5 Characteristics of a Hero

Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn

Ten years ago I began writing a fantasy epic.  I spent months building my own world, complete with fresh mythologies and exotic cultures.  I had a great villain and an original plot.  Everything appeared to be in place for me to write a first class novel.  Sadly, a quarter of the way through a terrible realization hit me: my hero sucked.

My story’s hero was one dimensional and boring.  Sure, he could swing a sword.  But he wasn’t a man of any depth or character.  Worst of all, he was passive instead of proactive.  Things happened to him, and all that he did was react.  At no point did he make a bold decision that moved the story forward.  He didn’t possess the qualities of a hero, but rather those of a victim.

So what are the characteristics of a hero?

Courageous

A hero is willing to face his fears, and meet them head on.  He or she is willing to make hard decisions, even when the likely outcome is grim.  He’s committed to a notion of what is right or just, and has the determination to keep pushing forward no matter what.

An example of a courageous hero is Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings.  He’s determined to journey into the Dark Lord’s stronghold, because it’s the only way to save his homeland.  Along the way he loses most of his companions, and things keep getting worse.  Still, he keeps pushing forward, one painful step at a time, because it’s the right thing to do.

Skilled

A hero is very good at something.  He possesses an important skill which makes it possible to face overwhelming odds and have a chance of success.

Frodo is unusually skilled in languages and lore.  Aragorn is a talented swordsman with the power to heal others.  Harry Potter has uncanny prowess in riding a broom and learning the magical arts.

Sacrificial

At some point in the story, the hero is willing to give up his life.  In some cases this takes the form of a sacrificial death.  In others, the hero is willing to face serious danger, which is likely to result in his own demise.  In each instance, the odds of survival are slim, and the risk is taken for the well-being of others.

Frodo journeys to the heart of Mordor, knowing that the quest will claim his life.  Aragorn leads a suicide mission to the Black Gates, trying to buy time for the ring bearer.  Harry voluntarily surrenders himself to Voldemort, giving his life to save his friends.

Destined

There is something about the hero which makes him the right person to meet the challenge.  He is destined to face the source of the danger, and is especially suited to do so.  This could be due to heredity, history, prophecy or the will of God.

Harry Potter’s parents were slain by Voldemort, with whom he shares a psychic bond.  Aragorn is the heir to the throne of Gondor, and must reclaim his kingdom.  Frodo Baggins inherited the ring, and is told by Gandalf that providence meant for him to bear it.

Wounded

Every hero has a wound.  Like their villain counterparts, heroes are scarred in some significant way, either physically or emotionally.  Often the wound takes the form of a fatal weakness, making the hero vulnerable and imperfect.

Aragorn is plagued by self-doubt, and blames himself for the fellowship’s misfortunes.  Harry Potter is literally scarred by Voldemort as an infant.  Frodo becomes enslaved to the power of the ring, which results in the disfigurement of his hand.

Other Characteristics

These characteristics are common among most heroes, and are a starting point for creating a heroic character.  However, this list is not exhaustive.  The are other qualities of a hero which I haven’t included.

Which characteristics of a hero would you add to this list?

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

24 Responses to 5 Characteristics of a Hero

  1. Don’t forget “Principled”. The classic fantasy hero has a definite moral code. They are ethical and believe that things should be done a certain way. This often leads them directly to crusade against Evil and Chaos. It also leads them into trouble, because the stubborn hero can’t look the other way when something immoral is happening. Witness Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones…
    Epsilon Rex recently posted…90 – No ‘I’ In ‘Team’My Profile

  2. I believe a hero also has to be active — the actor in a scene, not the passive one. We want to do, we want to cheer for a person who is doing. Choosing wrong, maybe, but then cleaning it up and going on.

  3. BlueTressym  Heroes are always male. But yes there are many a fine Heroine to be found in lit and history

  4. I think a lot of it has to do with personal choice. I like a hero that manages to survive due to perseverance, heart, and a little bit of luck. It’s not about how much they have at their back, it’s about me seeing them and thinking if they can do it, I can do it. My favorite heroes make bad choices, stumbled a lot, and sometimes need the help of others to get to their goal. They fall into temptation from time to time but they pick themselves up, rebuild, and fight onward. That’s the best kinds of villains.

  5. Screw it! I’m going to create a hero that isn’t very strong, fmacking retarded, a criminal, skinny, and with no form of common sense! But, he/she will always somehow inspire, somehow always be there for his/her friends. Someone who doesn’t care about moral code crap and just does what they want, as long as it doesn’t kill someone he/she’ll do it no sweat. But they never give up! Kinda like Monkey D. Luffy!

