What’s In A Hero?

Yesterday was fun. I saw Mrs. Dave off to work, as I usually do, then placated the Wee Horde with flesh of beast, and imbibed the brew of the bean. As I was turning my attention to the doings of the day, however, I noticed a spot of glare in my vision. I couldn’t remember looking into any bright lights (some of you will already have guess where I’m going with this, or rather where this took me) and the morning was rather overcast. I experienced a distinct sinking feeling as the spot spread to cover a large portion of the right side of my field of vision. I had a migraine. I spent most of the day dealing with the fallout of that, rather than getting anything done. Consequently, I’m struggling to come up with anything useful or interesting for you.

So what’s in a hero? Guts, mostly.

I have recently been listing to Jordan Peterson’s 2017 lecture series on personality. Thus far, I highly recommend them. They’ll at least bend your brain. In particular, I’m appreciating the brief moments where Dr. Peterson ties in Carl Jung’s archetypes. Particularly that of the Hero, which has sparked some brief thoughts related to storytelling. While Jung (and Dr. Peterson) is involved primarily in attempting to unpack the deep waters of the human psyche, I’m mostly interested in what I can pull out in making my own characters more engaging to readers.

So. The Hero is a young man (typically) who is often orphaned, raised apart from his people, brought to a revelatory moment of his own extraordinariness by a sage figure, and who must then contend with chaos in order to move forward. Usually this involves a descent into the underworld, and a wounding. Some (very) low hanging examples of this are Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Arthur Pendragon is another. Luke and Harry are both raised by an aunt and uncle who are mostly ordinary, both have a moment where they are told things are not as they thought they were (old, bearded men distributing quests are no basis for a system of legend. Or perhaps they are) and who then go on to struggle with chaos.

Luke descends into the Cave and encounters a vision of his Dark Father (spoilerssss!!) which is actually himself and is mirrored by his later encounter with Darth Vader in the infernally lit carbonite freezing chamber. Harry goes into the bowels of Hogwarts and fights a monster snake. Both are wounded in the hand, and miraculously healed. Magic, and magical super-science are handy things, though I should note that each felt the agony of their wounds. In order to overcome chaos, Luke must face the reality that Vader is his own father. Harry has to reconcile that much of what makes him unique was “gifted” to him by Voldemort. Both then go on to strike down that which caused the chaos in the first place.

Here’s the thing. Our protagonists- well, okay, not protagonists, necessarily. Technically, someone looking to stop a villain from resurrecting the darkest of dark gods would be an antagonist. Our heroes, to use the proper term, are those who encounter anomalies which demolish their sense of self, and who then go on to rebuild and overcome the chaos.

Now, a good bit of this definition of hero is rooted in Jungian psychology. He was working to bare the inner working of the human psyche by drawing out the fundamental commonalities of human collective subconscious. He spent his life working to codify and explain the imagery that all humans everywhere have put into their stories. More or less. Jung is deep, and worthy of study. For our purposes, this ties in nicely with Campbell’s Monomyth. In fact, the Hero archetype goes through the (sometime abbreviated) Hero’s Journey. So this isn’t going to apply completely to every story.

What we can do as writers of stories, however, is plumb these ideas for imagery. And resonance. Does your hero (or heroine. It’s not a girl/guy thing. Hero to all) have a dark night of the soul somewhere? Usually, there’s a try/fail cycle that leaves a hero bruised and battered. You can always add some under-y world-y setting to the experience, even if they’re left staring into a campfire, nursing their wounds. Or maybe it’s more overt: and actual descent into a hellish underground to fight Morlocks. Or a dragon.

Ultimately, however, you hero should experience that destruction of their sense of self. They make a mistake and a friend, ally, or lover dies. They find out All is Not As It Seems. Again. And it throws them for a loop. Something takes them out of the fight, and takes the fight out of them. The reason the Hero and his Journey is archetypal is because everybody’s been there. We’ve all failed. Use that shared experience to draw your reader even further into your story, and the eventual triumph will be all the greater.

13 comments

  1. — So what’s in a hero? Guts, mostly. —

    Uh, no. Which is part of the reason so many young people have their minds twisted by celebrities and sports figures the media routinely calls “heroes.”

    A hero is one who puts himself at risk for someone or something else. There are no other important characteristics. He can be young, old, big, little, tall, short, fat, thin, male, or female. He can be naturally courageous or a “reformed coward.” He can put himself at risk for a loved one, for some other innocent, or for an important principle. But his willingness to risk himself or some important personal interest is the critical factor.

    Consider in that light two historical figures: Reverend Terry Waite, and Father Damien of Molokai. They make good prototypes for the hero of distinction.

