Friday, October 16, 2009

What Makes A Hero

What Makes A Hero

Here is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Hero:

greatest-american-heroA hero (heroine in female) (Ancient Greek: ἥρως, hērōs), in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion. Later, hero (male) and heroine (female) came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self sacrifice – that is, heroism – for some greater good, originally of martial courage or excellence but extended to more general moral excellence. (

So the question is, how does this definition fit with the “hero” archetype in The Hero’s Journey?

Most books on fiction writing will tell you that the Hero is the main character of the story, the character with the most to lose, and who must undergo the largest transformation of all. Let’s look at each of these.

Main Character: Most stories center around one main character. This character can be known as the viewpoint character, especially if the story is told in First Person POV. In Third Person, this character has the preponderance of the action and dialog throughout the book. Some writers may attempt to have several main characters (like a Band of Brothers type story). The problem is that you wind up with character starvation…where important parts of the story are left out so the reader winds up not caring about any character. It’s best to focus on one character’s story, and bring in the supporting characters as needed.

Biggest Loser: As the story progresses, a good author continuously raises the stakes. Maybe the story starts out with the main character seeking a donut. (Think Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle). More and more obstacles arise to thwart him on his quest for a simple donut. In almost every story, eventually the main character must risk death, in fact, they must die in order to pass through to the other side. Now this death may be metaphorical, and usually involves the character facing his biggest fear. He must use everything he has learned on his journey in order to succeed.

Transformation: People don’t change. That’s a fact. What makes you angry today will probably make you angry tomorrow. What people do is learn. The deepest, most profound knowledge a person can learn is knowledge about themselves. When it comes down to it, all we are is what we are. The hidden truth is that we can’t change the world, we can only change ourselves. But we can’t really change who we are. So what happens? I believe that it’s about letting a part of ourselves die, and letting another part grow. It’s a rebalancing of our internal structure. It’s figuring out what’s truly important. A hero has a latent ability to be a hero, he just needs to know how and have sufficient motivation.

Now, I’m going to disagree a bit with what I just wrote. The other day I had another epiphany about heroes. One line of thought is that heroes fight an opposing force. Good vs evil. Then I read this post by PurpleClover. I’ve been so focused on Heroes fighting Villains that I lost the true meaning of Hero. It’s all well and good that the Hero face death, and learn something meaningful, blah, blah, blah. This still has nothing to do with being a true Hero. What I’ve described so far doesn’t truly define a hero, it only talks about a couple of characteristics. Even that definition from Wikipedia falls a bit flat. So now I’m going to throw out a new definition:

A True Hero must, by risking death and everything he holds dear, defeat the villain or oppositional force that is threatening someone else.

homer donut Defeating your own demons is not good enough. That’s known as therapy. Yes, in the end, our hero gets the donut. It’s the reward for everything he’s gone through. But perhaps in the end, he gives the donut to someone else. He’s undergone some heroic struggle just to get a donut, but he’s learned that it’s not about getting the donut anymore.

In my new WIP I’m working on for NaNoWriMo, the villain has no ill wishes for the heroine. In fact, he loves her in his own way and wants to marry her, take care of her, all good things. She can’t defeat him just to get out of a sticky situation. She must defeat him because he’s threatening her friends and the whole country with destruction. She needs to realize that she’s been with him and supporting him for all the wrong reasons. Of course, once she breaks off the engagement, he really, really becomes an enemy. Yikes!

So here is my summary of What Makes A Hero:

  • The Hero is the Main Character of a novel.
  • The Hero must be willing to Risk Everything.
  • The Hero cannot succeed without Transformation.
  • Men should write about Heroes, women should write about Heroines. Go with what you know.
  • A true Hero defeats a villain who threatens others.

Did you spot any Bad Advice in here? Disagree with anything? You could win!


  1. Off the top, I would disagree that the hero has to be the main character. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarisse Starling is the hero, but there is no doubting that the story is all about the main character of Hannibal Lecter, who is anything but a hero.

