On Writing Heroes

No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. Even – perhaps even especially – those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call ‘hard but necessary steps’ for the good of their nation. We’re all the hero of our own story. ~ Jim Butcher

It’s important to remember the quote above when you start outlining characters. Every character has flaws and positive attributes. At the most basic level, in every piece of work there is a hero and there is a villain. A heroic character is usually the main character, or the character that the audience is led to identify with the most. Creating a heroic character doesn’t mean that the character is a superhero or is orphaned royalty, the hero is just the protagonist of the story.

Heroes are generally broken down into two main subsets:

  • people of feeling (Byronic, romantic, tragic); and,
  • people of action (reluctant, chosen).

Knowing the type of hero that you intend to write will help inform the character’s:

  • agency (their ability to act, move in society, the amount of freedom they have);
  • motivation (their goals, quests, and back-story); and,
  • weaknesses (any major or tragic flaws, e.g. hubris)  .

As well, specific  character archetypes can influence plot and setting.

Typically, male heroes were defined by goals and action and female heroes were defined by their love interests. There is a laundry list of historical and systemic sexism in the literary industry to explain this, but that would take all day and many glasses of wine. Though the heroic archetypes of the past were based on male characterization and male virtues (like physical strength), there is no reason that these can’t (or shouldn’t ) apply to female protagonists as well.

As well, these characterizations are no longer cut and dry. Modern fiction tends to either subvert these archetypes, or create heroes who have elements from several major heroic archetypes. For example, Harry Potter is an excellent example of both an Unwilling Hero and a Chosen Hero.

1.  Reluctant


A reluctant hero is one that rejects the call to adventure – either because it originally was not their goal or because they believe that they should not be deemed a ‘hero’. They are usually an ordinary person with that requires motivation to start the cycle of the hero. They could also be a person who begins the narrative more aligned with neutral or evil systems.

A reluctant hero is usually comprised of two sub-categories:

  • Anti-Hero
  • Unwilling Hero

Anti Heroes generally start out resisting any and all calls to adventure, their personality is more chaotic or neutral than most heroes. Their alliances and their moral reasoning is usually tinged with grey. They usually have some flaw (physical, mental, emotional)  that makes them stand apart from the general heroic archetype.

Unwilling Heroes also resist the call to adventure, and usually have to be forced into meeting their objectives. Often they rely on sidekicks to round out any skills  that they lack. Though they are generally characterized as ‘good’, there is often a streak of selfishness that arises from the fact that they really don’t want to be there.

The hero may refuse the adventure or deny the ability to move beyond the status quo. The heralded event may even be ignored – All of these constitute the ‘Refusal of the Call.’ The use of magical intervention is then needed to plunge the hero into the unknown. The reluctant hero requires supernatural forces to urge him on, while the willing adventurer gathers amulets (magical items) and advice from the protector as aid for the journey.

Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Notable Reluctant Heroes include:

  • Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit)
  • Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings)
  • Neo (The Matrix)
  • Han Solo (Star Wars)
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)

 2.   Byronic


Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

– Lady Caroline Lamb, describing Lord Byron

Named after the literary examples from Lord Byron’s works. The Byronic hero holds many similarities with the Reluctant Hero, only they’re usually a little more dark and smoldery about it. They pout, glare, and laconically menace their way through the hero’s cycle.

Byronic Heroes are often defined not only by their actions but also by a (usually tumultuous) love affair (they’re sexy and they know it).  They exist to question and challenge society and usually possess a tragic flaw (one that leads to their untimely end). They’re more witty than comical, and can range from wildly extroverted (Don Juan style) to introverted (Heathcliff style).

There are further categories that are strongly related to the Byronic hero:

  • Anti-Hero
  • Romantic Hero
  • Tragic Hero

Very similar to the Byronic hero – however a Romantic Hero usually conforms to societal norms and expectations. If they posses a flaw, it one that is able to be overcome. A Romantic Hero is defined by their love interest and their goal is often the pursuit of a happy ending.

Tragic Heroes tend to have a rather depressing back-story that is matched with an equally depressing end. Most Greek myths are filled with tragic heroes whose lives become upturned in the pursuit of their goals.

The romantic ideal of the Byronic hero is often seen in Gothic literature. The moody and broody hero fits in perfectly with the uncanny nature of Gothic fiction. Vampires make the best Gothic heroes.

Notable Byronic Heroes include:

  • Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
  • Rochester (Jane Eyre)
  • Dorian Gray (The Portrait of Dorian Gray)
  • Lisbeth Salander (Girl with The Dragon Tattoo)
  • Catherine (the Elder) –  (Wuthering Heights)
  • Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess)

3.  Paragon


The paragon is the ultimate hero. A hero whose goodness and kindness is what sets them apart and makes them exemplary. They are the best of their kind. If you play RPGs then you usually know exactly what a Paragon is. There are two subsets to this:

  • Christian Hero
  • Chosen Hero

The Christian Hero took hold in the Victorian era. It was meant to be an instructive hero to counteract the scandalously “effeminate” male characters. The Victorian era was a disciplined society where sexual roles and identities were regulated. The Christian hero was based on prevalent Christian virtues. It was a man with high social standings, was a “man of action” (someone willing to work), and who regularly contributed to worthwhile causes. 

A Chosen Hero is someone that was groomed to become the hero. Usually there is a mystical or mythological reason surrounding their existence. A chosen hero is someone who is gifted (often literally) with characteristics that allow them to pursue and obtain their goals. The quest, the plot, was designed for them.

Notable Chosen heroes:

  • Harry Potter
  • Aragorn
  • Ella (Ella Enchanted -the book)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (The Chronicles of Narnia)
  • Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars)