By Grant Smuts
At the core of every story, there is one through whom the most heroic deeds are fulfilled. The old tyrants are deposed, the enemy of all things defeated, by the edge of the sword, by an iron resolve. And grasping the hilt of that blade, holding firm to that resolve, is the Hero.
Morally upright and upstanding, and (ideally) the most sympathetic character in the story, the hero is the one who reacts to the villain’s attempt to destroy the world/claim the artifact of doom/enslave the free/oppress the weak – the one who REACTS to the villain’s ACTION (remember the formula -Villains Act, Heroes React), and, unlike all the others who might’ve tried and FAILED to stop the villain, the Hero is invariably the one who succeeds.
Why is that?
Born to Greatness
Interestingly, the reasons for ‘why’ change over the years. In ancient legends and mythology, the hero usually succeeded by birthright.
Hercules (or Herakles, if you prefer) is, perhaps, the most famous hero of ancient Greek mythology, and a lot of his abilities and deeds can be explained in that he was the son of the friggin King of the Olympian Gods. In fact, most of the ancient greek heroes trace their lineage back to one of the gods (usually the pimptastic Zeus, though Poseidon is also rather up there. They’re brothers. Go figure.)
He accomplished the crazy things he did by virtue that greatness was in his blood – an inherited trait, if you will. That’s a rather popular stance to take. King Arthur, though ostensibly just a lowly squire of a poor knight at first, is actually the son of the long-dead king, Uther Pendragon. He comes to his birthright of greatness via the Sword in the Stone.
This idea is something that persists in modern fantasy today – the idea that heroic traits is something that passes down in the blood.
Bah, but that’s old stuff. Surely fantasy has moved on from such antiquated notions!
That’s what you say. I’m hearing it in this weird British accent, but instead of asking you why you’re talking like that, it brings me to my next point.
Grab a few bottles of whiskey.
Read Harry Potter again.
Take a shot every time they refer something about his looks or personality to that of his parents.
Notable heroes born to greatness
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. No, not them.
The other, rather popular way is when the villain makes it personal for the hero. They kill his/her parents/mentor, but leave him/her alive. Bonus points if the villain is the hero’s sibling. Or if it’s a mentor who was killed, triple points if the mentor once told the hero that the villain was ‘a student of mine, before he turned evil’.
Either way, the hero is now filled with righteous fury and now makes it his life’s mission to take his revenge on the villain. The revenge quest is always an interesting journey for the hero. Most of the time, the hero comes to let go of the anger, encouraged by companions or new teachers on the way to let go of the hatred. Usually this means sparing the villain in the end, though taking away their power to hurt others. If the hero still decides to kill the villain, it is no longer out of hatred or vengeance, but out of necessity for the good of others.
Notable Avengers (stop it!)
– Robb Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire
– Kriemhild in Niebelunglied
– Drizz’t Do’Urden in The Hunter’s Blades Trilogy
– Locke Lamora, in The Lies of Locke Lamora
The Chosen One
The other, most popular way is the idea of a Chosen One. In this way, the villain never having been defeated is due to the fact that only one could ever have defeated him – this is usually laid down in a prophecy, somewhere, usually from a lost civilization. This typically happens when the villain is an extremely powerful and nigh-immortal and invincible entity – someone who has persisted for ages. Any prior heroes who attempted to defeat him ended in bitter defeat – they were not the Chosen One. Sometimes, however, these first heroes accomplish small victories – maybe destroying or damaging the source (or one of the sources) of the villain’s power. The Chosen One tends to be, without fail, the best at everything the heroes are meant to do, and is the only one capable of fixing the entire world. Sometimes the Chosen One crosses over with the Born to Greatness-type hero, but the conditions are far more specific.
The Born to Greatness type heroes are awesome specifically because it was in their blood and they come from a long lineage of awesome.
The Chosen One may be born to no one special, and have nothing special in their blood that sets them apart, but they were born to the right people, or at the right time, or were blessed by gods or cursed by devils to do what needs to be done – sometimes they are even marked by the villains themselves – they were chosen. That’s the key.
