Creating a Believable Hero

Within the massive umbrella of the fiction genre, many authors choose to tell the tale of the adventures of some incredible hero. That hero could be incredible for many various reasons and is also the perfect person to overcome the conflict at hand, but they don’t always exhibit the fundamental qualities of a leader. Is every hero a leader? No. But does every hero lead?

The crux of that question is what I want to explore here. In a vast majority of fiction novels that involve the protagonist as a “hero”, the hero is always thrust into greatness – despite their initial hesitancy. They either already have the power or are given the power to be triumphant and save the day, but despite all that, they are not a leader by any stretch of the word. Sure, they may have followers throughout the novel, but it is not because of their innate leadership skill; it is because of the power they wield. It is the circumstance of great responsibility that they find themselves in which forces them to do what they think is right (usually after being coerced by peer pressure) despite wishing they weren’t involved at all.

Now, while it is an interesting dynamic to show how a hero has matured as a result of the quest/adventure (such as a coming of age story), the character still only holds Legitimate power, when they should have Referent and/or Expert power to be a successful leader. (More on the 5 different types of power Here). In my opinion, this “regular person as a hero” is a paradox that is found over and over again throughout stories that even date back to myth and legend (of which I wrote about here: The Hero with a 1,000 Faces).

What about the hero that forges his own destiny? That grabs life by the horns? That has worked all his/her life for this one moment? Sadly, we don’t see many stories of heroes like that. In fact, don’t those seem like traits usually found in the villains of our novels? Why does our culture craft stories that reward the unprepared and unmotivated hero, yet thwart the dedicated, scheming villain? I’m not saying the villain should win; I’m saying the roles should be reversed. A hero – that is also a leader – should have prepared his/her whole life for the quest that is laid before them. This hero would have a powerful influence over his/her followers and would likely change the entire dynamic of the story. Instead of a one-in-a-million success story, the reader will be on the edge of a potential tragedy, where the heroes’ entire purpose in life might all be for naught if he/she does not succeed.

Every author should, at the very least, do some minimal amount of research when engrossing themselves into the role of their hero/heroin. I am currently reading The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell to understand the characteristics that a true leader should exhibit. To name just a few:

  • Unselfishness
  • Vision
  • Influential
  • Willing to Sacrifice
  • Self-Discipline
  • A Planner
  • Respect
  • Intuition

While my first novel depicts a classic coming-of-age story, my second book is going down this path of depicting a main character that is both a leader and a hero. Now, you might be asking, “Should every hero be a leader?” I think that is something that only you can decide.

The Hero with 1,000 Faces

The video below gives a great synopsis of Joseph Campbell’s book A HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. It’s a very interesting topic that suggests that all heroes in literature all tie back to heroes of ancient myths, claiming that they all journey down the same path. That a hero’s adventure is symbolic of our own life experiences toward conquering a fear. A quick summary of the journey is listed below:

  1. The hero is introduced in his ordinary world
  2. The call to adventure
  3. The hero is reluctant at first
  4. The hero is encouraged by the wise old man/woman
  5. The hero passes the first threshold
  6. The hero encounters tests and helpers
  7. The hero reaches the inner most cave
  8. The hero endures the supreme ordeal
  9. The hero seizes the reward
  10. The road back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the elixir

After watching the video, it is amazing to see the oversimplification of a hero’s journey and how they all relate in that context. This has to do with how we tell stories, which is very similar to Christopher Booker’s analysis of why we tell stories, explained at length in his novel THE 7 BASIC PLOTS, which I’ve talked about here.

So, now that we understand how similar stories of today are compared to stories of ancient myth and legend, let’s take a look at the different type of heroes that exist in our stories. An archetype is a prototype or model from which something is based, a framework of sorts. The character archetypes listed below are derived from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and are deeply rooted in the myths and legends of many cultures.

  1. Hero
  2. Mentor
  3. Threshold Guardian
  4. Herald
  5. Shapeshifter
  6. Shadow
  7. Trickster

In my novel, The Soul Smith, it has been said that Erador is opposite of the ‘reluctant hero’ archetype – that he is eager to go on the adventure. What archetype is your character?