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
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.
- 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?