What Is A Hero?
Today, we’re going to look at what is a hero, the different kinds of heroes, and the importance of virtuous heroes in a story
And The Heroes Have Returned is a blog about heroes and their long-awaited return to fiction.
Today, I wish to define a hero by looking at four unique versions: the tragic, the Randian, the superhero, and the everyman.
For the purpose of this post, I will be looking at virtuous heroes. In later posts, I will invest time analyzing anti-heroes and other “realistic” heroes.
I’m more interested, at least today, in focusing on the ideal.
Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters by Andrew Bernstein
So, to define a hero, we must look at the best book on heroism I have ever read: Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters by Andrew Bernstein.
Bernstein defines a hero as “a morally upright individual who, with ability and dauntlessness equal to the task, confronts the obstacles and/or dangers arising in pursuit of significant life-advancing goals, and who triumphs in at least a moral sense.”
The greatest strength of Bernstein’s definition is that a hero is not self-sacrificing, and he can be the everyman. When applied to fiction, this means the superhero, secret agent, or the man next door can be a hero as long as they fight for what is moral and accomplish what seems impossible.
Now Bernstein mainly focuses on real-life heroes such as Thomas Jefferson and Maria Montessori. However, his definition applies to fictional heroes. This definition gives us the foundation we need to understand heroism.
The Tragic Hero
Characteristics and Definition
The tragic hero is a literary character who makes an error in judgment that inevitably leads to his/her destruction.
This fall is caused by a fatal character flaw such as hubris, boldness, or cowardice. As such, the tragic hero’s purpose is to teach a lesson, not to entertain or inspire.
Yet this hero strikes a rather strange balance: he is usually more significant than the reader but has a fatal flaw meant to humanize and humble the character.
He is Archilles: a demi-god of unmatched potential who can quickly die to the most mortal and arbitrary weaknesses.
The universe is always against the hero, and such opposition overcomes and destroys him. He is tied in by “destiny.” Destiny is always represented by something mystical and beyond human power or understanding. Think of the three witches from Macbeth.
Examples of The Tragic Hero
Although primarily defined in the classic and ancient eras of storytelling, the tragic hero is found throughout creative history.
More ancient versions include Macbeth, Oedipus, Romeo, Creon, and Antigone. Contemporary examples include Jay Gatsby, Anakin Skywalker, Ned Stark, and Severus Snape.
In each instance, these characters are doomed to failure. Such failure is foreshadowed relentlessly.
For example, Macbeth knows he will fail because of the three witches revealing his destiny. In contrast, we know Anakin’s destiny because his fall is explored in the prequels. The sequels show he has become Darth Vader.
And, of course, each hero has a fatal flaw. Oedipus is arrogant, whereas Ned Stark is naive. These fatal flaws spell doom for the characters as befitting the tragic hero.
What Are The Positives of The Tragic Hero?
The tragic hero teaches the audience about hubris’s evils or naivety’s foolishness. These flaws, present in everyone, can spell our doom and destroy whatever we have built.
This lesson is crucial. We all have weaknesses or overindulgences. We must deeply understand what undermines our success and attend accordingly.
What Are The Flaws of The Tragic Hero?
The greatest flaw of the tragic hero is there is little to nothing one can learn from such a figure. He is always doomed to fail. He cannot change his fate. Such lessons are not helpful or inspiring.
Let me explain. Macbeth’s flaw is greed: he wants more power, and his wife spurs on this desire. He brings ruin to his land and is killed because of his greed.
The individual learns that greed is wrong. However, he does not understand how to avoid that greed. This missed opportunity is why the tragic hero’s tale is neither helpful nor inspiring.
Because the hero has to fall, he cannot change. Without change, there can be no wisdom.
The story would be more enjoyable if Macbeth listened to the witches’ warning. If he reasoned with his wife and fought his desire for power, the reader would have been shown a different path. And Macbeth’s story would have been more dynamic and exciting.
