Protagonists come in all shapes and sizes, genders, and personalities. Heroes are of a more specific bent. According to Merriam Webster, a hero is:
Not all heroes are cut from the same cloth, however. They have a wide range of personalities, preferences, and quirks. Nevertheless, most heroes tend to fit within an archetypal mold. The reason for this, I would argue, is that a hero’s archetype determines the nature of his story. The hero’s journey is a classic storytelling device, one that is formed and limited by the hero himself.
I’ve seen lists of 8, 10, even 12 different proposed hero archetypes elsewhere, but I think the list is a lot smaller. I think there are only 4, at least if we’re going by the literal definition where a hero is male. Heroines are equally important, but I think they have their own archetypes and their own story tropes, so I’ll save those for a different post.
The Chosen One
One of the most well-worn (and most popular) of all story tropes is the heroic journey of The Chosen One. This is our Harry Potter, our Luke Skywalker, Neo, and King Arthur.
The Chosen One is often young, growing up in mundane or difficult circumstances. Through some kind of extraordinary event, he learns he has a role to play in changing the world.
The young hero is clever but naive, inexperienced, and even depressed. However, one important note is that the young hero is always bold. He’s always willing to step up and do what others won’t. The hero’s journey is about the boy growing into the man, about the inexperienced lad becoming a leader, often with the aid of a mentor.
The Rogue is our sly, swashbuckling, good-looking, (usually straight) lady’s man. He also has a killer sense of humor. This is our James Bond, Han Solo, Eddie Dean, and Tony Stark.
The Rogue can be genuinely likable but can also be cunning and superficially charming. The most important thing is that The Rogue is cool. He never gives into pressure. He’s good at what he does and likes to be seen doing it. When faced with insurmountable odds, The Rogue will use his wits or even cheat to win.
In most stories, The Rogue is directionless when we first meet him. His hero’s journey is about finding a person to love or a cause to believe in. Once he has that, he becomes as determined and unstoppable as our other archetypes.
The Mysterious Stranger
The Mysterious Stranger is a man of great skill, hard judgments, and a mysterious or war-like past. This is our Roland Deschain, our Conan, Zatoichi, and Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name.
This hero is unusually gifted in the art of war. When facing a challenge head on, he’s nigh unstoppable, even from the first page. He follows a strict code, although the code isn’t always understandable or even moral. He’s stubborn, taciturn, and relentless. We often meet him in the middle of a great journey or seemingly impossible quest.
The Mysterious Stranger almost always lacks guile. He is often tested by villains who outwit him or beat him dishonorably. Sometimes, his hero’s journey is about learning to defeat these villains. Other times, it’s about discovering a hidden well of emotion, or learning to love something outside of his quest.
The Survivor has little discernible skill but is able to succeed through wits and tenacity. This is our John McClane, our maze-running Thomas, and our Mad Max.
Even if he’s not particularly learned, The Survivor is always clever. He’s able to see clues other characters can’t and take advantage of almost any situation. He’s also usually a bit quirky.
A Survivor’s journey is about learning a new skill or solving a great mystery, often saving those around him in the process. Usually, Survivors are capable but reluctant heroes, and they’re made great by circumstance.
Note these archetypes fit different patterns and are meant to be separate from one another. A Chosen One can never be a Survivor, a Rogue can never be a Mysterious Stranger, etc. There’s no question these are tropes, but they are distinct tropes with distinct characteristics.
A natural question, then, is Are these tropes bad? Is a story boring or unoriginal if it doesn’t stray from a mold such as this? Different writers have different answers, but I’ve never been particularly elitist. My answer is No, bad writing makes bad stories. If your hero fits one of these archetypes and your story follows the same hero’s journey, but your execution is excellent and your characters are believable, then so be it. If you do something totally original, great, but again, execution is everything.
Of course, this is just a thought exercise, and other writers may have an entirely different way of breaking down different types of heroes and different types of heroic journeys. It’s fun to consider, though, isn’t it? It’s amazing how many popular characters can be easily classified into one of these categories.