November 15, 2010

archetypes - hero

As promised, today begins my archetypes series (you can read the introduction here)…

The most recognizable role in a story is that of the protagonist – the main character – or the person who changes the most from the beginning to the end of the story. Most films, novels, and games have a single, recognizable character that the audience, reader, or player relates to throughout the story. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Link (from the Zelda franchise) are characters that fall into the role of Hero.

The Hero is the first archetype discussed in the Hero’s Journey, without whom the Hero’s Journey would be impossible. The purpose of the Hero is to give the audience (or reader) a window into the story. He or she is usually the first character we see in a book or movie, and we see the world of the story through their eyes. Without them, the story cannot be told. They have qualities that we as an audience can identify with and recognize in ourselves. These characters, these heroes are driven by universal needs that any human being can understand: to be loved, to be understood, to succeed and survive, and to be free and whole.

Through the Hero, we invest a part of ourselves into their journey and into the world of the story.

Heroes, protagonists, should have these universal qualities for the audience to latch onto. They are not abstract stereotypes with single traits and flat motives. Protagonists are real people (I’ve talked about this in an earlier post here). A real character, like a real person, does not consist of one quality or motivation. Real characters have a unique combination of many qualities and drives, some of them conflicting. A character that has a combination of conflicting qualities is the most interesting to an audience.

Indiana Jones is a near-fearless archeologist, willing to dive into dangerous situations in the name of historical preservation, and yet, he is deathly afraid of snakes. Harry Potter, in Sorcerer’s Stone, struggles to fit in even though he is famous, and he constantly doubts himself even though time and time again, he proves that he is a great young wizard. Bilbo Baggins refuses adventure and constantly wants to go back to Bag End, but he has one of the most spectacular adventures in spite of all that.
Characters should not be single-minded in their goals or actions, and they should not be saintly either. Real people do not consist of only good qualities. Real people have flaws so protagonists should have flaws. Harry Potter doubts himself and has the ridiculous notion that he does not need help with his overall struggle against Voldemort. Heroes should have all those qualities that we can identify with, even the bad ones: revenge, anger, lust, cynicism, despair, and mistrust. Heroes must be unique human beings. The flaws of a protagonist give that particular character somewhere to go. Flaws are a starting point of imperfection or incompleteness from which a character can grow, the character arc.

A well-written Hero might trust of all the wrong people, be strong-willed but feeble-bodied, decisive but uncertain of his decisions, and be overprotective of his allies. It’s the combination of conflicting qualities that gives an audience the sense that the Hero is one of a kind, a real person rather than a stereotypical manufacture.

The Hero, or protagonist, of the story is usually the one who learns or grows the most in the course of the story. They are the ones that overcome obstacles and achieve their goals, but they may also gain new knowledge and wisdom. The protagonist is usually the most active person in the story, and he is the one in control of his own fate. He should perform the decisive action of the story, the life-or-death decision, whatever action that requires taking the most risk or responsibility. Where many writers fail with the Hero’s action in a story is at that peak moment, the most critical point in the story, where the Hero suddenly becomes passive and is rescued by the timely arrival of some outside force, the deus ex machina.

The Hero’s function in a story covers many aspects, but more often than not, the Hero shows the audience how to deal with death. At the heart of every story there is a confrontation with death, if not directly, then there is the threat of death or a symbolic representation of it, where the stakes are success or failure in place of life and death. True heroism is shown in stories when Heroes take the risk that their quest for adventure may lead to danger, loss, or death; they accept the possibility of sacrifice.

Above all the true mark of a Hero is sacrifice, his or her willingness to give something up of value, perhaps their own life, on behalf of others or an ideal. Harry Potter is willing to give up his life to save Ginny Weasley in Chamber of Secrets, a sort of sacrifice he tends to repeat throughout the series. Harry is the ultimate example of the sacrificial Hero. Obi Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself so that Luke and gang can escape from Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As much as I hate this particular scene, Jack sacrifices his life so that Rose can live on in Titanic. Heroes in video games live to sacrifice their time and abilities to save others or defeat the big bad guy. Link spends his entire life battling monsters so that he may defeat Ganondorf and save Zelda. The character in any given RPG (Role-Playing Game) risks their life to save their village, castle, world, or universe.

As is obvious, characters other than the protagonist, or proclaimed Hero, can take on heroic qualities. Luke Skywalker is the hero of Star Wars, and yet Obi Wan takes on the mask of Hero for a short time. Rose is the heroine of Titanic, and Jack has his fair share of heroic moments. In the Harry Potter series, the list of other characters that take on the Hero’s duties is phenomenally long, most notably in Harry Potter’s friends, Ron and Hermione.

There are obviously many different kinds of Heroes, but that is what makes the archetype of Hero so wonderful. Protagonists are not forced to be gung-ho Heroes, willing to risk their lives for anything. They can be doubtful; they can turn to the dark side and come back again. The Hero archetype is a fluid structure, a basis for building a protagonist. Heroes don’t always have to fight evil wizards bent on world domination, and they don’t always have to stand up to the class bully either.  The range of the Hero’s capabilities is fantastically broad, and he doesn’t always have to succeed at his goals.

The point of the archetype is to give a basis for what Heroes do. In mythology, most Heroes follow the same pattern, but that pattern can be applied to anyone or anything. It is not a rigid structure that the writer cannot stray from… It is an attempt of organization, taking the collective unconscious of humankind and applying some sort of order to it.

Read the next post about the Mentor here.

[This interpretation of the archetypes comes from the Hero’s Journey, a universal structure found in mythology and organized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.]


  1. Authors also opt to use a variant of this archetype, the antihero. The antihero essentially is an extreme version of the reluctant hero (for an example of a reluctant hero, see Humphrey Bogart's protagonist in Casablanca), one who has little faith in heroism or morality and tends to act selfishly or malevolently. Antiheroes tend to exist in fictional worlds where ethics remain ambiguous, and the audience only associates with the antihero because s/he is the lesser of the evils or the one whose motivations will lead to the greatest good.

    The other archetypes have similar counter-types, but the antithetical nature of such types only manifests the universality of the original archetypes. These figures are undoubtedly part of our collective subconscious and must be understood without being used as a crutch for lazy writing. As Ms. Johnson says above, the characters must be real.

  2. your love of the monomyth shines forth, Mr. Moreno.