You’ll often hear a main character being referred to as the “hero” of a story. But are all main characters really heroes? Traditionally, “heroism” referred to a set of elevated noble traits that characterized the best of humanity. By developing an understanding of these traits, you can incorporate them into your own character development and make your protagonist even more memorable for your readers.

Read on for everything you need to know about what it means to be a hero, and how to write your own.

What is heroism in writing?

Heroism refers to a range of idealistic qualities that represent the best of what a person can be. For example, heroes are usually compassionate, courageous, and resilient in the face of adversity. They put the wellbeing of others before their own, and choose to fight for what’s right even when it’s difficult.

These heroic qualities are not something which are only attainable by the select few; the potential to embrace them exists in everyone. Thus, heroes show people the potential to become heroes themselves.

Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they’re heroes until they’ve been tested.

What’s the difference between a hero and an antihero?

People often conflate the word hero with a protagonist or main character. However, heroes, as we’ve seen, specifically refer to characters who exhibit certain admirable traits. An antihero is another kind of main character who inverts some of this classic heroic behavior.

For example, an antihero character might be self-serving, cowardly, or jaded. They might switch teams halfway through the story to serve their own interests, or they might commit un-heroic acts to serve the greater good. Readers especially love seeing these morally ambiguous characters go on complex inner journeys and emerge as true heroes, so this is another approach you can take when developing your characters.

You can find out more about these fan-favorite characters in our dedicated lesson on antiheroes here!

15 qualities of a hero in literature

All heroes share certain qualities that elevate them in some way. Now keep in mind, not all heroes need to have every single one of these traits. Heroes can be human just like everyone else and, in being human, they’re bound to have some flaws (we’ll talk more about the idea of a fatal flaw down below). However, a hero will have at least some of these characteristics that guide their actions through the story.


Heroes are driven by nobility, which means thinking in terms of a world bigger than themselves. They have altruistic motives—or discover altruistic motives along the way—and want to make a difference in the wider world. This is where we get the idea of class nobility or “noble birth”; people born into positions of power were often responsible for the wellbeing of the land and the people that they ruled over.

Heroes care deeply for the well-being of others.


Closely related to nobility is selflessness, which means putting the good of others before one’s own. Heroes in literature can often be found sacrificing their own wellbeing or personal safety to ensure the happiness or survival of others.


Idealism means believing in and striving for a better world, even when others might think it’s naïve or unrealistic. Heroes are willing to fight social and political battles that might seem out of reach to those around them. It’s this idealism that keeps them going even in the face of unexpected obstacles and challenges.


Real heroes—both the literary variety and the real-world, “everyday heroism” variety—exhibit compassion towards others. This means choosing kindness and understanding even when someone is abrasive or acting in questionable ways. Heroes seek to understand why villains behave the way they do, and often discover that villainous actions come from a very human and empathetic place.

Moral conviction

Heroes have a rigorous personal code of moral principles that they adhere to which guides them throughout their journey. While the specific parameters of this code can vary—each hero has their own set of guidelines based on their social psychology and experiences—they’ll always know where their line is and what they need to do to keep from crossing it.


Loyalty and honesty are some of the central characteristics of a hero. A real hero will never sacrifice their personal values, which includes lying and unscrupulous dishonesty. They need to believe in themselves and respect what they stand for, which means always striving to be the best they can be—sometimes at the expense of external gain.

Heroes are guided by their strong moral compass


Heroes generally think of themselves as normal people. When they start thinking of themselves as elite and elevated, that tends to be when heroes turn into villains! Instead, they’ll look at their heroic deeds as small, necessary acts.


To be clear, courage is not the absence of fear (that would be bravery, a near-but-not-quite synonym). Instead, courage is the ability to overcome fear when the payoff means enough to them. Heroes will throw themselves into battle—physical or emotional—even if they’re terrified of the potential risk, because they know that what they’re fighting for is more important.


