Monday, July 13, 2009

The Hero Archetype

The Hero Archetype

One of most powerful and most commonly used archetypes in romance is the hero. The hero can be of either gender and is the person (or persons) the reader identifies with most in the story. It is through the hero’s eyes that the story is told.

Heroes have qualities we can all identify with and recognize in ourselves. They are motivated by universal drives that everyone understands, such as the desire to be loved and understood, to succeed, survive, right wrongs, get revenge. Heroes need some admirable qualities so that the reader can actually “be” the hero while he is reading the book. We want heroes who are self-confident, elegant, witty, sexy, all the things we may, or may not be.

Heroes need universal qualities, emotions and motivations that everyone has experienced at some time. But heroes need to be unique people, neither all good nor all bad. Nobody wants to read about a perfect hero who has no flaws. A hero that exhibits only one trait is boring. Real characters, like real people are complex mixtures of traits and drives and motivations, some of them conflicting. The more conflicting the better. A hero torn apart by warring emotions and allegiances is more human and more interesting to readers.

Functions of the Hero – One of the Hero’s main functions in any story is to grow and learn. Heroes may overcome obstacles and achieve goals but if they don’t learn something, if they don’t gain wisdom from all their trials, it’s all for nothing. Christopher Vogler, in “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters” says that “The heart of many stories is the learning that goes on between a Hero and a mentor, or a Hero and a lover, or even between a Hero and a villain. We are all each other’s teachers.”

Another function of the Hero is to act. It is the Hero’s desires and will that push the story forward. He should continue to act and do throughout the entire story. Vogler identifies a flaw he often sees in which the Hero is fairly active throughout the story until some critical moment when he suddenly becomes passive, and is rescued by an outside force. The Hero should always be in control of his fate, and he should be the one who takes the biggest risk at the most crucial time.

Sacrifice – Sacrifice is the true mark of the Hero. Sacrifice means that the Hero is willing to give up something of value, perhaps even his own life, for the good of an ideal or a group. A romantic Hero is willing to sacrifice for the person he loves.

Character Flaws – When Heroes have weaknesses, imperfections, quirks and vices, readers are more able to identify with them and recognize bits of themselves in this Hero. Vogler says that the more neurotic the characters are, the more the audience like them and identifies with them.

Flaws give Heroes room for improvement. They have something to overcome, and something to learn. In other words, they have a character arc. For instance, in “Pretty Woman”, audiences want to know if Vivian will gain self-respect and escape her life of prostitution.

Varieties of Heroes
Willing and Unwilling Heroes
– Willing Heroes are active, gung-ho, committed and without doubts. They always bravely go ahead, without needing any outside motivation. The unwilling Hero is full of doubts and hesitations. He’s passive and needs some motivation or must be pushed into the adventure. Both can be part of entertaining stories, but the unwilling Hero should at some point fully embrace the adventure, perhaps after being motivated to participate. A Hero who is passive for an entire story is very unsatisfying.

Anti-Heroes – Vogler defines the anti-hero as not the opposite of a Hero but a specialized kind of Hero, one who may be an outlaw or villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is in sympathy. We can identify with these outsiders because we’ve all felt like outsiders at one time.

There are two types of anti-hero. The wounded Anti-hero behaves much like the conventional hero but is strongly cynical, or has a wounded quality. Example: Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” or Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood”. These are often honourable men who have been disillusioned. Often they are ex-cops or soldiers, and have retreated from society to become private detectives, smugglers, gamblers, soldiers of fortune. But we love these characters because they are rebels, thumbing their noses at society like we’d all like to do.

The other type of Anti-hero, the Tragic Hero, may not be likeable, and we may hate the things they do. Examples: “Macbeth”, “Scarface”, or Joan Crawford’s character in “Mommie Dearest”. The Tragic Hero never overcomes his inner demons and is eventually brought down by them. He may be charming and may have some admirable qualities, but his flaws get him in the end.

