Hero is a Four-Letter Word: Unmasking the Hero

Posted by Melanie Ann Phillips on

Part One

Perhaps the best-known character type is the Hero. But if you ask a thousand different writers to define a Hero, you'll get a thousand different answers. That's because the term has been used so indiscriminately it has become a catch-all to describe the central character around which a story revolves. What's more, the word Hero has been used interchangeably with Protagonist, Main Character, Central Character and even Good Guy. As convenient as that may be, it muddies the true nature of the Hero, and makes it a useless moniker - a four letter word - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Worst of all, an author setting out to develop the hero of his or her story finds no guidance in this formless template, and is left to fumble about for whatever works.
Fortunately, the true Hero is a very specific entity. In this article we will explore the Hero Type and present several key elements such a character must possess.

Life vs. Story
In the real world, we use the term Hero to describe everything from a brave individual who rescues someone or overcomes incredible odds, to someone who dies at the hands of a terrorist, even if the attack was so sudden that the victim never saw it coming. Still and all, when most of us use the word Hero, we mean someone who acts in a heroic manner, meaning that they are willing to sacrifice themselves to protect others.

But stories are not life, they are about life. Dramatically, a Hero is something quite a bit more than someone who acts heroically. In fact, a story Hero doesn't necessarily have to act heroically at all! Hamlet, for example, is hardly a Hero by today's cultural standards. He holds back, he over-thinks the plumbing, and eventually he fails in his quest and dies a horrible, unfulfilled death. But dramatically, he is a Hero in every sense of the word.

The Hero Break Down
So what is it, then, that defines the story Hero? No matter what other elements you may wish to include in that definition, there are four key elements that absolutely must be present. The dramatic hero must be:

1. The Protagonist
2. The Main Character
3. The Central Character
4. A "Good Guy"

In fact, the story Hero must have the qualities described by all of the four terms we mentioned as being often used interchangeably with the word Hero!
So what makes each of these other four character types a different quality? Let's find out...

· The Protagonist
The Protagonist is the Prime Mover of the effort to achieve the Story Goal. In other words, of all the characters in the story, it is the Protagonist who drives the push toward the goal. Without him, the quest would fall apart. With him, it cannot be stopped, short of the potential of failure at the climax. But until that moment, the Protagonist will not relent in his endeavor.

Now, don't go flying off the handle if you have a completely different definition for the word Protagonist. The point here is that one character will have the quality of driving the goal. What word we use to describe that character is arbitrary. We've chosen Protagonist as the label for this quality because that word is most often understood to be the driver of the quest in the story. So call the quality "Fred" if you prefer, but note that the Hero must, first and foremost, be the driver of the effort toward the goal.

· The Main Character
The Main Character represents the reader or audience position in the story. The story is experienced through his or her eyes. And, the Main Character carries the moral dilemma at the heart of the story's message.

To get a sense of the difference between the Protagonist and the Main Character, consider the classic book and movie, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that story, a principled Southern lawyer in the 1930s is assigned to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. The lawyer (Atticus) is the Protagonist, as he is the driver of the effort to see justice done by acquitting the defendant. But the story is not told from his position. Rather, we see the events unfold through the eyes of Scout, his ten year old daughter.

In addition, Scout is the fulcrum of a moral dilemma. She is afraid of the local Boogey Man (Boo Radley), believed by all the neighborhood kids to be a monster. In truth, he is their protector, and is simply a slow-witted but caring adult who lives in his elderly parents' basement.

If Atticus had been both Protagonist AND Main Character, the audience would have identified completely with the self-righteous lawyer and learned little about prejudice. But by having the reader/audience identify with Scout, we are suckered into believing the terrible stories about Boo without ever having met him. In other words, we find ourselves having fallen prey to prejudice right along with Scout.

So while we watch Atticus go about his quest, we ultimately learn that we are all capable of prejudice when we believe negative information about others without finding out for ourselves if it is true. In this case, the Protagonist and Main Character are two different people, and by splitting these functions a stronger message is created. Nonetheless, the Hero must be both Protagonist AND Main Character, combining the logistic power of the quest-driver with the empathetic identification of the avatar for the reader/audience.

· The Central Character
Quite simply, the Central Character is the one who is most memorable. Usually this is because he or she gets the most Media Real Estate (the most pages, lines of dialog or screen time). Still, some characters "steal the show," either because they are drawn with tremendous passion or are portrayed with an inspired delivery. Characters such as Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace or Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs are Central Characters, even though they are neither Protagonist nor Main Character. A Hero, however, must also possess this quality as well.

· A Good Guy
To be a Good Guy, a character must intend to do the right thing. He or she must try to be helpful rather than hurtful. Note the key word "try." Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies does more harm than good, but only because his inept attempts to do the right thing go horribly awry due to his natural clumsiness. Yet, a Good Guy he is, due to his intentions.

· The Classic Hero
The classic story Hero, then, drives the quest forward, represents the reader/audience in the story and grapples with the moral dilemma. He or she is the most memorable character and tries to do the right thing. This combination of qualities makes the Hero truly heroic. It also makes him or her truly melodramatic. That is because everything dramatic centers on this character, and all important dynamics flow from it.

Yet, this arrangement is very appealing, which is why the Heroic arrangement of qualities has endured since the first stories were told. Even today, such characters often draw the largest audiences and greatest numbers of readers. Take, for example, Neo in The Matrix Reloaded. He is the Protagonist, as he is the chief driver of the effort to dismantle the Matrix. He is the Main Character because we stand in his shoes, and because he must grapple with the dilemma of risking the deaths of everyone in the Matrix to save Trinity. He is the Central character because he gets the most screen time, and because his fights are the most spectacular. And, he is a Good Guy for his intent is to do what is best for others, even at great personal peril.

Note how Trinity is not a Hero because she is not the Protagonist, nor the Main Character, nor the Central Character. The only dramatic quality she shares with Neo is being a Good Guy, as she tries to to what's right, even to risking herself to save others. Though she is not a Hero dramatically, from a cultural perspective, she absolutely is heroic in her attitudes and actions.

That is why, when creating characters, it is important to separate the heroic nature of one's personality from the dramatic function of truly being a story Hero.

Study Exercises for Part One: Heroic Qualities

1. List three well-known Heroes you have come across in a book, movie, stage play, or television episode.

2. Explain why each qualifies as a hero by being Protagonist, Main Character, Central Character, and Good Guy.

3. List three well-known characters who are heroic, but are not classic Hero types.

4. Explain why each is not a true story Hero, based on the material in the lesson.

5. List three characters that qualify as classic Hero types, but are not heroic in the popular sense of the word.

6. Describe the traits that make each of these dramatic Heroes non-heroic in personality.

Writing Exercises for Part One: Building Heroes

1. Create a character who is a Protagonist, and explain why he or she fulfills that function.

2. Create a character who is a Main Character, and explain why he or she fulfills that function.

3. Create a character and describe how you would make him or her the Central Character.

4. Create a character who is a Good Guy and describe why.

5. Create a classic Hero type, and describe how he or she possesses all four essential qualities of a Hero.

6. Turn this Hero character you have created into a non-heroic person, while maintaining his dramatic function as a Hero.

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →