Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Archetypes: The Hero

Now we're back to the discussion of archetypes from the hero's journey, after a brief foray into the world of Good to Great.

We'll start with the hero, and by hero I mean protagonist, either male or female. This is the central character of the story, the one on the journey who has a transformation arc of some kind. I'm not necessarily using the term in the sense that it usually comes up in the romance genre, where it means the male half of the couple, though sometimes that hero is the hero of the story. Clear as mud?

In a sense, the hero is the least-defined of the archetypes. The others all have a hint of a personality attached to them, in addition to their story role, but the hero is something of a blank slate. He has to be universal enough that readers can identify with his struggles, but he also has to be specific enough to justify telling his story. Out of all the stories about all the heroes in all the world, why tell this one? The danger with the universality of the hero archetype is that he can turn out to be the least interesting character in the story. When I do characterization workshops and talk about archetypes, I use the cast of Star Wars as an example because they fit so perfectly, and Luke Skywalker, our hero, is the perfect example of that blank slate hero. There is something universal about him. Who hasn't chafed at the boundaries and restrictions of home and dreamed of something bigger and more exciting? But poor Luke is possibly the least interesting character in the film, possibly because he's all universal without much specific.

Psychologically, the hero represents the Freudian ego, the part of the psyche that's about separation from the tribe (or from the mother), and the hero's journey is often one of separation, as he has to leave the safe and familiar to take on the quest. Internally, the hero's journey is about the search for wholeness, and integrating all the aspects of his self into a healthy whole. To a large extent, all the other characters (and all the other archetypes they represent) are reflections of aspects of the hero's character, and as he interacts with them, he learns from them so that he can accept and integrate that part of himself into his overall personality. Usually, the big climax of the story is a test of whether he's been able to do that. He can only succeed if he has developed that sense of wholeness.

There are a lot of different kinds of heroes. From a big picture perspective, they can be classified as:
The Superman -- the one with special skills, powers or talents that makes him greater from the start than the average guy
The Everyman -- the average guy plunged into extraordinary circumstances
The Underdog -- the guy with the deck stacked against him who has to survive in extraordinary circumstances

But I think the distinctions get blurry, as the Underdog and the Everyman often turn out to be Supermen once they discover their power. Back to our buddy Luke, he seemed like an Everyman or even an Underdog, but turned out to have Jedi powers. You especially see that in science fiction and fantasy stories.

How do you keep your hero interesting? For one thing, you can't rely on the fact that he is the hero and assume that automatically makes him of interest. Even if he's a Superman, he needs to seem like a real person who has flaws, needs, fears and quirks. He should also be the most active person in your story, the one who changes the most and whose actions and decisions bring about the most change in others or in the situation. If you find your supporting characters taking over the story, you may need to work more on your hero. Find the traits in the supporting characters that are so compelling, and then find the reflection of that in the hero and develop it further.

The hero archetype is also associated with sacrifice, being willing to give up something of value -- up to and including his own life -- for the greater good. That means we need to understand what he values and why for that sacrifice to have any meaning.

I think some of the best examples of how to write a hero come from the Pixar animated movies. They seem to have a talent for taking very unlikely things and investing them with a soul and a personality so that you feel for them and understand exactly what they want out of life. The hero of their first short film was a desk lamp that was utterly sympathetic. If they can make a hero out of a desk lamp, the rest of us should be able to make good heroes out of human beings. (You can see a clip or find a link to download from iTunes here if you've never seen this adorable film.)

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