Group Oriented Heroes – These Heroes are part of society when the story opens, but their journey takes them away to the Special World where they are often alone. At the end of the story they are reintegrated with their society. Frodo from “Lord of the Rings” would be an example of a Group Oriented Hero. Often the Hero’s dilemma is whether to return to the group or stay in the Special World.

Loner Heroes – These Heroes begin outside the group in the first act, journey to the group in the second act, and then return to the wilderness in the third act. Although any kind of drama can have such a hero, Westerns are abundant with them. Examples: Clint Eastwood in “Man with No Name”, and John Wayne in “The Searchers”. Like Group Oriented Heroes, Loners have the choice of returning to their initial solitude or remaining in the Special World with the group.

Catalyst Heroes – Rather than undergoing change themselves, these Heroes bring change to everything and everyone around them. Example: Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop”. Axel doesn’t change himself in the story, but the two cops he works with go from being uptight and by-the-book to being hip and streetwise. Catalyst Heroes are especially useful in continuing series and sequels like the Lone Ranger or Superman. But even these Heroes should experience moments of growth occasionally to keep them fresh and interesting.

Can you think of other examples of the different varieties of Heroes from books, movies or TV? Have you used any of these characters in your work?


Nayuleska said...

My hero's are always female. Some of them are trying to save the people in their kingdom. Others are just trying to keep their friends safe. Or to get to grips with new emerging powers.

They definitely have flaws, be it short-tempered, stubborn, too shy/quiet, or a bit of a doormat. Equally they all grow as people throughout the story. The person they are at the beginning is usually quite different from who they are at the end. Several of them make big mistakes that cost people lives.

Not all are willing heroines, at least not at first. I've got one who could be an anti-heroine, it all depends on how the story is viewed. I'm not so sure I've got catalyst heroines, but I know some are definitely group heroines (or become part of a group). Family and duty play an important role in most of my wips.

Thanks for a great topic!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Yunaleska,
The Hero archetype works for both genders, so you're right on. I like that you have heroes with flaws. I hate when writers make characters that are too perfect, especially the female heroines. Who can relate to a character who is too beautiful, too nice, too everything? Boring! For a character to be a hero they have to act, and grow, and learn from their mistakes. That's what makes them interesting. Like you said, they're not the same people at the end of the story as they are at the beginning, and they shouldn't be.

Thanks for your comment.

Nayuleska said...

Hi Jana!

Oh the flaws are what make the story %-) I'm a cruel writer. Or rather, my muse has many evil ideas.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Jana, last week's and this week's posts have had me poking a bit into archetypes again. I enjoyed reading the looong list of archetypes in that one link. I find I always shy away from reading too deeply into the info though, so I don't wind up leaning on it. Archetypes happen subconsciously, so they're hard at work anyway ;)

I definitely love hero characters with flaws, so long as they're not wallowing in their own angst. Tragic heroes, antiheroes, broken heroes are all fantastic, but there's a potential that often comes out in more poorly crafted fiction, where those flaws become the sole focus of the character, and the hero opines about his/her angst and injuries to excess. They essentially become too passive, as you said, and don't do admirable things alongside being broken or bitter.

I almost feel like Ronny Camareri in Moonstruck mocks that sort of excess, especially in his introductory scene at the bakery. He laments his injury beyond reasonable behaviour, threatens to kill himself (apparently a regular occurrence), and then Chrissy declares him the most tormented man she's ever known and incapable of love.

One of my personal favourite anti-heroes has got to be Conan the Barbarian (in Robert E Howard's original works), since he maintains those negative qualities. His stories don't wind him around to suddenly becoming altruistic and sacrificing at the end. He's an anti-hero that doesn't lose the anti :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great post, Janet. I'm unfamiliar with the anit-hero. Is it the main character of the story with unhero like qualities? So that he/she normally would be the 'hero' but hasn't risen to that level yet?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Yes, you're right about overdoing it on the character flaws. They can't be so severe that the character can't overcome them. And if all the hero does is lament about his problems (like your Moonstruck character) they can get pretty tedious.