    1. Ah, but that’s not Jung’s definition. Popular culture and Jung are often at odds, or rather, popular media and Jung. For all that I think Dennis Rodman is a flake who has more than a few kangaroos in his top paddock, I give him full credit for insisting that he was NOT a hero, and that he and other sports figures should not be used as role models.

      1. — Ah, but that’s not Jung’s definition. —

        Who cares what Jung thought? Or Freud, or Kraft-Ebbing, or Franz-Antony Mesmer, or Harvey Glumph? I prefer to focus on what characteristics I would want in someone on whom I’d staked my hope of rescue.

    2. > A hero is one who puts himself at risk for someone or something else. There are no other important characteristics.

      I concur. And that’s one reason I was so annoyed after 9/11, when the PR machine got cranked up to 11 for “New York City’s Fireman Heroes.” (send your generous contributions promptly!)

      Um, no. They weren’t heroes. They got their jobs by competitive examination. They went to schools – lots of schools – to learn how to deal with fire, collapsing structures, rescue methods, and so forth. And then they did live training on test fires. They had fire engines, ambulances, fireproof clothing, breathing gear, helmets, axes, scene commanders who knew where they were every second, radios, and ropes to follow out, or be pulled out by, if it came to that.

      They were professionals, doing their job. But they weren’t heroes.

      The heroes were the bystanders who held their breath, darted in, and hauled people out of the burning wreckage, who burned their hands on hot debris digging bodies out of rubble, the handful who went in and didn’t come out alive…

      Those were heroes, every one. But they didn’t have a union singing their praises, or TV beg-a-thons for money. Instead they got finger-wags from the “experts” telling them they were foolish for even trying. Better to let people die in place; the experts will recover their bodies in due time.

    3. It is an odd thing that the words hero and heroine have in their constant use in connection with literary fiction entirely lost their meaning. A hero now means merely a young man sufficiently decent and reliable to go through a few adventures without hanging himself or taking to drink.
      — G. K. Chesterton

  2. Well, let’s look at the Bronze Age hero, then.

    1. It helps to be partially divine. Of course, a lot of guys are partially divine, or children of a foreign father who’s a hero or king. (This doesn’t count as raised away from one’s people, btw, because of course your mother’s people are your important kin, unless your dad also lives there.)

    2. Usually you should be tall and strong, and striking in appearance. Sometimes you’re charismatic, and sometimes you’re a grump or a serial killer or kinda gross.

    3. Skill with weaponry, either from youth or by sudden acquisition. Magic weapons or special stunt skills are a plus.

    4. Leader of men, or able to be an army of one.

    5. Proud and touchy. Don’t let anybody else take the good bits of the roast! At least not without a fight!.

    6. Well-spoken, if speeches are needed. Possibly good at lore or tricks or other professions.

    7. Loved by beautiful women, envied by lesser men.

    8. Courageous in battle and when dying. Ability to go berzerk can be helpful, but you will probably kill at least one friend/girlfriend/son/relative of the king.

    9. Whiny and righteously angry when things go bad, if it’s not your fault.

    10. Able to talk to gods, to the point that you sass them.

    1. 12. I also forgot that a hero is naturally magnanimous and generous to his friends and to the gods, in return for loyalty or favors. He may also be kind to people in need, if they are appropriate people to receive kindness. His hospitality is legendary, and those who come to his house are safe from harm. (Unless there’s a fight over the roast.)

    2. The strange thing is how Campbell, Jung, et al take the father thing as being normal, when actually it’s mostly pre-classical Greeks who had a thing about fathers. A guy like Odysseus was raised in his father’s house and didn’t kill his dad, and had a son who grew up equally loyal to him. There are a few “kill your father” stories in the rest of the world, but it’s not usual or normal.

      But a lot of Greek stories are full of father anxiety, because a lot of young Greeks had a lot of abuse worries with older Greek men. (Well, that’s my explanation, anyway.)

  3. “Then what is magic for?” Prince Lír demanded wildly. “What use is wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn?” He gripped the magician’s shoulder hard, to keep from falling.

    Schmedrick did not turn his head. With a touch of sad mockery in his voice, he said, “That’s what heroes are for.”
    — Peter S. Beagle,

  4. From Marion G. Harmon: Villains Inc. (Wearing the Cape Series Book 2)

    Whenever somebody asks me to define what a hero is, I remember Latane and Darley’s experiment, staging epileptic fits in front of one, two, or three observers. A solitary observer will help immediately if he’s going to help at all, but the larger the crowd the longer the delay. It’s the Bystander Effect: the wider the diffusion of responsibility, the greater the impulse to let someone else go first. The hero goes first.

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