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Everything You’ll Ever Need For Writing Great Heroes

All About Heroes

Heroes are the number 1 archetype for any writer … They’re the protagonist ‘everyone’ wants to write. The archetypal hero appears in all religions, mythologies and epics of the world. He is an expression of our personal and collective unconscious, as theorised by Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. What’s more, all archetypal heroes share certain characteristics. See how many of these you can recognise from your own favourite heroes:

  • Traditionally male (and straight, plus able-bodied; in the world of movies, generally white too)
  • Born into danger, or royalty (or both)
  • Leaves family or land and lives with others
  • Hero has a special weapon only he can wield
  • Hero may have supernatural help (maybe an outsider, maybe from within himself, or both)
  • He will go on a journey of some kind (often literal, as well as metaphorical)
  • Hero experiences atonement with the father
  • When the hero dies, he is rewarded spiritually
  • The Hero must prove himself many times while on adventure
  • Some kind of event (frequently traumatic) will act as a catalyst to set him on his quest

Of course, there are obvious exceptions to the rules above. In recent decades, female heroes have become more and more commonplace. Sometimes the hero must search for atonement with his mother; sometimes both his parents. Other times that ‘special weapon’ the hero wields is metaphorical, rather than literal. This may be signified as ‘what’s right’ or ‘what’s true’ (sometimes both).

Most crucially, heroes in modern narratives – particularly movies – die very infrequently (usually because they want to continue the franchise!). Sometimes heroes will die, only to be regenerated somehow too.

All About Quest Narratives

That quest archetypal heroes go on is typically some kind of retrieval mission, be it a rescue; a search for the truth; or to set others free from a tyrannical leader. Frequently, it’s all of these things, hence the typical hero ‘getting the girl and killing the baddie’. 

If you grew up in the 80s like me, you may remember movies were big on fantasy / adventure back then. Like most kids, I was obsessed with thematic, epic stories of the time, which included LABYRINTH, THE NEVERENDING STORY and THE DARK CRYSTAL. In addition to having a high muppet quotient, these movies were highly symbolic and drew heavily on the notion of the hero having an undertake a quest:

  • LABYRINTH – a symbolic journey of acceptance. Sarah must “rescue” her half-brother from the goblins (her own childish desire to get rid of him/keep “her world” the same) in order to finally accept her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage.
  • THE NEVERENDING STORYa symbolic journey to adulthood. Bastian follows Atrayu’s journey across a nightmarish landscape where childhood innocence gets eaten up by the despair of adulthood in the form of The Nothing and its servant, The Big Black Wolf. Only by holding on to childhood wonder can we survive adulthood.
  • THE DARK CRYSTAL – a symbolic journey of understanding human nature and its “yin/yang”, there is good AND evil in all of us.  The crystal is ALL of us – we must be “whole”, if a single piece is missing, our “worlds” will be lost.

Failure is Not An Option

All the movies I have mentioned thus far all draw on Homer’s Odyssey to some degree. This was the ‘first’ epic quest narrative and one in which most modern versions are based (whether the writers realise it or not).

Just as Odysseus had to get back to his homeland before his wife Penelope was raffled off to some other suitor, they all have a DEADLINE:

  • Sarah must solve the labyrinth or her baby brother will be turned into a goblin (LABRYINTH)
  • Atreyu must solve the mystery of The Nothing or it will disappear (THE NEVERENDING STORY)
  • The Crystal must be healed or the Skeksis will reign forever (THE DARK CRYSTAL)

In other words: there are ALWAYS very bad consequences for the hero’s failure.

Heroes Need Stakes

If you’ve read my Thriller Screenplays book, you’ll know a deadline is conventional in this genre. Deadlines however play a great part in quest narratives, whether they’re thrillers or not. They help raise the STAKES – ie. ‘If the hero doesn’t do X, by Y time, then z happens.’

These three movies did a lot to cement the hero and quest as part of family movies in general, by the way.  Pixar is probably the king of this:

  •  TOY STORY (they’ll be lost toys FOREVER/destroyed by Sid)
  • A BUG’S LIFE (the anthill will be destroyed by the grasshoppers)
  • INSIDE OUT (childhood hopes and dreams will be DESTROYED!)

In other words, if the hero does not stand up, then ‘all is lost’.

Teen Stories

As kids grow up, we see the same kind of thing happening still in Young Adult properties, especially in dystopian trilogies:

  • THE HUNGER GAMES (Katniss must stand up for what is right by overcoming the games, then the system, symbolised by President Snow)
  • THE MAZE RUNNER (Thomas must do the same, but find out the truth about The Wicked corp)
  • DIVERGENT (Triss must stand up for what is right AND fight out the truth, so a combo again)

Archetypal Heroes

But heroes are not just for kids and families. We can see the archetypal hero in many other stories meant for adults, too:

  • Sometimes in horror, a hero will emerge to try and save as many people from the threat as they can. (This is what Ripley attempts to do in ALIEN and ALIENS)
  • In some comedies, rom-coms and dramas, a hero may stand up for what is right, despite the ‘status quo’ or ‘norm’ being against them (we saw this most recently in THE SHAPE OF WATER)
  • Many Thrillers pit a hero against a shadowy corporation who is trying to cover something up, or trick the world somehow (we saw this in THE MATRIX and RESIDENT EVIL franchises, but we also see it in novels, movies and TV dramas with a conspiracy element)
  • In many detective stories – police procedural or not – a hero may be the only one who can speak for the victim and ensure justice is served (with many crime fiction novels and TV Dramas doing this)
  • In Westerns, a hero will often come forth and rescue the innocent from bad people and bad situation (which is why many commentators call DRIVE an ‘urban Western‘)

But there are plenty more. See how many more you can spot in your favourites.

So Study The Odyssey!

As mentioned, we can trace the archetypal hero and the quest narrative back to Homer’s epic. It’s so universal, many writers don’t even realise they know this story already. There’s lots of brilliant, accessible commentary on it, including picture books, graphic novels and even infographics. I’ve included one with this post, below.

So if you’re writing a hero, don’t recycle what you’ve already seen … Go back to the SOURCE and consider the history of the character, instead. Think about the various versions we’ve seen and how yours is ‘the same … but different’.


Quest Narratives: The Prequel!

PSSSST! Did you know? The Odyssey is actually a sequel. You probably know The Iliad already, especially if ‘Trojan Horses’ mean anything to you. It’s worth checking out, especially for where it takes Odysseus and how he ends up on his quest. Enjoy!

More on Heroes

What Is A Hero?

How To Write Female Leads Like A Professional Screenwriter

Heroes, Villains and Disposable Men: On Male Characterisation

5 Problems With Female Leads

Best of 3 – Bad Guy Leads

Best of 3 – Enigmatic Female Leads

3 Questions For Your Male Action Hero Characters

Top 5 Ways Writers Screw Up Their Characters

5 Expendable Heroes We Hate To Love In Movies

6 Things Every Hero Needs

The Ultimate Guide To Character Development: 10 Steps To Creating Memorable Heroes

Good Luck!

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