Monday, May 17, 2010

Character Archetypes Part I – The Hero

Well I’ve been dragging my feet on starting a new writing series, but here it is. This series will explore the 8 main character archetypes in western fiction, and probably some other character types as well. Note that there are literally thousands of types of characters, but they all share some component of these basic types. No literary character is of only one type; they share many features of all 8 archetypes given the situation, but think of this as the dominant feature set of a given character. A Hero will be Heroic, a Villain will be Villainous, etc, but once in a while, a Hero can also be villainous. It’s not intended to be a box, but a guideline.

Part I –The Hero

drag_warrior This is perhaps the best understood of all the archetypes. Almost every story has a Hero. Generally stories are written around the activities of a single character known as the Protagonist, and almost by definition, that character is the Hero. This is the character the reader roots for, the character that saves the day. I could list the qualities of a hero all day, but here are a few distinguishing characters of a hero:

  • Drive/Motivation – Well any character can be driven, but almost all Heroes have the drive and motivation to alter their circumstances, and this drive pushes them towards success. This drive can be all-consuming, and propels them forward when others fall.
  • Self Sacrifice/Community – Heroes want to improve their world, and are willing to sacrifice everything, up to and including their lives, to help others. If your Hero does not risk death to achieve their goals, then you are leaving something on the table. But this self sacrifice must be for the greater good, and not a pitiful escape from reality.
  • Courage – Heroes are not fearless. But they must face their fears…in fact…they must face their worst fears in order to succeed. This fear could be their biggest motivating factor…but it eventually takes a dose of faith and courage to overcome their biggest obstacles.
  • Mutability/Transformation/Redemption – This is a fancy way of saying that Heroes must be willing to learn and change, and in fact, this may be the one feature that distinguishes them from the Villain—that they can learn from their mistakes and make good next time. In addition, they must change to achieve their goals, otherwise they would have achieved their goals in Chapter One. This is how they achieve redemption, where their crimes or misdeeds are forgiven or excused.
  • Resonance/Empathy – This isn’t as much about the Hero as about the reader. A Hero must face problems that resonate with the reader. A Hero solving a difficult crossword puzzle may not generate as much empathy as a Hero who was fired from his job. Not to say that crossword puzzles aren’t hard but it’s not as big a deal as losing one’s job. Even if your Hero is fighting the hordes of Mordor, it’s really just an allegory for fighting rush-hour traffic on some level, and people can relate to that.
  • Morality – Heroes have a higher sense of morality than the rest of us. After all, it’s through hero stories that we impart the sense of right and wrong to our youth. A Hero eschews dirty tactics and tricks, and won’t utilize human shields etc. He must fight the Villain using his own set of rules and keep to a higher standard. It’s what separates him from the Villain. A Hero would never poison a village just to kill one person. The Villain would.
  • Intelligence/Skill – Many Heroes have an innate intelligence and/or a skill set above and beyond most of us. We live vicariously through them, and aspire to possess even a fraction of their ability. They may use wit and cunning to defeat their enemies, but they keep collateral damage to a minimum.
  • Loyalty – Heroes are essentially people persons, and would rather die than let a friend down.

Hero Traps

  • Mary Sue – A Mary Sue is a Hero without significant flaws and with incredible powers. Imagine Superman without kryptonite. Make your Hero struggle. Give him flaws. Serious flaws. Achilles has his heel. Spiderman had allergies. Wolverine has no memory of the past and can’t fight Magneto. Luke Skywalker had little training and an inherited Dark Side. Your Hero cannot win every fight.
  • Who’s the Hero? – Don’t disguise your Hero, and then surprise! it was Joe all along. Sometimes you might write a Band of Brothers type story but the Hero is usually the one who faces the biggest crisis and must undergo the greatest transformation. Maybe during your draft, the Hero turned out to be someone else than you intended…so revise the story to focus on that character.
  • The Cavalry! – A Hero must solve his own problems. Avoid calling in the Cavalry to save the day. Or fairy godmothers. And if the Cavalry does arrive, it’s just to take the defeated Villain into custody.
  • Stupid Brave – Yes, a Hero has courage, but every Hero has fears, otherwise they become Mary Sue’s. Without fear, your character is a robot, and it also shows that he really doesn’t care about anything, since he doesn’t fear losing anything.
  • Anti-Heroes – Yes, the “bad guy” can be the Hero. You’ve stacked up so many flaws that the character is really a Villain. But if a Villain encompasses those qualities listed above, he can still come across as a Hero. It’s a fine line. However, the “protagonist” of the book need not be the Hero, but it’s usually the case.