But I like the archetype of the hero because he/she is strong. Whenever I find myself not liking one of my characters, it's usually because I've drifted away from those character traits that make up the hero.

I couldn't believe the number of archetypes that one website had! Who knew there were so many!


Helena said...

Hi, Jana -- yet another good post that I have mentally checked into that 'must read thoroughly, but don't have time right now' category. I'm juggling quite a few things for a couple of days here.

My grass was waving at me so instead of waving back I had to get it cut before it rains again, as it is forecast to do tonight and tomorrow. Also have to put some finishing touches on a couple of short stories to send off to the instructors of two workshops that I'm taking at the end of the month and in August. And I'm getting ready to go to the Festival of Words on Thursday. Will be gone for the weekend.

So not much time for reading this week, let alone commenting intelligently. But your posts have been much appreciated, all the same.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
In "The Writer's Journey" Christopher Vogler says that the anti-hero isn't the opposite of a hero, but really a special type of hero. He is often an outlaw or a villain in society's eyes, but readers or movie goers love him and sympathize with him. One type of anti-hero is the wounded anti-hero. He is a character who has withdrawn from society's corruption. He could be a heroic knight, perhaps a crusader, made cynical by the carnage he's seen. Perhaps he's a modern soldier or cop who's simply had enough. Often these characters live on the fringes of society as private detectives, bounty hunters, smugglers, gamblers. In a romance, such a character might need an Earth Mother type heroine to help him through. So certain anti-heroes could be romance type heroes.

But some types of anti-heroes wouldn't cut it as romance heroes. They have flaws, but they are never able to overcome them, and it does them in.

I hope that more or less answers your question!


Suse said...

Hi Jana,

Because I'm mulling over starting a new novel, your posts are giving me much to think about. I don't know if I've ever tried to label or make my characters fit a particular type, not consciously anyway.

My characters have flaws but I'm not sure that I'm using them in a masterful way. Definitely requires more thinking on my part.

Thanks for providing food for thought, especially in such a timely manner for me.

Captain Hook said...

Grrr, Jana. Just grrr.

Now I'm going through all my WIPs (mentally of course) trying to see where my main characters fall. Cassie and Lizzie both fall into the hero category, flaws and all, but I'm not sure how much they actually grow throughout the stories. I'll have to do more thinking on that.

I definitely have an anti-hero in Livid (a female Batman wannabe). She will grow and become more integrated both within normal society and with the two halves of herself. But that won't happen by the end of book one.

The others, I'm going to have to do more thinking, because I'm just not sure where they fall.

Janet said...

Like Helena, this is going to be a post I come back to and read thoroughly when I have time and my head's in the game. Just skimming it - it looks like a great summary of information for me to size up my hero (or heroine).

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena and Janet,
This certainly is a busy summer for everyone. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you get a chance to look at archetypes more when things settle down.

Have fun at the festival of words, Helena. And Janet, good luck with your packing. Not long now.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
I'm so glad you're considering writing a full-length novel again. I wish you good luck and good writing.

Archetypes are almost something we feel, rather than something we consciously think about. For example, if I say Alpha male, you probably have an immediate sense of the kind of character he would be. Strong, arrogant, a man's man. If I model my characters using the traits of the various archetypes, I get characters that readers identify with because they so readily recognize them.

The idea of giving a character a flaw just makes them more human. People aren't perfect and neither should characters be. Perhaps your character's flaw is not being able to trust others, especially women. In a romance this is a serious problem. But for the romance to work, the hero will have to overcome his trust issues. This is part of the growth and change of the character.

All the best,

Jana Richards said...

Oh-oh, Captain. I never had anyone growl at my blog before!

If it makes you feel any better, I'm doing the same sort of thinking as you are. In my current WIP my male character is somewhat wishy-washy. In my next round of revisions I want to give him more Alpha male characteristics. Not sure if it's possible at this point, but I'd like him to be a stronger, more forceful character.