In conclusion, the tragic hero tells us that life is already damned and there is nothing we can do: a poor life lesson and a recipe for a boring story. Dynamic storytelling requires virtue and a portrayal of what ought to be. The tragic hero cannot provide this.
The Randian Hero
Characteristics and Definition
From Wikipedia: “Rand’s self-declared purpose in writing fiction was to project an ‘ideal man’—a man who perseveres to achieve his values, and only his values.”
The Randian hero is the ideal man: independent, rational, and talented. Rand’s heroes are individualists who seek to achieve their goals. They are not weak-willed, distracted hedonists.
Give examples of the hero
Of course, the best examples of the Randian hero come from Rand’s major fictional works: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There are other examples, as many creators have followed in Rand’s footsteps, but I want to focus on these powerful examples.
Howard Roark is a brilliant architect who is determined to create buildings his own way. Dagny Taggart is a successful business owner of a powerful and influential railroad company. And so on and so forth. Randian heroes are defined by their brilliance, clearness in vision, and intense ability.
Why Is The Randian Hero So Great?
Because of their abilities and adherence to individualism, Randian heroes are unique. The individual characters are not portrayed as selfish and greedy capitalist strawmen. These characters are compassionate because they believe in man’s ability to create and achieve what is rational.
The businessman, the creative, and the competent character is always seen as evil or wrong in fiction. But Rand takes the archetype and positions him as the hero against a world of parasites, losers, and brutes.
Additionally, Randian heroes are very eloquent in thought and speech. They are characters you can learn from in terms of how to carry yourself. Furthermore, they don’t throw punches. They engage in verbal debates and intriguing ideas. Their magnanimity comes from creation and standing up for what they have built.
The Major Flaw Of The Randian Hero
The primary issue with Randian heroes is their perfection: there is no growth in Howard Roark and little in Dagny Taggart or Hank Reardon. This perfection creates flat characters who do not dynamically contend with their philosophies.
Randian heroes rarely have internal conflict. Whereas many characters will try to fight demons or vices, Rand’s characters have none. Where some characters need to climb up to earn better tomorrow, Rand’s characters already start as the men of tomorrow.
Rand addressed this flatness within the pages of Atlas Shrugged with conflicted characters like Hank Reardon. And the unchanging nature of Howard Roark is what makes him compelling, similar to Superman or Atticus Finch.
Thus, perfection depends primarily on how a virtuous hero can uplift you.
I read stories like A Lesson Before Dying when I need inspiration from dark places. When I need confirmation of my values, I turn to Rand’s characters.
Define the Superhero
The superhero is an individual who uses their extraordinary talents and powers to aid and protect others. They are defined by their colorful costumes, dual identities, and extraordinary abilities. Superhero stories mainly have elaborate fight scenes against silly villains.
Of course, the superhero, probably more than any other hero on this list, has undergone significant changes. There is a massive contrast between the “heroes” of Watchmen and the Golden Age of Superman.
The demand for “deeper,” more cynical stories has dragged the superhero to the realm of “realism.” Yet, even “realistic” superhero tales keep unique and exciting motifs, such as secret identities and extraordinary powers.
Examples Of Superhero
Superheroes are ubiquitous in our society. The most famous ones are Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. Others lesser known include the Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and Guardians of the Globe.
Superman is the closest to the template as he was arguably the first superhero, at least the first mainstream and successful one. The endless copycats, including Captain Marvel or Omni-Man, show that simply looking at the history of Superman gives anyone a definitive look at how superheroes have changed throughout time.
For example, his origins as a bruiser fighting for the working class contrasts significantly with his science fiction romps of the 60s and 70s. But his grounded stories of the 90s feel alien compared to the “serious” stories of the 2010s.
Why Is The Superhero Great?
The superhero, when done correctly, represents the ideal. You can distill him or her into simple concepts or phrases, and such simplicity allows them to shine.
- Superman is the big blue boy scout, the ideal representation of power used for good ends.
