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A Theory of the Hero: Story Archetypes for Heroic Characters (part 2 of 3)


NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series on heroic characters. The previous installment discussed how agency, voice, and sincerity are used to determine heroic characters, while the third installment focuses on narrative timing and the tragic and anti-tragic hero.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how narrative voice, and a character’s agency and sincerity determine whether they can be considered heroic. But in order for those three components to mean something, they must be embedded within a larger story and then expressed through the plot. Any heroic story – whether Tolkien, Howard, or Nabokov – is principally concerned with the hero’s value system. I see three primary archetypes for a heroic story, and makoto (a character’s sincerity to their own values) is central to each:

Heroic Story Archetype Description
1 Aspirational Will the hero live up to their own values? Or will they fail and transgress against them?
2 Observational How will the hero apply their values within a particular set of circumstances?
3 Consequential How will the hero face the consequences of their choices?

Different Strokes for Different Folks, and Different Stories for Different Heroes

The archetype that applies to a particular hero need not be the archetype that applies to the overall book/film. We talk about books having “a story” but really each hero gets their own story. Some books might have no heroes (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis), others might have one (Nabokov’s Lolita), or many (I count nine in Les Miserables).

As a quick example to start off, let’s consider Star Wars (the original trilogy, naturally). Han Solo’s journey is entirely different from Luke Skywalker’s: though they share many experiences (though they go through the same plot), the choices, subtext, and meaning is different for each character. Darth Vader likewise has his own story. Luke’s is aspirational: will he stay on the Light Side or go to the Dark? Solo’s story – particularly in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – is observational: how will he apply his values under trying circumstances? And Vader’s story is consequential, focusing on themes of redemption and the consequences of choices he made before the events of the original trilogy. Each of these characters could be the “star” of the trilogy: that Luke’s arc gets the focus merely reflects the creator’s choice.

The hero’s story archetype determines the emotional arc of the story, the subtext that drives us to invest in the characters and keeps us tense. The hero’s value system and their behavior relative to that system determine the story archetype and set us up for the Aristotelian catharsis at the story’s climax.

Aspirational Stories: Portal/Quest Fantasies and Children’s Fiction

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has a great entry on heroes and heroines which outlines a pretty extensive (though not exhaustive) typology of heroes. Looking at this list, however, it is clear that not every type of hero can support an aspirational archetype.

The classic model of an aspirational heroic story is the coming-of-age tale. Since so much of middle-grade and YA fiction is about helping characters negotiate and articulate their value systems, it should come as no surprise that children’s literature is rife with aspirational heroes. Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper in Alexander’s The Book of Three, Garion in Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, or Wart in White’s The Once and Future King are all great examples of aspirational heroes.

Hidden monarchs, ugly ducklings, changelings, and people who learn better are classic character models for aspirational stories. What is essential to this archetype is an evolution in the character’s choices. Unlike the observational archetype (see below), these characters’ are still struggling with their value systems. The “right” and “wrong” of their story is implied in the text: the reader understands what Taran must do, the reader knows what choices Garion must make, but the character does not. As the plot unfolds, the character gradually catches up to the reader and becomes able to articulate and act on their implicit value system.

Portal/quest fantasies are the most frequent structure for aspirational stories. The plot’s quest becomes the device by which the hero explores and articulates their choice. Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring is inherently tied up in his value system. The crux of his story hinges on the question of whether he will allow himself to be corrupted by the Ring, or whether he will stay true to his values and destroy it. The climax of this archetype is the moment when the hero makes that final choice: when they decide whether they will do right or not. That climax is the moment of maximum tension within the story, and it defines the hero’s success or failure.

One of the most satisfying aspects of aspirational heroes is that they often make the “right” choice. Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, and most heroes in MG/YA fiction all ultimately make a choice that more-or-less aligns with most readers’ moral codes. But that success is not necessary. So long as the hero’s moral code remains unchanging, whether he succeeds or fails to live up to that code has no impact on the story’s resonance. Failure can be just as strong a resonator as success.

For example, Frodo Baggins is a failure. Yes, he remains a hero, but standing over the Crack of Doom, he allows the Ring to corrupt him, and he cannot bring himself to destroy it. Tolkien’s use of eucatastrophe (Gollum’s convenient attack on the invisible Frodo) is the device by which the author wrenches a positive ending out of his principal hero’s failure. This does not weaken the story – in fact, I think it enhances it by adding a tragic dimension to the character of Frodo Baggins. Everything does not work out, certainly not for Frodo. For the rest of his life, Frodo will have to bear the knowledge that at that last desperate moment, he blinked. If Frodo’s story is aspirational, then at the end of the day he fails in his aspiration. Yet his story still resonates.

Observational Archetypes: The Classic Heroic Story

When we use the words “heroic fantasy” most of us automatically think of muscle-bound heroes along the lines of Beowulf, Conan of Cimmeria, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. We think of the stories written by Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook, etc. Typically, these are immersive fantasies where the world of the story is assumed as a given. The heroes in question already fully live in their worlds, and their value systems are fully-formed and clearly articulated. However, what sets these stories apart from their aspirational counterparts is that they focus less intensely upon the hero’s moral code.

The climax of an aspirational heroic story hinges upon whether the hero will or will not live up to their values. But in an observational story, the hero will always live up to their values. These values are typically idiosyncratic when compared to those of other characters. Whether we’re dealing with loveable rogues like Han Solo, utter villains like the Brothers Grossbart, or introspective brooders like Elric of Melniboné, the hero’s value system always features some difference to those of the book’s other characters. Reading these characters’ stories, we are less concerned with will they or won’t they stick to their guns, and more concerned with how they will do so.

