From Batman to Obama, Navy Seals to Captain America, Robin Hood to Stephen Colbert, we need heroes. Heroes arise in response to the needs and problems we have as a society, and a lot can be learned about a society from its heroes. Do we value perseverance and loyalty or genius and talent? Do we value passion and faith, distrusting science and cleverness, or do we value intelligence and progress and struggle against blind belief and the unthinking status quo? And are we idealistic, believing that if we don't stand up for what we believe in, then what's the point of living anyway—or are we devoted to the idea of equality and peace, to living a full, enjoyable life with our friends and families, only drawn into conflict when these things are threatened?
Making a hero that people respond to requires an understanding of the times and society in which you live. Popular hero archetypes almost always come in waves, responding to the needs of the society. You can see it in the movies and books that hit it big. Based on the current pain points in a society, people will be drawn to heroes that relieve that pain, that let them believe that the world could be different.
I've outlined a few of the basic decisions that define your character in society below. In making these choices, you're also choosing what audience you want to appeal to, as well as what kind of story you're going to tell. So, what kind of hero are you, anyway? And what kind of hero do you think our society needs?
Why They Fight: Necessity vs. Conviction
Bound by circumstances, some heroes are heroes by necessity. Marked with a lightning bolt on their forehead or a silver circle on their palm, they cannot hide from their destinies. Their choices are to fight—or die. The attraction here is that the hero is by nature modest. Modern society realizes there’s something a bit cracked about wanting to be a hero—and not a little cocky. The hero-by-necessity is easy to identify with because they’re us—only, something extraordinary happened to them, and they became heroes.
Garion, of The Belgariad, whose palm is marked with a silver circle, whose enemy can sense him and has been searching for him, and whose only choices are death or resistance, is a perfect example of a Necessity hero. Percy Jackson, likewise, is literally chased by monsters until he gives in and accepts his heroic destiny.
The classic heroes of old are heroes by choice, not necessity, and sometimes, that choice is the whole point. It’s not an easy choice. But these heroes can choose nothing else. In a way, they’re as bound as the Necessity heroes, but by their own integrity. They know their cause is just and their path righteous, and they can do no other than walk that path. And there is something powerful in that conviction. People are drawn to it, even as they don’t understand it. Because the Conviction hero could have chosen the easy way out and instead chose heroism, chose sacrifice over happiness, they are far more admirable—if less sane—than their Necessity counterparts.
Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich to feed the poor, even when it means his own head, is an excellent example of a Conviction hero. He knows that King Richard wouldn’t approve of King John’s laws, and so he fights them any way he can, even though it may mean his life.