The hero in storytelling
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Written by Eline

Published: December 13, 2018

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Last update: June 19, 2024

What makes a hero?

In this blogpost we want to dive into the hero in storytelling by asking ourselves the question: “What makes a hero?” We can just tell you what Christopher Reeve’s take is on the hero, since he was the first actor to play the ultimate hero on big screen: Superman.

” A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

~ Christopher Reeve

We had an entire discussion about this topic that was quite fun. If you are not in the mood to read and prefer to listen to our ramblings, you can find the podcast here:

First, we want to point out that a lot of protagonists are heroes, but a hero is not a protagonist per se. So, if the question is: “Does being the protagonist make you the hero?”, the answer is simple: “No!” Besides the anti-hero, there are numerous examples of protagonists that are anything but heroic.

Superheroes

The first type of hero that comes to mind is usually the superhero, especially amongst our American readers and listeners. So, is it then that all heroes have a kind of superpower that makes them heroic? Maybe that depends on how you define ‘superpower’.

Which superpowers are out there?

Let’s have look at the superpowers that we can think of:

1) Straight-forward superpowers

You have the straight-forward superpowers like:

  • Supernatural speed: The Flash, Dash from The Incredibles
  • Superstrength: The Hulk
  • Breathing under water: Aquaman, the Argonians in The Elder Scrolls 😉
  • Superstretchiness: Elastigirl from The Incredibles

2) More specific, sometimes thematic or far-fetched combos

  • Shooting cobwebs from your wrists + extreme agility + superstrength = Spiderman
Superheroes - what makes a hero

3) ‘All of the above’ – package-deal random superpowers

  • X-ray vision + flying + superstrength + superhearing + superspeed + supernatural way of disquising yourself with a simple pair of glasses = Superman

And then, of course, you also have the cheaters. 😉 They seem to possess superpowers but those are not part of who they are. In fact, they get help from advanced technology. Often, these examples are also supernaturally rich, which is a reason in itself to be worshipped as a hero these days.

4) Superpower by technological add-on

  • Iron Man: suit, gadgets
  • Batman: suit, gadgets, automobile, motorcycle, helicopter, …
  • Captain America: shield

Then you have the hybrids who combine natural abilities with technology. I think one example springs to mind:

  • Wolverine: superhealing + advanced technology in the form of metal claws (a kind of Edward Scisserhands-tool to cut hedges and throats all the same)

In any case, with Thor just being plucked out of Germanic and Norse mythology, it’s very likely other superheroes have been inspired by mythological gods and half-gods as well or the heroes from ancient legends. Superpowers can come from anywhere… Superheroes can be born with them, or be genetically modified. If their powers don’t come from magic, they can be inflicted by science or be weird byproducts of experiments or accidents.

What makes a hero? Iron Man

Do superpowers make heroes?

This is an interesting question. We have three approaches to make our case that having superpowers is not enough to be considered a hero.

1) There are numerous supervillains, e.g. villains who have superpowers. Conclusion: superpowers don’t make you a hero.

2) Belgian comics feature heroes that don’t have any superpowers and that are quite different from the American superheroes. Conclusion: heroes don’t always have superpowers.

3) The hero is often surrounded by other supporting characters who act like heroes. Conclusion: heroes are not exclusively protagonists. Side-characters or sidekicks can be heroes as well.

1) Supervillains

Supervillains can aquire their powers in a similar way the hero has, e.g. a scientific experiment gone wrong, a venomous bite or revolutionary technology, … This proves that it’s not the superpowers that make the hero, but the hero’s actions and choices.

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” ~ Batman

Spiderman or superman without their decent upbringing might as well have been Spidervillain and Supervillain. Amazing superpowers or powerful technology in the wrong hands, may trigger selfish evil acts instead of heroism.

  • Superman is a hero; Zod is… not.
  • Batman certainly makes better use of his riches than Lex Luthor.
  • Elastigirl is definitely less scary than the X-files monster from the episode Squeeze.
  • And Wolverine and Edward Scissorhands are definitely more cuddly than Freddy Krueger.

