The Hero Archetype - Everything You Need To Know
This is the second article in our fifteen-part masterclass on archetypes. Learn more about archetypes in our first article.
Of all the character archetypes, the hero archetype is probably the most obvious, most popular, and best known.
While not all protagonists fall under this archetype, many do. From Odysseus to Anne Shirley, storytellers can’t stop gravitating back to this universally compelling character…
…the character whose emotionally loaded backstory sets them on a fevered mission. The character who ventures beyond their comfort zone to meet with danger and unexpected transformation.
The protagonist who uses the best of their power to defeat darkness and face down their demons, inspiring each of us to ask if that same capability might lie somewhere within us.
Who doesn’t love a hero?
If you’re planning to build a protagonist around this archetype, you have the potential to create a character readers will love and remember. But in order to do that, you have to understand what makes the hero archetype so compelling.
Because it’s not all magic, courage, and insane deltoids.
It’s also struggle, poor choices, and impossible dilemmas.
Ready to go deep?
Key Attributes of the Hero Archetype
First, let’s nail down a baseline idea of what the over-arching hero archetype is.
What makes a hero a hero?
What a Hero Does
You can pretty much always count on a hero to:
- Leave their ordinary world to pursue a mission in unfamiliar circumstances.
- Discover new friends and make new enemies, including one primary foe who seems undefeatable.
- Face tremendous trials.
- Learn difficult lessons.
- Experience an “all is lost” moment or a moral dilemma. Or both.
Many hero character arcs are transformational arcs, meaning the protagonist changes as a result of the journey. But this is not always the case. Characters like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond are the same story after story, beginning to end. (That’s called a flat character arc, if you’re taking notes.)
Most heroes come out the other end as winners, but as you’ll soon learn, there are a couple sub-archetypes where losing is the rule. The victorious heroes use their achieved goal to restore order or improve life for the folks back home.
Who a Hero Is
In terms of what the hero is like as a person, traits can vary. However, the most common qualities seen in the hero archetype are:
- Physical or magical strength.
- Physical, mental, and emotional resilience.
- A strong sense of right and wrong.
- Commitment to a mission, relationship, or value system.
- An impulse to protect the defenseless or give a voice to the unheard.
Now that’s just the positive stuff. Your hero needs to fall short in a couple areas, too. Their failings help you create conflict, relatability, and make sure your reader has something to stress about when the antagonist shows up.
The hero’s shortcomings can be anything. For Jay Gatsby, it’s idealism, obsession, and a bit of a BS habit. For Moana, it’s a tendency to be single-minded to the point of recklessness. And for Harry Potter, it’s a refusal to develop any defense skills beyond slapping wands out of people’s hands. (Just kidding. But still.)
Throughout history, the most popular hero flaws tend to be arrogance and foolhardiness. But don’t let tradition hold you back. Design your character on your terms. Just make sure they aren’t perfect.
That’s the big picture stuff. Now we’re going to take a closer look at all the different ways you can approach the hero archetype. We’ll cover six sub-archetypes, their key characteristics, and familiar examples.
Along the way, I’ll show you how you can use the character notes feature in Dabble to build your own compelling hero.
The Classical Hero Archetype
The classical hero is, well, an obvious hero.
While a character of this archetype typically comes from humble beginnings or appears to be ordinary, they possess a remarkable ability that sets them apart. They may have always been aware of this ability or their discovery of it could occur as part of the call to adventure.
A classical hero uses their tremendous skill to battle a powerful foe for a righteous purpose. Typically, the battle they fight on the surface coincides with an internal battle—a struggle with identity, a powerful temptation, or any other fun drama.
This archetype tends to be courageous and they may be a tad arrogant, impulsive, or reckless. But they’ll also make a tremendous sacrifice for the sake of their cause.
Examples of the Classical Hero Archetype:
- Harry Potter (The Harry Potter Series)
- Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games Series)
- Mulan (Mulan)
The Everyman Hero Archetype
The everyman (everyperson?) hero is built from a formula that is nearly guaranteed to captivate readers:
An ordinary person navigating extraordinary circumstances.
What makes this character heroic is not their abilities, but their heart and values. They have a strong moral compass, a selfless spirit, unfailing loyalty and a willingness to try beyond their proven abilities.
The everyman hero has the potential to resonate deeply with your readers because by their very nature, they suggest what many of us want to believe: that we can do incredible things when we show up with our whole hearts.
Examples of the Everyman Hero Archetype:
- Neville Longbottom (The Harry Potter Series)
- Bilbo Baggins (Everyhobbit) (The Hobbit)
- Babe (Everypig) (Babe)
The Superhero Archetype
This hero archetype is exactly what you think it is.
Wonder Woman. Shang-Chi. Captain Underpants.
But as self-explanatory as this hero category may seem, there are rules to follow if you want to write a superhero character well. This character needs:
- Extraordinary abilities or powers.
- An origin story that explains those abilities.
- A compelling motivation or mission that drives them. (The origin story can help with this, too.)
- A strict moral code.
- A secret identity.
Typically, a superhero faces off against a supervillain who also possesses exceptional powers and a notable origin story.
