Look, what’s that in the sky? A bird? A plane? No, it’s the hero archetype!! One of the most recognizable character archetypes in literature and film, heroes have captured our imagination for centuries. But it can, at times, be challenging to incorporate this archetype into your writing without turning it into a cliché.
It may surprise you to find that not all hero archetypes are cut from the same cloth. They can come from different walks of life and have different attitudes towards those around them. But, there are a few distinctive features that bind all heroes together. We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about this leading character archetype, with some helpful examples from literature.
What is a hero archetype?
The hero archetype is a character who acts as a force for the greater good, defending those weaker than themselves to the point of self sacrifice. They’re usually elevated above those around them in some way, whether that’s through a superpower or magical advantage, or through an exemplary personal trait such as great courage or compassion.
Traditionally, heroes are the protagonist of a story; the narrator follows them along their journey as the hero overcomes adversaries and protects those they love. Some of these protagonists set out to be heroes from the beginning, while others come to their hero-ness gradually as they’re shaped by their experiences.
We’ll look at the different forms a literary hero can take later in this article.
Characteristics of the hero archetype
Heroes can look very different across different genres and types of stories; however, there are a few key hero archetype characteristics that you’ll see recurring in this distinctive literary figure.
1. They’re loyal
Heroes are fiercely loyal to those they care about. For some, this might be a country, political system, or community; for others, it might only be one or two close family members or friends. Whether a hero’s personal battleground is large or small, they’re prepared to ride or die for the people they love.
For some hero archetypes, such as everyman heroes or anti-heroes (and we’ll look at both of those in more detail below), this loyalty can be the thing that pushes them from the role of survivor to true hero.
2. They have a code of honor
Heroes have a determined sense of what’s right and wrong. This isn’t a universal standard—what’s “wrong” can vary from one character to another. But within their own personal worldview, a hero archetype will have a clear line that they know they cannot cross.
For instance, maybe your hero is comfortable stealing from baddies, but they refuse to steal from those who are most in need. Or maybe your hero does some bad things in pursuit of justice, but they decided long ago that they won’t ever lie. Hero archetypes know exactly how far they’re willing to go, and what they need to do to hold themselves back from that line.
3. They have a particular strength that sets them apart
You can usually tell the hero of a story by their distinctive “superpower.” In many cases, this is an actual superpower or magical gift. They might be chosen or prophesied for a particular purpose, or come from a proud lineage of warriors.
However, your hero’s superpower could be something more benign: extraordinary courage, quick-thinking street skills, or a gift for making people laugh. This strength will, in some way, become essential on their hero’s journey and help them overcome obstacles along the way.
4. They stand up to injustice
One of the most admirable qualities of the hero archetype, heroes are always ready to stand up against perceived wrongdoing—whether this is a multinational conglomerate dumping toxic waste into a pristine ecosystem, or a bully on a playground. This can get them into trouble if they start a fight before they’re ready for it.
Sometimes, characters become heroes gradually over time. In this case, they might start out as too afraid to stand up to the injustices they see around them, but find the strength to do so later on. This can be an effective way to show your reader how much your character has grown.
5. They’re driven by something greater than themselves
A hero isn’t out for self-gain—even if they start off thinking they are. Their true goal will be about something more.
Maybe they’re driven by a need to repair a fundamentally corrupt society, or maybe they’re trying to protect a younger sibling from an outside enemy. It’s this ability to put the well-being of others before themselves—consciously or unconsciously—that makes them a hero.
Types of hero archetypes
Even though all true hero archetypes will share certain attributes, they can look quite different on the page depending on where they come from and where they ultimately end up in a story. Here are the specific types of hero archetype you’ll meet in literature and film.
The classical hero
The classical hero is a natural-born leader. They may not be the strongest or the fastest kid on the block, but they have a charismatic je ne sais quoi that makes people trust them and want to follow them. These heroes will usually have a strong moral compass and exhibit noble qualities such as courage, integrity, and compassion.
