) and his flawed, vaguely neurotic spy Quiller.
Quiller a fascinating character. Unlike James Bond, he doesn’t drink or smoke, nor does he engage in relentless womanizing. He hardly every uses a gun, preferring to use his wits or martial arts skills. (The author of the series was well-versed in both Shotokan karate and Aikido.) Quiller is also the type of individual who relies on herbs and traditional Asian massage to deal with injury and illness. At one point he even mentions he once traveled to Tibet to meditate.
So with Quiller you essentially have a tough, capable secret agent with some rather hippy-trippy, New Age tendencies. And that’s exactly what makes him such an inspirational character to me.
You can learn more about this great series here.
Man on Fire by A.J. Quinnell
This book is probably best known as the inspiration for two films: The first made in 1987 starring Scott Glenn, the second in 2004 with Denzel Washington. Alas, I haven’t seen the Glenn version, but I did enjoy the latter film, even if I thought the last third or so had some serious story flaws.
Unlike the 2004 movie, the 1981 novel Man on Fire takes place in Italy and around the Mediterranean. One thing in particular I liked about the book is how it describes the hero, Marcus Creasy, getting back into shape after being seriously wounded in a gunfight. He doesn’t do anything fancy. Creasy instead retreats to a small island of Gozo in Malta, where he spends his time going on long ocean swims and helping villagers with projects such as building stone walls out of heavy rocks.
Readers of this blog probably know I’m a fan of going on ocean swims. Sometimes when I’m out there and the currents feel especially strong, I think of Creasy’s hard swims and it helps to motivate me to keep going.
Incidentally, Man on Fire is the first of a series featuring the character of Marcus Creasy. I can’t comment on the rest of the books as I haven’t read them, though at some point I will.
Alert! Partial violation of the No-Atticus Rule! This book is the fifth in Rucka’s series about bodyguard Atticus Kodiak, who happens to be names after Atticus Finch. It also marks a turning point in the series. While the first four books were essentially bodyguard-based crime novels, from here on the books become something more akin to international thrillers. Many fans were not happy with the changes, but I think the series went from good to great with this book.
While all the Kodiak books are worth reading, this one really stands out from an inspiration standpoint. Atticus Kodiak finds himself on an island in the Caribbean, where he spends months making learning to be one hell of a badass. The chapter in Critical Space detailing his regimen is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever read. It’s sort of like a written version of a training montage from a movie. Essentially, Atticus spends his time strength training (with lots of pull-ups) and practicing martial arts. To aid in balance and recovery, he uses yoga and ballet. (Don’t scoff at ballet; it’s far more challenging and even dangerous than people realize.) He also goes on long ocean swims. As for diet, Atticus gives up alcohol and caffeine while eating lots of fresh fruit (especially watermelon) and seafood.
By the end of his training, Atticus Finch is essentially a new man. Critical Space is a great example of how a committment to fitness and wellness can lead to something akin to a personal rebirth.
Of all the characters on this list, Elvis and Joe are the characters I most relate to on a personal level. The two of them–Elvis, a smart-aleck private eye with a goofy streak, and Joe, a tough but sensitive Marine-turned-mercenary–each in a way speak to different aspects of my own personality. Other people no doubt feel the same way, as the series is extremely popular.
Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are both smart guys, but they are also each very physical. Both practice yoga, and both are martial artists. There are references throughout the books to Elvis transitioning from yoga moves to Taekwondo forms as part of his morning workout, or Joe learning Wing Chun from a tough old Marine sergeant.
While in personality I’m much more like Elvis, it’s really Joe I find the most inspiring character. My favorite book in the series, L.A. Requiem, details Joe Pike’s transformation from a weak, sensitive child to a very dangerous man. This novel above all others was the biggest inspiration in getting me to get serious about fitness and martial arts.
Oh yes… did I mention Joe Pike is a vegetarian? That’s just icing on the (vegan) cake!
These are my current go-to books for inspiration. Barry Eisler is, in my opinion, the best thriller writer since the genre’s glory days in the ’60s, and his half-American/half-Japanese anti-hero John Rain is probably the coolest assassin in fiction, and one of the best characters since James Bond.
If you’re in to fitness and martial arts, the Rain novels are must-reads. Eisler lived in Japan for many years, where he earned his Judo black belt at the famous Kodokan. He also knows a bit about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kali, Sambo, and other fighting arts. The fight scenes in the novels are brutal, believable, and realistic. If you practice a grappling art, reading Eisler will make you want to put down the book and find a partner to roll with. In fact, sometimes before a hard BJJ session, I find myself thinking a variation of Bruce Lee’s “Be like water.” I think: “Be like Rain!”
Grapplers should be excited to know that going against the typical grain grappling techniques are vividly described in the books many action sequences (in both John Rain’s “field” work and in a visit to the famous Kudokan).
(Quick Aside: Barry Eisler’s great website features a fantastic article called “Practical Martial Arts Tips from Assassin John Rain” that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject.)
Eisler also makes a point to tell us just how John Rain stays in shape. His typical workouts include lots of Hindu Push-Ups and Squats (Matt Furey’s Combat Conditioning is specifically mentioned in some of the book’s acknowledgements), a grappling-based form of shadowboxing, and Pull-Ups. That’s a great, simple, effective approach to fitness, and I’ve been known to do workouts specifically inspired by Rain’s routines. To be honest, while I was familiar with Hindu Push-Ups and Squats, I didn’t do them regularly until is saw them referenced in one of Barry Eisler’s novels. I got inspired, added them to my workouts, and haven’t looked back.
That’s it for this series on Finding Real Life Inspiration from Fictional Heroes. Hope you enjoyed it. I encourage you to take some time and think about your own sources of fictional inspiration.
If you haven’t already, please check out the earlier posts: