What Makes A Hero?

Have you ever run into a blog or review that compares Harry Potter to Star Wars or argued that Star Trek stole all of its good points from Lord of the Rings?

Well, what most of these surface scratching critics don’t realize, is that fabulous, timeless adventures follow the same pattern by design. Ingenious authors realize that in order to  withstand the shifts in culture, their characters must be accessible to the human race at large or risk become outdated within five years or so.

This pattern has a name. Its called the Journey of the Hero.

It doesn’t matter if your watching Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, or Batman. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading about Clary Fray, Katniss Everdeen, or Ender Wiggins. If a hero stands the test of time, she must become the archetype.

The Journey of the Hero transcends human culture. Its found in the stories of old: Hercules, Thor, the heroes of Japan and China. It was first described in western literature by Joseph Campbell in A Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Step One: The hero must have a divine, magical or royal lineage. Something makes the hero special, sets him apart from the millions of people in his universe. Harry is a wizard–he’s The Boy Who Lived. Luke is destined to be a Jedi. Batman is the owner of a billion dollar corporation!

Step Two: The hero is hidden away until he is ready to face his destiny. Most of the time he is given a protector or mentor to help him train. Katniss has her father. Clary has her mother. Frodo gets Gandalf. ’nuff said.

Step Three: The Childhood Test. This is the moment the hero is changed forever. He cannot sit back an let evil wreak havok around the world. He is told of his lineage and he can never go back to what he thought he was before. Peter Parker looses Uncle Ben. Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games. Ender goes to Battle School. The hero is changed forever.

Step Four: The quest. The hero embarks on his journey to save…something. Usually he doesn’t want his calling. Do you think Buffy Summers wants to be “the Slayer?” No, she just wants to be normal! Doesn’t Harry just want to be a regular wizard, without Reeta Skeeter nosing in his business all the time? But alas, the hero cannot fight against the call forever. Frodo decides to go to Mordor to destroy the Ring. Harry must finally face Voldemort. Batman must stop the Joker.

Step Five: The hero must face death and return stronger. This step is actually quite tricky. In mythology, the hero literally had to die and come back, or visit the underworld and return to the regular world. In modern times “facing death” can have a symbolic meaning. The loss of a loved one, the loss of self-confidence, or the loss of a hero’s superpowers are just some examples. The hero must face these “deaths,” something that all humans fear, and overcome them in order to successfully complete his quest. If the hero fails–well then he’s not a hero.

Step Six: The hero lives unhappily ever after. Yes, we know. This is the most controversial step. But think about it. The hero has sacrificed everything for his quest. He may have saved the world, but he has lost something along the way. Another way to explain this step is “the hero lives as happily as can be reasonably expected.” Sure, Harry married Ginny, but did he get his parents back? Will he ever see Sirius or Dumbledore again? Frodo Baggins said it best at the end of Lord of the Rings. Sam said to him: “We saved the Shire!” and Frodo answers “Not for me.”

So, there you have it. Don’t believe me? Analyze your favorite book. Take your favorite character through the steps.


About shardwell

C. Hall has been addicted to the many worlds of fantasy and science fiction all her life. She joined her first peer writers’ group in the sixth grade, joyfully sharing world building at a young age. A graduate of Southern Utah University, she now teaches at a local charter school. When she isn’t busy designing activities for her Mythology class or going on field trips with the Star Wars Club, she is spending time with her sister. C. Hall’s favorite authors include J.R.R Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and Tracy Hickman.

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