Examples of the Superhero Archetype:
- Black Widow
- The Incredible Hulk
- Black Panther
The Tragic Hero Archetype
If you love tearing your reader’s hearts out, this is the hero archetype you’re looking for. An emotional reaction is exactly what Artistotle was going for when he developed this protagonist.
The tragic hero is destined for devastation. Their story ends in tragedy (go figure), not victory. And that tragedy is the result of either cruel, cruel fate or their own tragic flaw, also called “hamartia.”
It’s important to note that the tragic hero is a noble character, so the tragic flaw can’t be anything despicable. Save that one for your anti-hero.
The tragic hero’s flaw is something morally forgivable, like Oedipus’ hubris or Romeo’s over-the-top passion. (Who among us doesn’t have that friend who gets a little sonnet-crazy after a little foxy eye contact?)
Even when the tragic hero is part-architect of their own downfall, there still tends to be a “star-crossed” element at play. By the end of the story, the hero is either dead or suffering pretty hard. And the audience is feeling big feelings—what Aristotle called “catharsis.”
Examples of the Tragic Hero Archetype:
- Romeo (Romeo and Juliet)
- Oedipus (Oedipus Rex)
- Jack Dawson (Titanic) - Up for discussion: can we really blame the fates when there was clearly room on the door?
The Epic Hero Archetype
The best-known epic heroes come from waaaay back. We’re talking Odysseus and Gilgamesh … folks like that.
The poet Homer defined an epic hero as being god-like. This archetype is still definitely human, but when battling supernatural enemies (as they often do), they prove to be shockingly powerful for a mere mortal.
An epic hero is of noble birth and lives in a mythical world. They grow to be a mighty warrior, and their adventures bring them far beyond their ordinary world. Word of their impressive victories makes them a legend in their homeland and beyond.
This hero archetype exemplifies the values of the culture telling their story. An epic hero demonstrates the attributes that are considered ideal in the author’s society. And in the event that the hero has an undesirable trait, you can bet they’ll be punished for it and make a change.
Examples of the Epic Hero Archetype:
- Odysseus (The Odyssey)
- Gilgamesh (Epic of Gilgamesh)
- Beowulf (Beowulf)
The Anti-Hero Archetype
The anti-hero is the hero archetype you need to know if you want to create a hit cable show. This is Walter White. Dexter Morgan. Tony Soprano.
Anti-heroes are so compelling to watch and read because of the fascinating conflict they create within us. We see them as villains. We resent the destruction they cause. But we also can’t ignore their humanity, and many times, we can’t help but feel the tension when they’re in jeopardy.
If your reader anticipates your hero’s demise with equal parts dread and satisfaction, you’ve written a stellar anti-hero.
So how do you strike this tricky balance? It’s not easy. But if you’re up for the challenge, it helps that relatability is baked into the anti-hero formula.
To follow this hero archetype, your character needs a balance of both positive and negative traits. While their villainous inclinations will ultimately rule their choices, it will be their virtues or vulnerabilities that make them relatable to your reader.
We also see anti-heroes struggle in a way that the average villain does not. They may be battling their inner demons or desperately trying to overcome difficult circumstances. Either way, this is where you throw some shades of gray onto your protagonist’s dark deeds.
To that end, the anti-hero’s journey often (but not always) begins from a place of normalcy. They’re not a villain yet, and you’re about to show the reader how a good-natured Joe can go full-blown Skeletor.
Finally, just as with classical heroes, anti-heroes tend to be driven by a specific mission, philosophy, or values. They are despicable for a reason. It doesn’t have to be a good reason. But it does have to be a reason—ideally one that is unsettlingly logical.
Examples of the Anti-Hero Archetype:
- Othello (Othello)
- Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
- George Costanza (Seinfeld)
The Key to Mastering the Hero Archetype
For many writers, the greatest challenge in writing a hero lies in giving this character the dimension they deserve.
Often, when we think of a hero, we think of perfection. Traditional heroes are aspirational and admirable. They’re saviors and winners. We’re supposed to want to be just like them.
Most importantly, the hero is usually the protagonist. As writers, we know how important it is for our readers to care about the main character. So it feels safer to make our heroes good people with no truly objectionable traits or actions.
But when you approach your protagonist with only heroism in mind, you write a character who’s dull and unrelatable. This is where the hero archetypes save your bacon.
You may have noticed that each category of hero calls for flaws, weaknesses, or troubled pasts. Even the exhaustingly mighty epic heroes slip up. (Looking at you hard, Odysseus.)
This is what actually makes your protagonist lovable and relatable: their recognizable humanity.
Just look at how we connect with one another. The people who impress us live on pedestals. The ones we keep close are the ones who make us feel like we’re not alone in vulnerability and failure. And when the flawed among us succeed, we feel deeper joy and inspiration than when Beyonce does it.
So don’t be afraid of the dark origin story or the tragic flaw.
Those are things that make the hero in all of us.
Want to learn more about how Dabble can help you write unforgettable heroes? Check out our story structure articles on classic plotting methods like the Hero’s Journey or the Fichtean Curve to see examples of Dabble’s Plot Grid in action. Or take a shortcut and try Dabble for free for 14 days. Click here to start your free trial!
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