Of course, heroes rarely start off as perfect, or you wouldn’t get a very exciting story. They often have a growth arc. They learn and adjust during their hardships. Some might even start off as selfish or have a different motivation that gradually changes. Many superhero movies and series are about the hero’s origin story. Batman Begins (2005) is Bruce Wayne’s journey towards becoming Batman. Smallville is en entire series dedicated to Clark Kent’s upbringing, childhood and especially his teen years until the big moment when he deserves to wear his suit and takes of on his first flight. In the same way, The Treasure of Boneyard Bay is Ludlov’s journey from an initiate in the Witch Hunter Order to earning the hat.

Can’t villains become heroes? Certainly! There are numerous examples. E.g. Megamind and Gru from Despicable Me, two animation movies that came out in the same year (2010). While Megamind gradually becomes the hero after his own hero-creation turns evil and threatens the woman he loves; Gru, after giving new meaning to the expression ‘aim for the moon’ changes his ways for the sake of three orphan girls he really warms up to.

Gru - villain to hero

2) Belgian comics

If you assumed all comics featured superheroes, you probably don’t live in Belgium. The Belgian comics are very different from the American comics. Instead of adults, the protagonists are usually children or teens. They are often smart, courageous and virtuous. If characters have a sort of superpower, it’s usually the sidekicks and side-characters.

Common character tropes are: the strong man (e.g. Jerome) and the (nutty) professor (e.g. Gobelijn, Barabas). The first obviously has the physical strength to help the heroes in peril. Therefore, it is not uncommon for the muscles of the story to be on holiday or picking up an award somewhere or visiting grandma, only to turn up at the end to play deus-ex-machina. the latter is the brains of the operation and usually comes up with an intelligent scientific solution, enables traveling over large distances or time travel and is occasionally even the cause of a problem when distracted.

Popular examples of Belgian comic books that honour these tropes are Suske & Wiske, Jommeke and Kuifje (TinTin). American readers might recognize the last comic from Spielberg’s 2011 adaptation.

The protagonists in Belgian comics usually have a gifted pet as a helper as well. Suske and Wiske have Tobias the dog, Jommeke has Flip the parrot and Kuifje has his dog, Bobby. Who knows, maybe the idea of Folkrin subconsciously came from Domien reading comics as a child…

Belgian comics heroes

3) Hero-friends or partners

Harry Potter is a great example of a hero. He faces evil despite his fears. Still, that does not mean he has to solve everything by himself. After all, Steve Jobs would have been nothing without Steve Wozniak. Very much like the Belgian comics protagonist, Harry Potter relies on his closest friends, who are very capable. Hermione is the brains and Ron might not be the muscles but he does provide the much needed (often unintentional) comedy during the obstacles and hardships our heroes face. Within the context of Hogwarts, Harry is not even particularly gifted. Just like Jommeke, Kuifje, Suske and Wiske, he is smart and resourceful and… he has loyal friends and an awesome pet.

Dispite their abilities, American superheroes often work with partners as well. E.g. Batman has commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox and Alfred. He even has a successor, Robin, as soon as he retires.

So, a hero can be a loner or he can have a backlog of friends or sidekicks. Or, you can have the popular heroic duo. Our favourite heroic duo consists of a male and a female who complement each other. Needless to say we are big fans of Scully and Mulder. They have such a special friendship and a bond of trust as colleages, they respect and influence each other so much, that we often refer to them as Sculder and Mully.

Mulder and Scully - heroic duo

It’s not a coincidence that in Witch Hunter, Ludlov teams up with Samina and that in The Will of the Woods, Myrilia decides to travel with the Wraith. Nor is it by chance that Domien and I teamed up as a couple to write and produce our fantasy stories together, from The Treasure of Boneyard Bay on.