    In writing, all rules are made to be broken if the writer is talented enough to exploit them.

    Great post!

  2. Interesting. The character only appears in 16 minutes of a 118 minute movie, yet you grant him Main Character status? If anything, he has the Mentor role, the Obi Wan Kenobi for Clarisse. The story isn't about him, it's about rescuing a girl from another madman. The story is told through Clarisse's viewpoint which also gives her Main Character status.

  3. Anyone who references Harold and Kumar instantly rises a notch in my estimation :)

    "A True Hero must, by risking death and everything he holds dear, defeat the villain or oppositional force that is threatening someone else"

    YES, such a key factor. A reader may cheer for a main character who overcomes their own personal demon - but it's when the character does it to save/help someone else (be it one person, community, or world) that they reach the status of hero.

  4. Who said anything about the movie? Read the book.

  5. I haven't read the book so I can't comment. But I don't think that these so-called rules can't have successful exceptions. By having exceptions, they don't become invalidated. If I went into the different permutations of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains, this post could fill a book. In general, the hero is the main character, not some random other character who rushes in to save the day. The point of the post isn't who main character is, it's who the hero is.

    So no one has spotted the blatantly obvious piece of bad advice?? It's in there....

  6. Um, is it "Men should write about Heroes, women should write about Heroines. Go with what you know."? (This is Jordan McCollum, BTW).

    Um, also: therapy, eh? ;)

  7. We have a winner! Ding ding ding ding!

    I thought that was pretty obvious from the fact in the previous section, I talk about writing a heroine for NaNoWriMo. I have no idea why I seem more interested in writing books about Heroines. I'm not an effeminate kind of guy, I don't think. I do guy stuff like sports, drinking with buddies, etc. I'm not into girlie stuff, and I hope I write heroines that guys would find interesting.
    And "go with what you know" is patent tripe. By writing, I think an author should extend what they know, learn new things about themselves and the world. Gender knowledge didn't stop JK Rowling from writing her main character as a Hero.

    As far as therapy, well, therapy is all about finding oneself and transforming into a better adjusted person. While a hero must transform, it's not a selfish transformation. He may not be a better person afterwards. He may be broken in some way. But the world is a better place for his efforts. Transformation, risk taking, and being the main character are not sufficient to define a hero, but they are (more or less...thanks Chad!) necessary.

    Jordan--send me an email and we can discuss your prize. Congrats!

  8. I did an assignment of the Hero's Journey using The Lord of the Rings. I really could not decide who was the main character, so instead I chose to do the assignment twice. Once using Frodo and the other using Aragorn. I'm curious. Would you have done the same?

  9. I'm thinking of a couple middle-grade novels I've read recently where the heros are not the main character. These are character-driven novels, not action-driven, where the hero's role is as a catalyst for a decision the MC must make. IOW, the MC is not defeating anything outside of her/himself, but coming to terms with an internal struggle. The hero's action brings that struggle into focus. It's like a hero with a small "h," not a capital "H."

  10. Tina: It's possible to have multiple heroes and multiple main characters/hero's journies in one book. In this case, I would say Frodo is the main Main Character. He does have the most to lose...a fate worse than death...and he learns the most.

    MG: I just finished a YA book that had no Denouement. It just sort of ended with no resolution. Very disappointing. I'd have to read those novels to see what you mean, but pretty much all heroes have to come to terms with an internal struggle. I also wonder if you have to separate "hero to the main character" and "hero to the reader." Whom does the reader root for? That's the real hero.

  11. MG - Not all novelists follow the hero's journey, which could be good or bad. I prefer it. All of my most beloved heros have gone through every step. It doesn't feel complete without it.

  12. I didn't get here soon enough. :) I'm writing about a hero for my nanowrimo project. I really liked the way you laid out the transformation process.

  13. I was going to say that there were a couple of things in the post that I didn't agree with, but most of them seem to be covered in the comments section. And, they were just exceptions to the rule anyway.


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