What other qualities make a character a Hero?


  1. Great points, especially the hero traps. I'm certainly no expert on anti-heroes, but I don't think a lot of flaws makes a hero an anti-hero. I think it's more about choices. (Makes me think of the Mystery Man quote I used last week: "What happens in the past, off screen, good or bad, does not affect sympathy. It’s what we see the character do in the present that determines how much we will or will not care about that character." — )

    Oh, and I guess another trap is going too far with the flaws/fears/weakness, until we just can't sympathize with that sad sack. (That includes overloading the hero with a depressing backstory that's supposed to justify everything they do.)

  2. @Jordan: Excellent points. I guess what I was trying to say with that anti-hero point is better said like you did: unless you specifically intend to create an anti-hero, don't.
    Note that I didn't say "sympathetic" as a Hero trait. I don't think it's a necessary or defining quality.
    Gregory House is not a sympathetic character (from the show House). He's a jerk. If you knew him you wouldn't like him. But he has all those other qualities mentioned above (except maybe loyalty) because he will do anything to save the lives of his patients.
    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Great post. My first character studies for my heroes somehow always turn out to be what you call Mary Sues (I call them goody-two-shoes), on second think-through they become anti-heroes and then, finally, I can get on with it... ; )

  4. Some nice ideas in there. I think it is important to mention that the hero must have a specific goal, and an obstacle to overcome, which is how he becomes the hero. Heros are made, not born and I think most of the time characters turn into heros by reaching their goals, rather than starting off as heros. Anti Heros are my favourite!

  5. I love what everyone has said! My heroes are always a little less smart than the villians. That's to say, they have more common sense, but on the intelligence scale, they are a little low. The antagonist must have brains to be the antagonist. The hero, while his powers and smarts usually aid him, it's the common sense that saves all at the end of the day. So, for the sake of the plot, I prefer smart anti-heros and prudence in a hero.

  6. I think my favorite type of hero is the reluctant hero. One that doesn't necessarily want to change the world, but can't abide an injustice and does something about it despite himself. Han Solo, John McClane from Die those dark horses!

  7. @Tessa: You want you heroes to be able to do everything. It takes guts to strip them of their skills and abilities and make them struggle.

    @Juanita: I may have skirted around saying that but it's true...however I think all characters should be goal oriented and not just in there for plot convenience. And what good is a hero who cannot achieve their goal? ;)

    @Ivy: My point is that even if the character isn't book-smart, he's savvy in a way that defeats the Villain. My favorite "dumb" hero is Forrest Gump. He may not be smart but in a way that's his greatest asset...he's doesn't recognize danger and succeeds where smart people would fail.

    @Raquel: Technically Han Solo is an "Ally" character archetype, but your point is well made. Heroes are reluctant because they don't want to change. It really has to do with the stakes involved.

  8. YES! That is exactly what I mean! I always get the head-crock, nose twitch, WHAT???? look when I describe my hero. I'm so happy to be in the company of the "smart heroes"! :)
    I am enjoying your blog very much. I'm so glad to have found you.

    p.s. To avoid future head-crocking, I'm going to associate it with Forrest Gump from now on. I think people will get that. Amazing. Totally stealing...thanks!

  9. @Ivy: Thanks for stopping by. Heroes won't have every quality listed above, but there is always something about them that makes them heroic.

  10. This is a great post! I always find the flawed heroes the best kind, and the Mary-Sues the least appealing. I think it's why I prefer Batman to Superman; kryptonite aside, Superman's just so darn perfect.


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