A few weeks ago we took a look at what makes a great villain. That seemed to be a fruitful discussion and since I’m still slightly traumatized from my bad movie series, why not look a what makes a great hero?
While it’s usually the villain that steals the limelight, great stories require a great hero. Not necessarily an unbeatable incredible awesome hero, but some kind of relatable figure with generous amounts of goodwill and personality. Unlike the villain, the hero is person in the story that the audience is supposed to sympathize and agree with. The hero is our window to the world of the story. You are supposed to like them. On some level, you actually wouldn’t mind being them.
However nobody likes always successful, always happy, always perfect people. They are annoying. They bug us with their immaculately cleaned toilets and wrinkle-free clothing. And we know that deep down nobody can be thatperfect. They might hide their flaws with precise, but we know they’re there somewhere.
Thus when it comes to a hero of a story, we want someone flawed. Deeply flawed. We want them to have struggles (because we have struggles and so they should too). Ultimately we want them to succeed but we think it should be a constant challenge. Life is full of constant challenges so naturally we expect the same for a hero. And oddly enough, through seeing them overcome constant challenges we grow to like them even more.
A good hero must have a personal obstacle, some overarching problem that humanizes them and creates sympathy for the character inside the audience. There are really only three main sources of the hero’s obstacle that I can think of:
a personal vice
unwillingness to be a hero
Vice is a moral problem. Alienation is a circumstantial problem. Unwillingness is an internal problem. Usually a hero majors in one of these obstacles. Effectively these different problems humanize the hero and lets us in to their personal journey via the universal experiences of trial and temptation.
From these three kinds of obstacles emerge three hero archetypes:
The Cocky Hero has some kind of vice that prevents them from being wholly ethical or socially acceptable.
The Solitary Hero is alienated from those around them for reasons beyond their control
The Unwilling Hero does not want to be a hero and is defined by their personal struggle to take up a hero’s mantle.
A good hero should fall into one of these categories and really own it. I suppose you could have a cocky solitary unwilling hero, but I doubt they would still qualify as a hero and end up being more an anti-hero. A hero might have multiple issues yet should always focus on one tangible problem at a time. After all, in our own lives we find it hard to tackle more than one major problem at a time.
Let’s look at some examples.
The Cocky Hero
The Cocky Hero carries around an easily detectable flaw. Like in real life, most of the time this flaw cannot be completely erased but only minimized and ultimately compensated for by other virtues. Even though they have good intentions, they are often willing to do ignoble things along the way. The audience may root for them to succeed yet at the same time consider themselves morally above them. A major challenge for the Cocky Hero is too overcome their personal flaws in order to complete their sacred heroic task.
007 is the classic Cocky Hero. He’s arrogant, unconcerned with what his superiors’ think of him, and good at his job. He is Britain’s best spy and he always finishes his mission. But he has a vice: he’s emotionally detached. Bond uses women like toys and although its presented as hyper-masculine spy mojo, few people would really want to live a life of empty one night stands and total interpersonal detachment. Despite his prowess with a gun, Bond is made partially inhuman by his inability to connect deeply with or commit to women.
James T. Kirk
In 2009 J.J. Abrams introduced us to a total revamp of the iconic Captain Kirk. Like Bond, he sleeps around with women but his deeper character flaw is risk-taking. Kirk trusts his gut over sound logic, doesn’t care about Starfleet regulation, and leaps headfirst into situations that put himself and his crew in grave danger. Although we admire his confidence and resourcefulness, his unnecessary brashness proves him to be seriously flawed human being along with the rest of us.
The Legend of Korra is an amazing television show anchored by its chipper teenage Avatar-in-training. She is strong-willed and eager to use her powers on behalf of others. It is clear that Korra is both courageous and compassionate. Yet she is held back by a singular character flaw: impatience. Korra tends to rush into battle before she’s fully ready or even knows what she’s getting into. Instead of remaining diligent and devoted to learning air-bending, she takes on life-threatening challenges before she is ready.
Tony Stark is highly intelligent, charismatic, and surprisingly ethical in his use of his Iron Man suit. Frequently he is willing to lay his life down for others, the mark of a true hero. However in public he makes clear that of unique intelligence and prides himself above all. Underneath all that hubris, his real issue is self-reliance. Tony believes only he can handle the world’s threats and takes offense at anyone who tries to help him. In other words, he doesn’t play well with others.
This brand of hero must work on overcoming their vice. If they refuse to change, they become a sort of self-parody eventually. Bond must get out of his hotel bed and get back to work. Kirk must take more measured risks. Korra must learn to have more patience. Tony must compromise and work alongside others.
Since the Cocky Hero tends to be the most immoral or unsympathetic of the archetypes, it helps if they are really good at other things like saving innocent civilians or water-bending or hand-to-hand combat. Even if we don’t admire their personality at least we can admire their skill and the dedication required to learn that skill. If the hero has to be a jerk, at least let them do important heroic things (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).
The Solitary Hero
The Solitary Hero’s obstacle does not come from a personal vice like the Cocky Hero but rather from an external reality that divides them from the people they love. This alienating force is something the Solitary Hero must live with against their will with little hope of having it removed. They may never get to live a normal life so they must make the best of what they have.