- Spider-Man is the representation of dealing with one’s responsibilities, even at the cost of your pleasures or comforts.
- Wonder Woman shows the value of honoring one’s culture while being a diplomat and warrior to build bridges or defend the weak.
Lastly, superheroes provide a great spectacle while teaching shallow but essential lessons. The spectacle, albeit silly more often than not, can be immensely entertaining when good writing and visuals bring the story together.
The Major Flaws Of The Superhero
By its very nature, the superhero is a silly concept, and the history of such a character bears that out. Therefore, The superhero can seem to only go in two directions. They are too cartoony, a la 60s Batman, where their struggles and conflicts lack real-world grounding or relevance.
Or they become hyper-realistic, a la Watchmen, failing to offer real lessons or inspiration. Instead, such “heroes” wallow in the fetishes and nihilism of trite writers and artists.
Thus, the superhero story lacks any grounding that empowers the lessons being taught. Although fantasy and seriousness can be combined in exciting ways, such a feat can be challenging.
What Is The Everyman?
Now, this type of hero is the loosest because what he is can be applied to everything written here.
The everyman hero is designed to reflect the audience. These heroes are usually regular everyday joes who have been placed in extraordinary circumstances or have “realistic conflicts.”
The everyman hero is usually an audience surrogate and a blank slate.
Examples Of The Everyman Hero
I’m looking more at heroes who are average joes in terms of ability. For example, Peter Parker can be seen as an everyman hero. He deals with bills, girls, and running late. But his extraordinary powers bar him from consideration in this situation.
A more common example would be Arthur Dent. Arthur has no fantastic abilities, and his life is no more different than anyone else’s. He is thrust into a world that is fantastical and impressive especially compared to his dull nature.
On the more “realistic” side, we have your traditional protagonist in a romcom or a dramatic story. These characters usually try to excel in something essential but mundane: get married, earn the girl, gain a promotion, and so on. Their battles are battles anyone can identify with.
So, more fantastical versions of this character include Bilbo Baggins and Shaun from Shaun of the dead.
More realistic versions include George Bailey and C.C. “Bud” Baxter.
Why The Everyman Is Great
The biggest strength of this hero is the ability of audiences to identify with the protagonist. Fighting evil monsters in space can be too strange for someone to understand. However, everyone can identify with an everyday struggle.
Additionally, the everyman, when done correctly, can grow. The Randian hero is already too perfect. There is no growth. But an average man going on a fantastic adventure can learn bravery by the end of it. Or, he can get that girl at the grocery store.
Charlie, from The Perks of Being A Wallflower, exemplifies an everyman who works throughout the story to overcome his past trauma. Such a struggle is universal to the average person, and the conclusion should inspire others seeking to overcome the pains of their past.
The Greatest Flaws of the Everyman
Most works with the everyman always portray a babbling idiot who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The Randian hero may be too perfect. But the everyman hero seems too idiotic to serve as inspiration.
Additionally, the everyman is usually likable, funny, and has other characteristics. But he isn’t always heroic. His struggles can be petty, even cruel. There are strings of 80s films starring the “average man” who commits sexual abuse before getting the girl or beating the jocks.
Because the everyman can be lowly and his goals pathetic, this hero rarely reveals truths about the world. Thus, his virtuous impact can be limited and hollow.
In conclusion, the everyman excels when he grows. He cannot remain stagnant. He has to have a destination. Most modern works feature immature, stupid everymen whose only goal is to get laid or earn petty cash. A true everyman, one worth emulating and respecting, aims higher than the shallowness of a hedonistic life.
So What Is A Hero?
Ultimately, the hero has to be a figure that inspires.
The hero must progress. He has to overcome demons and battle the world around him. Therefore, the best heroes are the everyman who has to reach an ideal destination.
If we can show a character starting in a flawed position and becoming great through immense effort, such a blueprint serves as inspiration for our own lives.