Often these heroes are of noble birth, but they can also just be well-loved people who always try to do the right thing. King Arthur is an example of this hero archetype.
The everyman hero
The everyman hero is a regular Joe (or Jane) who is thrown into extraordinary circumstances. They’re not born into great wealth or privilege, and they’re not gifted with magical abilities or extranatural intelligence. They look and act like anyone you might see walking down the street—any one of us—and yet, through their hero’s journey, they find they have the capacity for heroic deeds within them.
Readers particularly love everyman heroes because they show us that in times of crisis, we can rise to be heroes too. Simon Lewis from The Mortal Instruments is an example of an everyman hero archetype.
The epic or super hero
The epic hero or superhero archetype may have exploded onto cinema screens in recent years, but their roots run all the way back to the classical heroes of ancient mythology. They have extraordinary abilities and often find themselves pitted against equally extraordinary adversaries.
Unlike the everyman archetypal hero, these hero archetypes are completely removed from our own way of living. They allow readers a glimpse into another world, knowing that no matter how much danger the hero finds themselves in, everything will be okay in the end. Achilles from Greek mythology and Superman from DC comics are examples of epic heroes.
The anti-hero archetype is a character who doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional hero in some way. Often, anti-heroes have personality traits more commonly associated with a villain, but they use those traits for good instead of evil.
An anti-hero might be broody, sarcastic, or short-tempered; they might lie or cheat their way through conflicts in pursuit of their goal. Anti-heroes are relatable and endearing, and readers love seeing their dynamic character arcs as they learn to fight for what’s right. Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Batman from DC comics are examples of anti-hero archetypes.
The tragic hero
The tragic hero archetype is a hero that’s held back or brought down by a deep personal flaw. This might be something like excessive pride, impatience, ambition, or fear. The hero’s tragic flaw keeps them from realizing their full potential and, in many cases, leads to their downfall.
Sometimes, a tragic hero can overcome their flaw through the choices they make on their journey. For example, Dickens’ character Ebeneezer Scrooge has one deep and fatal flaw: his avarice. The story makes it clear what will happen to him if he allows this flaw to devour him. Ultimately, however, he’s able to grow and dodge that fate in favor of a happy ending. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is another example of the tragic hero archetype.
Examples of hero archetype characters from literature
Let’s look at some popular examples of heroes from our favorite stories.
Harry Potter, the main character of the series by the same name, is a pretty classic hero figure. While he has certain everyman qualities that make him relatable to young readers, he’s also the focus of a magical prophecy and gifted with the bravery, nobility, and leadership skills that make him a hero others are willing to live and die for.
Despite his underdog upbringing in the ordinary world, Harry uses his heroism to inspire others and make his world a better place.
Wonder Woman encapsulates many of the classic superhero trappings, with one key difference: she’s a dame. In 1941, when she first appeared in the pages of DC comics, this was a pretty big deal. Superheroes weren’t a new thing at this point, but Wonder Woman taught young girls that they could be powerful, too.
Inspired by classical mythology, this hero archetype brought epic-scale battles to living color in a way that was approachable and relatable to modern readers.
Odysseus was the epic hero in the mythological cycle surrounding The Odyssey, The Iliad, and other works of the time. To this day, readers still love the range of retellings about Odysseus and his friends overcoming obstacles, conquering beasties, and finding their way home.
His stories formed the basis of much of the adventure genre, and you can find echoes of this hero archetype all across literature.
The protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and the film of the same name is a less obvious hero than some of these others; he grows from a curious and lovesick boy into a brave warrior and legend of his people.
His journey has elements in common with that of both Harry Potter and King Arthur; he’s born unknowingly into an extraordinary heritage, goes on a quest to secure something precious, and comes into his heroic nature along the way.
The hero archetype represents the best that we can be
Heroes are some of our favorite characters, in real life and in the world of fiction. Classical storytelling has often revolved around heroic figures because they show the reader or the listener that anyone is capable of these heroic traits—even if you’re not the hidden son of a king or born into magical powers. Now, you can use this story archetype to help inspire others.