Even if some heroes are lacking in certain other heroic qualities, they all have one thing in common: the refusal to stay down. These characters will fight to the bitter end for their loved ones, their communities, and what they perceive to be the greater good.


Very often heroes are characterized by their leadership qualities; they make people want to follow them. Some heroes are forced into leadership positions by their circumstances, while others encourage others to follow them into what they see as a noble cause. They give someone to look up to in times of crisis.


Heroism isn’t all about brawn—one of the essential qualities of a hero is the ability to think on one’s feet. These characters are clever and able to see their way out of scrapes, and to notice details that others might miss.


Empathy means being able to relate to the feelings of others (which, by the way, is one of the key benefits of reading fiction written from other perspectives!). Heroes can understand why intense feelings make people act the way they do. Empathy also keeps them from making snap judgements on people different from themselves.

True heroes have a strong sense of empathy and compassion.


Even heroes get knocked down sometimes. One of the most important traits a hero can have is their ability to weather hardship and setbacks along their journey. In all good stories, the protagonist encounters obstacles and moments when it seems that all is lost (this is called the “dark night of the soul,” in literary terms). The mark of a true hero is that they make the choice to keep moving without losing hope.


Temperance means staying in balance. Heroes keep things in moderation, and refrain from letting volatile emotions like anger, fear, or obsession control them. Instead, they take a philosophical view of things and try their best to approach problems with a clear head. This is a sign of steady, controlled mental strength.


Finally, heroes serve as an inspiration to those around them. They have exceptional qualities that make others look up to them and strive to bring their heroic actions into their own life. (This, by the way, includes your readers too!) This gives them a responsibility to lead by example and be the change they want to see in the world.

How to write an effective hero in your story

Are you ready to take these qualities of a hero and use them to create a leading player of your own? Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Choose one trademark heroic trade

As we mentioned above, not all heroes have every single one of these qualities. If they did, in the timeless words of Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet, they “would certainly be a fearsome thing to behold.” Your hero may have some or even most of these traits, but they’ll stand out more if you choose one to really hone in on as your hero’s defining feature.

For instance, maybe your hero’s trademark quality is that they’re deeply compassionate to everyone they meet, even those who are abrasive and might have trouble eliciting compassion in others. Or, your hero’s key trait might be their ingenuity—they always have a master plan in the works and a solution to every problem. Or, perhaps, your hero’s real superpower is simply their extraordinary resilience.

By focusing on one defining strength, your hero has something to hold on to in times of crisis, and which inspires others to look up to them.

Choose one heroic weakness

Perfection is for Mary Sues. Weakness is human nature. To give your hero room to grow, choose one of these traits that’s a blind spot for your character. This is how you achieve a dynamic character arc.

For instance, maybe your hero is initially vain and proud (that’s the opposite of humility), and then learns to be more honest about their limitations as the story goes on. Or, maybe they allow themselves to be ruled by their fears until the events of the plot force them to learn courage.

The most effective protagonists are ones who change from one state of being to another. By giving your hero a key defining weakness, you set up the potential for a powerful, inspiring change (which shows your readers that they have the potential to overcome their own weaknesses, too).

Choose a key heroic strength and weakness to define your main character.

Don’t neglect their humanity

Finally, remember that literary heroes do more than just act heroically whenever they get a chance. They have aspirations, relationships, good days, bad days, formative experiences, things they feel are worth fighting for, and things that get on their nerves.

If you put together a character with a list of heroic traits and nothing else, they’re going to come off as a caricature. Be sure to do your character development work and explore who this person is beneath their brave exterior, what’s important to them, and why.

Heroes set a good example for your readers

Heroes are more than just capes in pursuit of justice, saving lives and righting the wrongs of society at large. They’re people who find the strength to do the right thing in difficult times, even if they’re afraid. Even if the odds are stacked against them. One of the greatest things about heroes is that they set a positive example for other people to see heroism within themselves. Now, you can create characters that do the same for your readers.