Notable Chosen Ones
– Harry Potter
– Rand al’ Thor, from The Wheel of Time
– Belgarion, from the Belgariad and Malloreon
– Sazed, from Mistborn
Emerging from the cast of the Byronic hero is the idea of the anti-hero – someone who may not have overtly heroic qualities (when compared to some of the clean-cut ideas of the pure heroes of the past), but who is, invariably, thrust into the heroic role. Expect the anti-hero to be snarky, or downright rude, to not think twice about killing when pushed to it (and sometimes without being pushed to it). The anti-hero deviates from the mould cast by the catch-all term of hero, in that sometimes, they barely count as heroes at all.
There may be a bit of the author’s tiredness with writing the classical perfect hero, so they create someone flawed, someone human… and maybe someone who will do what the perfect heroes won’t – that is to pay evil unto evil.
– Artemis Entreri in The Crystal Shard Trilogy
– Edmund Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia
– Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane in A Song of Ice and Fire
– Elric of Melnibone, one of the Eternal Champions created by Michael Moorcock
– Sam Vimes, from Discworld
The term ‘Byronic Hero’ is in fact, the prototype of the anti-hero mould – but the Byronic Hero often had too many requirements for a character to ascribe to it. Thus, the anti-hero emerged from it, allowing writers to create any kind of character they wished.
The truth is that it’s harder to write a Byronic Hero well, as they’re typically far more complex and refined than the common anti-hero.The Byronic Hero deserves some elucidation, as it is usually this type of hero that many authors attempt to write, but end up creating simpler anti-heroes instead. Byronic heroes are
usually male (with only a very small percentage of true Byronic heroes being female) and are always considered very attractive physically and in terms of personality. They possess a great deal of charm and magnetism, using these traits to dominate socially and romantically.. One mark against him personality wise, however, is a struggle with his own personal integrity. He’s very intelligent, perceptive, sophisticated, educated, cunning and adaptable, but also self-centered.
They tend to be emotionally sensitive, which may translate into being emotionally conflicted, bipolar, or moody. They’re intensely self-critical and introspective and may be described as dark and brooding. He dwells on the pains or perceived injustices of his life, often to the point of over-indulgence. He may also muse philosophically on the circumstances that brought him to this point, including personal failings. They’re cynical and world-weary, usually due to a great personal loss
He is extremely passionate, with strong personal beliefs which are usually in conflict with the values of the status quo. He sees his own values and passions as above or better than those of others, manifesting as arrogance or a martyr-like attitude. Sometimes, however, they just see themselves as one who must take the long, hard road to do what must be done.
His intense drive and determination to live out his philosophy without regard to others’ philosophies produces conflict, and may result in a tragic end, should he fail, or revolution, should he succeed. Because of this, he is very rebellious, having a distaste for social institutions and norms and is disrespectful of rank and privilege, though he often has said rank and privilege himself. This rebellion often leads to social isolation, rejection, or exile, or to being treated as an outlaw, but he will not compromise, being unavoidably self-destructive.
Notable Byronic Heroes
– Jonathan Strange, from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
– Both Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
-Lucifer, being written as a protagonist, comes across as this in Milton’s Paradise Lost
–Feanor in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion
-I’m a sucker for this track… to me, it feels like the most heroic theme in the Lord of the Rings-
Heroes come in far more shapes and sizes than these – they take as many forms as there are people in the world, and people are complex things – just as anyone can turn villainous from the darkness within them, the potential also exists for a great light within them to shine and burn away the shadows from the hearts of others. Villains drive the stories they are in, but it is rare when we don’t write about the heroes. In fantasy, they’re usually the ones who take up the sword and find a reason to keep going when everyone else would give up. They take punishment that would break lesser people, and they just keep going. That’s what separates the old ideas of heroes from the all-too-jaded picture we accept too readily.
In this postmodern, over-critical age, rendered cynical by the darkness of the world around us, we have grown skeptical of heroes – we try to tear them apart as soon as they appear, hoping to bring them down to mundane.
Is that fear? Or is it just a crushing cynicism? A lack of faith in the potential we ourselves have to be truly great. If the best people we know are as bad as we are, then perhaps our way of life isn’t so bad… perhaps that’s the rationale. But what happens when you look in the mirror and see that glint of light inside and wonder what you could have been? When you see the potential to be larger than life, to take a stand and rise above the murk and mire of ‘what if’.
We looked up to to the Aragorns and the Samwise Gamgees, the Drizz’t Do’urdens, the Peter Pevensies, who we remember, above being noble and kind, as being brave and true. Isn’t that we need more of?
After all… given a sword, and a reason, what would you do?
Would you save the world?
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