Many a day my Hubs and myself argue over various silly notions. We do it for our own entertainment and for the sake of others. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve bickered nonsense in front of a retail sales person just to get a rise. How many tacos are the perfect amount? What counts as magic in a book? Vampires or zombies? All of these are fun to blather on about. But our most debated subject is that of the hero. Why do we debate it so much? Because it is in every story you read. There must be some struggle and the hero must either succeed or fail.
But what, exactly, dictates a hero? Let’s take a closer look…
A Hero defined by the internet (all knowing and, of course, never wrong) is someone who is greatly admired, possibly endowed with great strength or ability.
But if that’s the case then anyone could be a hero. (Now I’m not in the business of discrediting the fireman or officer or good Samaritan, we’re strictly talking about the literary hero definition.)
So let’s define, as well, protagonist. A protagonist is defined as the lead character, hero, or advocate for a political cause in a drama or literary work. And now we’re getting somewhere!
Let’s use an example of a protagonist for this argument. In the television show Gilmore Girls you have Lorelei and Rory as the main protagonists. Now the Hubs and I argue over Lorelei often. You see, she is one of the lead characters. (Point one for the team!) But as we watch the series we see her trail through various lovers, some recurring. And here’s the hang up, she constantly makes a move that ultimately sabotages every one of them.
Second example is more literary. Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is our hero and a protagonist. We want to see him win Juliet. We want him to win each sparring against Tybalt and later Paris. The audience desires that match. But these fights also bind Romeo. He puts himself into banishment through his actions separating himself and his fair Lady Juliet. He sets his own demise into motion.
So do they remain our heroes? According to the definitions they do adhere to the definition of Protagonist. But they also stand in their own way, which in a manner of speaking could also further define them as antagonists. But hero is our question.
Let’s see, neither one is gifted with abnormal powers or strength. Neither has a unique ability. So maybe they are not heroes. At least not traditionally. However, take a look at another definition:
“A hero (masculine or gender-neutral) or heroine (feminine) (Ancient Greek: ἥρως, hḗrōs) is a person or character who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage or self-sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good; a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities. Historically, the first heroes displayed courage or excellence as warriors. The word’s meaning was later extended to include moral excellence.” -Wikipedia
Alright then. Both Lorelei and Romeo display self-sacrifice. They both display courage at intermittent times. They are both admired for brave deeds. And Romeo displays his excellence as a fighter.
The position of hero is set in adversity. A well written hero has flaws. This does not, necessarily, make them an anti-hero or an antagonist. But, instead, makes them more human. When writing any hero they must be relatable. Heck, you can even say that for your antagonist and/or villain. It’s all about story.
The story dictates how your characters will act and react. It is what truly sets up whether or not they will become a hero. Some may fail, others may soar. That failure may cause them to become the villain, like Darth Vader (sort of). The success may make them become the unlikely hero, like Sam in The Lord of The Rings. (And yes, I totally give him full credit. I’m team Sam.)
So to be a hero you must be admired, courageous, self-sacrificing, and possibly gifted with some mystical ability. To be a protagonist you must be the lead in the story and may be admired. They can be both or either.
Ultimately, hero is defined by story but any character can become hero, villain, antagonist, or protagonist at any time. Sometimes the answer is that they are D, all of the above. If you’ve ever seen Spirited Away you will see how that can work for your story. Yubaba wasn’t all bad, but she did put up obstacles for Chihiro throughout the movie. Hayao Miyazaki is very talented at such displays.
So next time you find yourself in my shoes think about all of the possibilities. It could take you far.
Have a good one!