Observational heroes tend to be what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls Brave Little Tailors, Duos, or Temporal Adventuresses. Many fairy tale heroes, in particular the “Ivans” of Russian fairy tales or the “Jacks” of the British variety, fall into this camp. So would most of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, where his sword-swinging Cimmerian broods and simmers…but always acts according to his (admittedly sometimes rough) moral values.

The typical observational hero never ages: he or she is almost always portrayed in the prime of their youth, as the story’s momentum hinges upon their ability to act with physical or magical strength. Aspirational heroes and their stories tend to deal earnestly with stark moral black-and-whites. Observational heroes, however, tend to see more shades of grey. For Frodo Baggins or Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper, there is no middle ground: either they do right or they fail. For Conan, or Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, their moral codes and the choices they face are more ambiguous, allowing for compromise.

This ambiguity creates a great degree of space for humor in observational stories. Whether it is Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Conan, or Han Solo, the ambiguity of the hero’s moral code and their situational application offers the opportunity to inject irony and sarcasm into the narrative. This kind of humor tends to be quite infectious, because it perhaps deals with moral choices more accessible to the average reader than those common in high fantasy. The choices our heroes face, while expressed in outlandish fashions, tend to have fewer world-changing or soul-destroying consequences than those found in aspirational stories.

Duos in particular are a common type of observational hero. While I have already mentioned Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I think a far better set of examples can be found in the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson represent the classic ur-duo, and their stories clearly show the application of Holmes’ rational worldview. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles have a clearly ideosyncratic, “us-against-the-world” value system which they apply consistently. As in so many mysteries, the morality of their philosophy is not the focus of the story: instead, the focus is on how that philosophy is actively applied within the plot.

Generally, heroic stories whose narrative focus is on the action of their plot tend to skew observationally. These are the stories that are more exciting than earnest. Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a fun exploration of how a set of villainous moral codes can be applied across a variety of trying situations. Super-hero comic books in particular are another great example of this kind of storytelling: the hero’s moral code (remember Truth, Justice and the American Way?) is always a given, but decades of continuity explore how the hero applies that code to all manner of situations.

Consequential Archetypes: Living with Choices

The third and final story archetype for heroic characters returns to deal with the moral choices more earnestly than in most observational stories. Consequential stories focus on the hero’s actions after a moral choice has been made. By its very definition, this archetype tends towards the Aristotelian and the tragic. Typical heroes that fit this mold are the Knight of Doleful Countenance, or the sinner seeking redemption.

Often, the hero’s nobility is established off-screen before the events of the story. We know Macbeth is a noble hero because Duncan, his men at arms, and the sergeant tell us so before we ever meet the thane of Glamis. But Macbeth transgresses against his own moral code by killing his king, and the rest of the play focuses on him living with and facing up to the consequences of his evil act. Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories do something similar, where we first meet Solomon Kane as a puritanical zealot obsessed with meting out stern justice and stamping out whatever he considers evil, regardless of danger. Through the stories’ subtext, we gradually get the sense that Kane’s obsession is redemptive: that by stamping out evil, he may purge his own soul of whatever past sins may stain it. In Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné stories, the hero must live with the guilt of feeding souls to his demon-sword Stormbringer.

Consequential heroes and their stories may be redemptive or tragic. Darth Vader’s is a redemptive story, where he is able to return to the Light by betraying the Emperor. Macbeth or Othello, by contrast, are tragic: no amount of contrition on their part can ever expunge their guilt. Typical of consequential stories is a constant revisiting and escalation of the hero’s original choice: Macbeth is forced to one-up his betrayal of Duncan with the murder of his friend Banquo, followed by the slaughter of MacDuff’s family. Elric has to feed ever more souls to Stormbringer so that he can do what he feels is right.

By their very nature, consequential heroes and their stories are tragic: if aspirational stories end on “and they lived happily/sadly ever after” then consequential stories are what happens in the ever after.

Story versus Story and Mixing Archetypes

Like so many aspects of storytelling, the borders between these archetypes can be blurred. For example, Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné combines aspects of the consequential archetype (the exploration of Elric’s guilt) with the observational (constantly re-visiting his moral choices in new circumstances). It is also possible, though very difficult, for a single hero to progress from an aspirational story, to an observational story, and then to a consequential story. I know of few examples of this kind of progression, but those that do come to mind are almost always some of my favorite stories. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy shows us Theo’s aspirational story in its first book, and then follows the pattern of a consequential story in the second and third.

In Hugo’s Les Miserables, Valjean’s story opens as aspirational, proceeds to observational, and ends as consequential. In Hugo’s case, this masterful progression is strengthened by pitting Valjean’s moral code against opponents who are elsewhere along the archetypal progression. When Valjean’s story is in its aspirational phase, his antagonist Javert is in an observational mode. By the time Valjean has entered the observational phase of his evolution, Javert has “regressed” to the aspirational phase. When Valjean is in the consequential phase of his life, Marius Pontmercy is in the aspirational phase of his.

Hugo is arguably the master of this kind of complex hero construction: reading his works (in particular Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) I suspect that every single hero archetype and every combination of their oppositions, tragic and anti-tragic, can be found. The next installment of this series (on Tuesday) will focus on this aspect of heroic storytelling. In particular, I will focus on how narrative timing affects tragedy in heroic fiction, and on the differences between tragic and anti-tragic heroes.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on how narrative timing affects tragedy in heroic fiction, and for a discussion of tragic heroes and anti-tragic heroes.

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