Acts of heroism

If superpowers or other abilities don’t make you a hero, then what does? We believe it’s acts of heroism. But how then do you difine an act of heroism? What do heroes do on a regular day, besides riding their horse towards the sunset, walk away from an explosion wearing sunglasses or hacking their way through an evil army of undead?

Heroes save people… And we are convinced that a hero, in essence, is in fact a saviour. Whether he saves his loved one, his sister or the entire world, it doesn’t really matter. And how he does it, is not really that important either. What matters is they rescue people.

There are, however, different ways to do this. A hero can act like a saviour:

1) through fighting:

Mulan, Aragorn, Jake Sully, … They all fought for what they believed was right. Jake even had to slightly adjust his opinion about what that meant specifically.

2) through intensive care:

You don’t need to fight to become a hero. Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) proves that. Not only by caring for the wounded but by his stubborn determination to remain a pacifist while insisting to take up his war duty at the same time.

3) through courage and determination:

Kevin McCallister (Home Alone), Mrs. Brisby (The Secret of NIMH), Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Onward), … All these heroes faced their problems or reached there goals by being resourseful and determined.

4) through smart or strategic decisions:

Bilbo (The Hobbit), Jeff Talley (Hostage), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Jack Ryan (Tom Clancy novels), Robert Langdon (Dan Brown novels), … They all defeat a number of obstacles by making smart or strategic decisions.

5) through call-to-action

Sometimes, a hero can just be the person who answers to the call-to-action despite his reservations and excuses. Bilbo is, again, the perfect example of that. 

6) through stubborn inactivity

It is rare, but it works. Even through stubborn inactivity you can become a hero, and even a martyr if you mess with the wrong gouvernment. The character Franz Jägerstätter in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece A Hidden Life (2019) embodies the greatest example.

7) through sacrifice

The ultimate hero saves the world through sacrifice. This is a very Christian idea. In that respect, Jesus is the ultimate hero.

Frodo is a great example of a character that sacrifices everything for the world: the comforts of his home, his present and his future, all that he is and has, … He returns to the Shire, not sort of ‘stretched’ like Bilbo, but utterly spent.

Frodo Baggins - What makes a hero

The Hero’s Journey – from zero to hero

True heroes all seem to be giving something up for a greater good. Like I’ve mentioned before they don’t start off amazing. They learn, they adjust, they improvise and they show real courage. That is why in my opinion, Rey from The Force Awakens is not a heroin, at least not like our other examples. Other than the grumpy attitude she seems to have no character flaws and she feels so utterly flat as a character that I didn’t really care what happened to her. Her decisions weren’t really altruistic. She seemed to be driven by random curiosity and a selfish arrogance. 

There are more examples of Mary Sues and Gary Stus that kind of leave us unengaged. That is why ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is such a solid narrative structure that is often used. The ultimate example is Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars episodes 4 to 6. And these are mirrored by the tragic developments in episode 1 to 3, where the capable Anakin Skywalker with tons of hero potential becomes the protagonist of a tragedy instead in Revenge of the Sith. 

Revenge of the Sith - Hero's journey

Heroic conclusion

So what is our conclusion after all these incoherent ramblings? A hero is often the protagonist but is not exclusively the protagonist. And a protagonist is not a hero per se. A protagonist can be morally confused or conflicted, but if he doesn’t ultimately make the right choice, he’s not a hero.

Overall, a hero is a virtuous character who does the right thing, despite the obstacles. Often this involves saving or rescuing one or more people. They usually give something up to reach their goals. The ultimate hero makes a huge sacrifice or may even sacrifice himself for someone else or for a greater good.

When we think of a hero we do often think about our favourite superhero and his powers or abilities. But we also do associate true heroism with sacrifice. It is only logical. Our idea of what makes a hero is based on both the Christian and pagan influences in our cultural heritage. 

But more important than the discussion about the definition and semantics is the question: how do heroic role models inspire us to perform small acts of heroism in our daily lives? 

Podcast!

If you’d like to hear a recap of this blog post and give your own opinion as a comment, make sure to listen to the podcast version of this article on YouTube:

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