  6. While I do somewhat agree with this article, it does give reason for a good deal of aspiring fantasy authors to blantantly copy character models provided by J.R. Tolkien fame.  While Aragorn is a deeply complex reluctant hero, all of the above herioc characteristics have been rehashed in so many fantasy epics that they have, indeed, become quite cliche and trite. Contemporary fantasy does not need to follow the classic model that, initially, had once been quite innovative and unique. The door-stopper fantasy epic was not common place — the tale of Frodo and co. was something so different and ground-breaking that it was panned by its conformist audience.  Hopefully the fantasy genre will once again break some ground…

    A hero does not need to be all of those things to be intrriguing, or even any of them.  Deliberately copying character traits from your favorite authors will never make a character likeabe, except maybe to a certain audience that prefers reading the same sort of story-line over and over and over.

    • Hi Rose,

      Thank you for the comment.

      While I use Aragon as an example throughout this article, the characteristics described here precede Tolkien by many centuries.  In fact, these characteristics can be identified in many of the heroes of Greek mythology, as well as the mythologies of other cultures.

      Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces offers a good overview of this.

      That being said, I do agree that a hero doesn’t need all of these characteristics.  Sometimes breaking with convention is a good thing.

      However, if you were to create a protagonist with none of these characteristics, he or she would certainly not be “heroic.”

  7. A true characteristic to a hero is counterbalance.  I’ll share this in two parts.
    One, they can’t have all these pros and very little cons.  If they’re strong, they can’t be the smartest too because then there’s no room for that “other” character who could be viewed as the smartest character that ends up helping the hero.  This idea helps drive character relationships. 
    Two, a good hero needs a good villain.  Why persevere?  Why have motivation or power or any of the other virtues you all have written (all of which are great examples)

    On a side note, I love Maximus -he’s raw, and his pain and anger read true toward his hopes of finding peace within himself.
     
    A vallain or a protagonistic circumstance must equally test the hero’s existence.  Without it, readers won’t feel invested in realizing what the hero is capable of.

    Very good topic.

  8. Has big sword
    is number 1? So size does really matter… and apparently a lot.
    :)

    Very good
    discussion on a principal aspect of good story telling. I particularly like the
    addition of the flaw characteristic which is closely related to what Antonio
    classifies as wounded. Personally, I like to double up on these and have my
    heros have an emotional or moral flaw as well as a physical wound. The emotional
    baggage or moral flaw keeps the hero from appearing too vanilla and one
    dimensional which invariably leads to predictability; and the physical wounds
    not only demonstrates that they can be hurt or even killed, but also provides
    another challenge or obstacle that must be overcome.

    I would also
    agree with the points Brian and Lawrence in that a true hero should have some
    overriding value that makes him/her morally redeemable. I realize that is a
    personal preference, but I would hope the majority opinion is to root, relate,
    and aspire to goodness rather than evil. That is not to say, we shouldn’t
    include characters that are immoral and yet enjoyable, nor should they be
    relegated to the roles of antagonists or fodder. These are the characters we
    love to hate and sometimes find that we are rooting for them; perhaps hoping
    they will turn out okay. Tyrion Lannister (Martins’ Game of Thrones) is a good
    example of this, though I am only part way through the 3rd book, so I do not
    have a final opinion on that.

    In any event,
    keep up the lively discussion. And as usual, thank you Sir Drago for yet another
    interesting and relevant topic.

  9. The traits you include are really good. They make for a believable hero that I could care about and cheer on. Aragorn is a terrific character. Sam Gamgee is wonderful too…so honest, good hearted, loyal and brave. Give me heroes with flaws yes, but keep them good and true :-)

    Maybe I am in a minority, but I have to confess that I struggled to get onside with Maximus in Gladiator. Ok, he was fighting for his life in the arena and it was kill or be killed…but the movie did not portray any sense of sorrow in him for the hapless guys he sliced to pieces, who were fathers and husbands and sons too. Yeah he was a hard as nails soldier, and life was cheap. But for hero value, give me Kubricks Spartacus over Scotts Gladiator anytime. IMHO

    • Afraid I have to disagree with you about Maximus…he was my favorite kind of “hero.” One with a kind of dark motivation. He was not all about good and noble moralities, he was about REVENGE. Wife and son killed, out for blood and ripping off faces to get to the object of his vengeance.

