In literature, a hero is the principal or primary character of a work.
The term is used in different ways to refer to the main character of a story or the person around which the story revolves. Heroes feature in every form of writing, from plays, poems, novels, and short stories.
Modern heroes play a different role in literature than classical heroes do. They do not always exhibit the clear features of a hero, such as strength and bravery. They are usually far more complex with variable emotions, memories, and relationships that influence them—just like everyday readers. In many cases, a modern hero is someone who is meant to represent a wide swath of the population. They are someone that readers can relate to and understand.
That being said, it’s also likely that a hero in a piece of writing has some traits that make them stand apart from the average person. For instance, a particularly tragic upbringing they have to overcome, a personal loss they have to confront, or an interesting goal they want to achieve. The latter could be anything from making a million dollars to diving to the bottom of the ocean.
Definition and Explanation of Hero
In addition to being used as a way of describing the main character of a literary work, the term “hero” can also be used in the classical sense. It can refer to a character that exhibits heroic traits, such as Beowulf in the long epic poem of the same name. Other classical examples include Odysseus and Hamlet. These heroes are dependable men who are defined by their feats of bravery and strength.
Hero and Anti-Hero
In contrast to a traditional or modern hero, an anti-hero is a type of character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some or all of the character traits of a hero but these are juxtaposed with those of a villain. They are complex with good and bad qualities. Anti-heroes are generally dark characters and may not appeal to all audience members. They might have secrets, terrible impulses, or distasteful habits that would normally force them into the villain category.
Anti-heroes are elevated by their attempts to be good or do good, and everything that stands in their way from accomplishing that.
Examples of Heroes in Literature
Odyssey by Homer
In his Odyssey, Homer depicts Odysseus, a perfect classical example of a hero. The poem is an epic, meaning that it stretches for thousands of lines and follows a character through various trials and tribulations. Odysseus starts out Homer’s Odyssey as the king of Ithaca. He’s the main character in the story’s depiction of the Trojan War, which lasts for ten years. He is followed on his journey home, which lasts another ten years, and the obstacles he and his crew have to circumvent.
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter in the series of seven novels written by J.K. Rowling is a great example of a modern hero. He’s not perfect, he struggles with issues in everyday life, coping with his destiny, and finding his path through the tragedy that marked him from birth. Despite all the negativity that Harry has in his life, he still exhibits the characteristics of a hero. He’s good-natured, kind, brave, and willing to sacrifice himself to save those he loves. The juxtaposition Rowling creates with Voldemort on one side and Harry on the other is a clear hero/villain dynamic.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
In Wuthering Heights, readers can find a great example of a tragic hero. Heathcliff, a grumpy, unsociable boy grows up into a shrewd landowner with a complicated past. Readers learn about Heathcliff’s upbringing throughout the frame narrative of Wuthering Heights. His negative and positive characteristics make him at once likable and unlikeable.
Examples of Heroes in Films
Indiana Jones Series
The character of Indiana Jones in the Indiana Jones film series is a great example of a hero. He is a fictional professor of archeology who has many of the characteristics of an average professor, from his cluttered office to his briefcase, and love of his subject matter. But, he travels the world, risks life and limb, and stumbles upon some of the greatest discoveries one can imagine. His bravery in the face of death and evil makes him a hero.
James Bond Series
James Bond fills the role of a traditional and more modern hero. He exhibits extraordinary abilities and is continually faced with adversity he has to overcome. He works for the common good, to save the lives of his friends and colleagues, as well as to preserve a certain way of life for the majority.
Diana Prince is a fictional character who appears in DC Comics as Wonder Woman. Throughout the series, she makes use of her super-human speed and flight. Sometimes she uses other remarkable gifts in order to save the world on numerous occasions and protect those she cares about.
Why Do Writers Use Heroes?
Heroes are used in writing as a major narrative element. Depending on the perceptive the writer uses, the hero might be someone with celebrated features, like a strong moral compass or bravery in the face of oppression. They might also have physical strength, a compelling life story, and other interesting features. Readers might follow them through first-person or third-person narration. Without a hero, stories would be listless, moving from scene to scene without a single person holding them together.
Related Literary Terms
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.