So You Want to Be a Hero?
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.
How They Fight: Heart vs. Intelligence
This is the era of the Heart hero. Movie wars these days are won not with intelligence but with heart. Villains are often intelligent masterminds who are defeated because the hero has heart. Harry Potter is a hero of the Heart. He isn’t the best with spells, or the cleverest, or the most powerful—he’s the one who is brave and loyal to his friends and who will stand up for what is right. Naruto and Maka (from Soul Eater) are both excellent examples of Heart heroes as well, heroes whose use their passion and their bravery to defeat enemies smarter, more skilled, and more powerful than them.
But not all heroes have an appetite for masochism. Some heroes use their wits to defeat enemies far more powerful than them. This is the older, Clever Odysseus style of hero. Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos is one of my favorite clever heroes. He doesn’t win because of power; he wins because he’s a wily S.O.B. Phedre from Kushiel’s Dart is a fascinating study, as she is about as unempowered as they get, but smart enough to use wits to win against those who hold her chains.
How They Win: Power vs. Endurance
And by Power, I mean Conan-like strength yes, but also Professor X-level smarts, Gandalf-grade magic, the ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes, or even having one robotic arm. I mean you win because you have bigger guns, be they metaphorical or otherwise. Most modern heroes are heroes of Power. They are gifted in some fashion, and it is with that extraordinary gift that they defeat their enemies. Katsa from Graceling is gifted—literally—with great fighting ability. Pug, from Magician: Apprentice, is gifted with magic, which is both his heroic calling and his method for overcoming his enemies.
For others, heroism isn’t how you act on ice cream Sundays—it’s how you act when all your cards are on the table, and Death is about to play his hand. Heroes are those who, instead of folding when the going gets tough, like any normal person would, fight on, enduring and continuing on in pursuit of their goal. And that sacrifice lends a lot of credence to a cause—after all, no one would sacrifice so much for an unjust cause.
The epitome of the endurance hero is Frodo Baggins—who gets hit with everything the world can throw at him, and walks on with that terrible ring, to an end he doesn’t even hope to return from. At any point he could go home to the Shire. But he never does. And that’s what makes him a true Endurance hero.
What Kind of Hero Are You, Anyway?
The modern hero is a Necessity-Heart-Power hero. The classic hero is a Conviction-Intelligence-Endurance hero. What kind of hero are you?
1. So, you want to be a hero?
b. Umm, why?
2. The king...
a. Is a villain who charges too many taxes and must be stopped.
b. Is trying to put me in the dungeons for crimes I didn't commit!
3. What do you find more interesting?
a. World news
b. Entertainment news
4. In the Hero School Yearbook, you were renowned for:
a. Taking the entrance exam 47 times.
b. Getting the top score in Defense Against Antagonists class.
5. When someone throws a punch and you:
a. Take it without flinching and keep on coming!
b. Redirect its power and throw them over your shoulder.
6. When you are entering a fight you can't possibly win, you:
a. Go in anyway--people are depending on you, and you might slow them down enough for those people to get away.
b. Figure out a way to game the system--if you can't win the fight on his terms, you make it on yours.
7. When it comes to track, your race is:
a. The marathon
b. The sprint
8. Everything you've gotten in life, you've gotten from:
a. Hard work
b. Sheer talent
9. Which better describes your philosophy?
a. When something is important to you, you must never let it get away without first giving everything to achieve it.
b. It's about the journey, not the destination
Questions 1-3: Mostly As: Conviction, Mostly Bs: Necessity|Questions 4-6: Mostly As: Heart, Mostly Bs: Intelligence|Questions 7-9: Mostly As: Endurance, Mostly Bs: Power