What is a Hero?

Hero and Protagonist: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Hero of Old
Hero of Old

Storytelling is my craft. I study stories. I discuss stories. I create stories. Universal themes are always found in storytelling. One of those things that every story must have is a protagonist. Every story has to be about something and generally that works best if that something is a person. But not every story has to be about a hero.

A story must always have a protagonist in my mind. Before anyone gets confused by my ramblings I will give my definition of a protagonist: “A protagonist is the character or subject in a story which experiences the most change from the beginning to end of the story.”

Stories do not have to center around the one who saves the day. Those stories are dime a dozen, some are good and others are bad. I want to see stories about people who change or grow. I like it when this is the hero but sometimes the stronger story happens when it isn’t. Often because of the use of a strong redemptive story but that is a topic for another day.

Examples of stories that have protagonists which are definitely not heroes include, The Prestige and The Godfather. The Prestige follows two opposing magicians who go to greater and greater lengths to beat the other. Both of them spiral almost to the point of madness in this pursuit. They experience great change but neither of them have any shred of heroism left at the end. The Godfather is truly at its heart an analysis of how a good man becomes a hardened criminal. Both are phenomenal stories but neither of them have any room for heroes as their protagonists.

So if primary focus and change are what makes someone the protagonist then what makes them a hero? Is it them doing what they believe is right? No, most villains believe that they are doing what is right. I believe there are three elements which give a face to the hero side of the protagonist coin.

The first and most important element needed for a hero is for there to be an absolute sense of morality. The entire world could be insane and a Nietzche-esc paradise of nihilism but if there is to be a hero then he must recognize an absolute sense of right and wrong that is supported by the events that take place.

The second element is that the hero must partake in a redemptive story. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be his redemptive story. Elements of redemption are the among the strongest factors that can be used in a story. Whether it is a broken sidekick becoming whole or the villain coming to a point of realization and regret or it might be the hero finding redemption for some aspect of his life.

The last element which defines a hero is self-sacrifice. It is a very physical act that sets a character apart from others. Self preservation is a key attribute of most living creatures. Pushing against this calls out to the existence of a cause greater than one life. But it becomes terribly cliche if the hero always sacrifices himself. Instead it is more important for the hero to come into contact with self-sacrifice and is changed because of it.

There is a small summary of my thoughts on the heroic protagonist. Not every story will have a heroic protagonist and I don’t think every story should. Many people may disagree with my defining elements of a heroic protagonist. I would love to hear any thoughts regarding it. Understanding story is an ever-changing process and I would love to have someone help my understanding evolve. Thanks for reading.


3 thoughts on “What is a Hero?

  1. I really liked your analysis of a hero, especially on the topic of self-sacrifice. I agree that protagonists often are the ones that experience the most change, but there are times when this isn’t the case.

    One interesting example I’ve found is story that functions as character study, where the focus of the story isn’t character transformation but rather the revealing of a character to the audience through conflict.


  2. Brian J. Branscum

    Really cool ideas here mate. I really love your approach to this subject. I do have a question with your second point, the redemption story. Most people would consider Darth Vader the protagonist of Return of the Jedi, as it was his choice to end the emperor at the final moments. Would you argue then that Luke was the main character of that story, as he helped encourage the change?


  3. Andi L Gregory

    Love the ideas here. It’s definitely got me thinking about the differences between hero and protagonist, and your thoughts had me reevaluate a little on how I understood both sides of the coin. Thanks for the thoughts!


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