When this hero archetype is called to action, they usually arrive with a strong level of intensity that others heroes tend to lack. Because they are already isolated from those closest to them, they have less to lose. Often their heroic acts grant them the solace and purpose they were looking for all along.
The Wolverine is a tragic figure, able to completely heal from any wound yet unable to form lasting attachments with those around him. His long lifespan not only causes him to outlive everyone he love/s but also forces him to carry around the memories of violence and war from his past. It is no accident that Logan is often found in the wilderness apart from the rest of the X-Men and that he is such a volatile force to reckon with.
Bruce Banner’s isolation does not stem from attachment but from self-control. Unable to control his transformations and the brutal rage of his alter ego, he must separate himself from others for their own safety. Even after learning to master his emotions, Banner can never really be sure if he can fully tame the mighty Hulk inside of him. When the beast explodes, Banner is helpless to protect people from himself.
After surviving a traumatic childhood, adult Bruce Wayne rejects his billionaire identity and dons the Batsuit. Effectively Bruce dies and Batman is born. Batman is the real Bruce while Bruce becomes his true mask. This personality split makes it impossible for Bruce to live a normal life or maintain authentic relationships. Fighting crime ultimately consumes Bruce’s entire identity.
The last known survivor of his planet, Kal-El is a man apart. Despite being near indestructible and having the power of flight, Superman can never fully belong with the humans he protects. He is alien. He is an orphan. These truths separate him from the rest of us and make his full integration into society nearly impossible.
Since they are effectively on their own, Solitary Heroes are usually quite capable of handling things by themselves. Logan has adamantium claws. Hulk is an unstoppable juggernaut. Batman is a stealthy ninja. Superman can bend steel. Although they are clothed with immense power, these heroes still lack one of the most basic of human needs: deep loving connections to other people.
Balancing their need for social connection against their need to use their unique station in life for the greater good, Solitary Heroes are them most tragic of the bunch. Their happiness will always be limited by a constant external reminder that they are, to some degree, all alone.
The Unwilling Hero
Unwilling Heroes are distinguished by the fact that they don’t want to be heroes or at the very least are not ready to do what it takes to become one. Their reluctance keeps them from fulfilling the heroic task required of them. Since we as the audience have all sorts of things we don’t want to do, we can easily relate to a hero who suffers from the same dilemma.
Ideally the Unwilling Hero should still have some admirable qualities about them. They may not want to be a hero, but they should be worthy in other ways. If they are both unwilling and unlikeable, that’s a problem. They just need some time but the seeds of heroism should already have started to sprout and manifest themselves in smaller ways.
Despite gaining the faith and trust of Morpheus, Neo doesn’t feel like a hero. He doesn’t see any evidence that he is the One that was prophesied. The Oracle doesn’t give him much reassurance either. He has no confidence in himself yet through his devotion to Morpheus and timely courage, he finally proves himself the hero he never thought he was.
Obstacle: physical strength
As the only volunteer to carry the One Ring into Mordor, Frodo becomes the de facto guardian of Middle Earth. However he is hobbit, small in size and inexperienced in combat. He is physically too weak to even make the arduous journey. But as the Fellowship crumbles, his moral resolve allows him to push through his physical limitations toward his destination.
Katniss is at the mercy of a corrupt regime, forced to fight for her life. She has no control over her situation and yet refuses to kill other tributes except in the case of self-defense. She is powerless to change her situation. By choosing to maintain an ethical stand in spite of her lethal environment, Katniss manages to emerge the deadly Hunger Games as a national hero and a symbol of a mounting resistance.
Luke is not interested in joining Obi-Wan and taking up his father’s lightsaber. After his family’s murder, he finally does decide to join him but he is over eager to enter the fight. Obi-Wan reminds Luke that he is no Jedi. Impatient to complete his training, Luke is not prepared to fully learn the ways of the Force and thus stands no chance against Darth Vader. It takes him two whole movies before he is finally ready to be the hero that he needs to be.
Just because Unwilling Heroes are unwilling does not mean that they can put off their responsibility forever. Even if the situation is beyond their control they do not stand around and do nothing. Perhaps they try to find another way to solve their problem, like Luke becoming a pilot instead of a Jedi or Neo entering the Matrix for a quick rescue. Despite their aversion to being heroes eventually their circumstances, experience, and inner qualities collude to transform them into great heroes.
Heroes of all kinds must be relatable and giving them an obvious flaw is the fastest and best way to do that. However they also have to be likable. If a hero has too many flaws, they become unpleasant. If a hero’s flaws are too cliche, they become bland. Ultimately a good hero needs to have a consistent personality that is also balanced by their unique flaws and limitations as well as personal growth.
We should like heroes and admire them on one level, but yet also be aware of their flaws. We should see them as equal to us in human failing and weakness. In some cases, we might even see ourselves as morally superior. Hey if I treat people better than Bond or Batman, that makes me feel pretty good, right?
But lest we forget, a hero must not exist as a theoretical possibility or live in the realm of good intentions. They must vanquish evil and save other humans. At the very least they must actively care about others and work toward their wellbeing.
A hero absolutely cannot be idle, even if they are wrongheaded and misguided at times. What they do defines them. Not a cape or a reputation or an idea, but their actual behavior. Their actual deeds. We will forgive a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors for a hero who is simply willing to act.
In part two, we’ll look at the other half of a great hero: great character motivation.