You don’t need a hero to have a story, but if you want to write about heroic deeds you’re going to end up with one somewhere along the lines. Whether you decide on the hero first and let the story follow him from there or work out the plot and fill in with the appropriate actors later, it can help to have some archetypes in mind. While you’re free to color outside the lines, here are a few basic types of heroes you can look to when brainstorming.
The Perfect Hero
A paragon of virtue, this hero embodies everything good about humanity. Strong (mentally and physically), uncompromising, selfless, kind, decisive…it’s almost enough to make you sick to your stomach. A perfect hero can make readers (or viewers) feel inspired or perhaps inferior. No one can live up to the perfect hero’s standards. That’s ok though, because he won’t hold that against you, it would be beneath him.
A perfect hero is someone who can be suitable for superhero comics, epic fantasy, fairy tales, or satirical works (as a caricature of good).
Examples: Superman, Odysseus, King Arthur
For whatever reason, this unlikely hero isn’t like everyone else. He might be a social outcast, a member of a different race or religion, or suffer from some disability that leads to being ostracized. There is usually some degree of psychological damage that goes along with this. The misfit might be distrustful of others, bitter, or shy. Often times there will be an individual who takes special pleasure in ensuring that the misfit remains that way.
In the course of becoming a hero, the misfit will find some way that their difference can either be overcome or used to their advantage. He will either be lifted out of the environment that causes so much mental anguish or return to it emboldened to face down those who were once persecutors.
The misfit is one of the great types of heroes for YA literature, since a lot of younger humans are made to feel different by their peers. It’s also a good choice for stories in which social justice is a major theme.
Examples: Harry Potter, Drizzt Do’Urden, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The Grizzled Old-Timer
No one is surprised that this reliable old veteran is taking up the sword once more, unless it’s to wonder that they are still alive and kicking. They have been there, done that, and have the head of that dragon mounted on their wall to prove it. The grizzled old-timer doesn’t need to learn the ins and outs of heroism, he is more likely to be the one doing the teaching. He may not be in his prime, but there is still plenty of fight left in him.
The grizzled old-timer is best used in group settings. His vast experience makes him a good vehicle for imparting knowledge to the other characters (and thus the reader/viewer). He is also a great leader, someone who can either carry a group to victory or serve as an inspiration in his death.
Examples: Gandalf, Obi-wan Kenobi, Granny Weatherwax
It isn’t always the smartest or the strongest who become heroes. Sometimes all it takes it to be in the right place at the right time and choose to do the right thing. Of course, most everyman heroes would see it as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, because obviously someone better qualified should have been sent to deal with whatever they themselves had fallen into.
An everyman hero is a one we can relate to. He has our problems and our fears. We could see ourselves in his place. There is no special power, not divine sign that tells this hero he is destined for greatness. He is the Fates’ Mad Lib, a blank spot that just happened to get filled in with his name.
Examples: Arthur Dent, Edmund Pevensie, Bilbo Baggins
Sometimes there’s a job to be done and no hero around to do it. Sometimes there isn’t even a hapless everyman ready to step up to the challenge. On rare occasion, someone totally ill-fit to the role must don the mantle of hero. He probably doesn’t like it, he probably wants to be well-rewarded for his efforts (if he or anyone able to pay up survives the coming ordeal), but he’s willing to shoulder the load and get it done.
The anti-hero makes us question what a hero really is. Can one good deed (even a HUGE good deal like saving the world) be enough to redeem someone? What if the anti-hero learns nothing from the experience and goes back to his old, disreputable ways?
The anti-hero is not necessarily evil, per se, but he lacks the heroic virtues to a degree that cannot be overlooked. Greed, brutality, ruthlessness, selfishness, these are the anti-hero’s anti-virtues. Common offsetting virtues can be sympathy for a particular victim, a soft spot for underdogs, or even an honest desire to repent.
Examples: Raistlin Majere, Haplo, Han Solo
Some heroes are made, some are born. The prodigy may start out as an unpromising lump of clay, but there is an undeniable potential there, if only the right circumstances can unlock it. This is a great one to pair with the grizzled old veteran. The old-timer can show the prodigy the way of the world, then die some heroic and inspiring death.
The prodigy is raw and unformed, the perfect material to build a story around. He needs to learn everything, to experience the wonders of whatever power makes him special, and the reader can go right along for the ride. The prodigy can go step by step along the Hero’s Journey, which itself is basically an instruction book for raw heroes.
Examples: Luke Skywalker, Parn, Paul Atreides
The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.
This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.
Examples: Rincewind, Inspector Gadget, Mr. Furious
I haven’t covered all of the possible types of heroes out there. Have you got an archetype that you think should be added to the list? Leave a comment below.