      Which leads to what I think is the most important characteristic for a hero to have: MOTIVATION. WHY did Hero X get up off of his comfy couch to go out and save the world or topple the tyrant or save the whales? What motivated him/her?

      Revenge is one example of a strong motivation, which is why I loved the character so much…I wanted him to get his revenge. Heroes that do heroic deeds just because they are heroic heroes bore me. I’m not heroic. But if someone took out a couple of my family members, I’d rip off some faces.

      • Maximus was noble, just not that good :-) You make a nice point…revenge is a powerful motivator and as reader of a story like that of Gladiator, taps into our strong desire for justice, and retribution on those who commit evil.

        As writers we should be aware of such motivators that we can use to build powerful connections between our heroes and our readers. As you say, you were engaged in the hero and his quest, willing him on to revenge. However, I personally am more attracted to altruism in a hero. Especially preferred to cheering on a hero so all consumed by revenge that he has no care for the innocent shmucks he obliterates on the way.

        Sure..Maximus had little choice in the arena killing. But he lost my support by leaving out any emotion in the man except blind revenge. Perhaps it was less a story of heroics and more a story of the destruction that so often comes through selfish ambition and vanity (Commodus) just my opinion though. 

  10. It’s probably not the correct word but I would say a good characteristic a hero should have would be Powerful. Not in the idea of strength but in the idea that even though he isn’t the smartest, charismatic, or even not the most approachable, that people still seem to flock to him. To hear what they have to say or fight for/support him. That even when he’s been beaten, knocked down, broken and bleeding he still gets up to continue fighting; protecting those that he cares for and stands with him. 

    • I would disagree with you there, TwilightSanada. Sometimes the best heroes are the ones who go it alone, whether by choice or not. On the one hand the lone stranger is mysterious and interesting to the reader, but often drives other characters away. On the other, the character who has alienated his family and friends, or lost them through no fault of his own, or been betrayed by them, but continues on with his goal regardless can be one of the most compelling types of hero. The idea that he has to go it alone, that he’s got nobody to rely on or to get his back or to hold his head up when he’s at his lowest point, means that it’s all on him. There’s nobody else who is going to solve his problems for him.

  11. I think above all, a hero must be redeemable. I don’t have to like everything about a hero, I don’t have to agree with everything he does, but I must find him redeemable enough to read the next page. I must be able to empathize with his decisions. For instance, in the 5th Harry Potter book, Harry was kind of an ass. Somehow, despite this, I was still on Harry’s side and I even understood what he was feeling. In Fellowship of the Rings, I was willing to continue reading Frodo’s story even though he falls down every two minutes or so (or is that just in the movie?). I kept reading about Frodo because he was such an unlikely hero, and one of the bravest protagonists ever, even if it wasn’t typical, bad-ass, big-muscled courage. 

  12. House is an awesome example!

    He’s so flawed you have to stop and ask yourself why you like him. You’d think you must like him despite his flaws, but it’s as you said: it’s because of the flaws.

  13. One characteristic I like to see in a protagonist is “FLAWED.” Perfect heroes bore me to death. The level of perfection I’m talking about is often seen in movies, like… that movie where people are trapped under a watery cave. Forgot the name. Looked it up: “Sanctum.”

    Anyway, whenever a perfect hero speaks, inevitably, people fail to listen. Those people immediately die horribly, and are written to look like idiots for not listening to the hero (who did nothing other than bark last-second-orders in a panic situation).

    Most of my favorite books like Dean Koontz’s “Dragon Tears” and Mike Nelson’s “Death Rat: A Novel,” feature protagonists who have glaringly obvious flaws. In the former, you have the one sibling in a family of mutants who lacks superhuman powers. In the latter, you have a pudgy, balding dork who is often the object of ridicule. You root for these guys because they’re… nice.

    “Jurassic Park” the movie kills off the hunter, who is outsmarted by dinosaurs. In the book, he survives, but chides himself for hiding in a pipe, leaving him vulnerable to get “bit in the ass.” While not the main character, this protagonist was much more heroic and interesting than his cinematic know-it-all-who-dies counterpart. This hero is courageous and skilled, but what makes him fun is his flaws… that and blowing apart dinosaurs with a rocket launcher.

    • Excellent point, John.  A flawed hero is infinitely more interesting than a boy scout.

      Perhaps my favorite example of this is the television character Dr. Gregory House (who is based on Sherlock Holmes).  He’s socially broken, mentally disturbed and addicted to drugs.  But strangely, this makes us root for him all the more.

      The television show Lost also featured many flawed heroes, my favorite being John Locke.

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