Types of Heroes in Literature

By Rebecca Ray

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Since all works of literature have a protagonist, it is helpful to know which category or type of character the protagonist belongs in. A protagonist's traits help readers to understand them, connect with them, or follow their actions and understand why they do what they do.

Certain protagonists are considered to have universal qualities and these qualities are called archetypes. Archetypes have similar characteristics throughout literature and make unpredictable characters easier to understand. One archetype is the hero - defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. However, there is more than one hero archetype. The most notable appear to the left.

The Classical Hero

Classical heroes, sometimes known as romantic heroes, are everyday people that have a great talent! They often possess an attribute or quality that distinguishes them from ordinary people, making them a hero. It's important to remember that classical heroes are equal in their world, but possess a gift that others do not have.

Examples of these would be Harry Potter, Ponyboy, or Victor Frankenstein.

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The Everyman Hero

In literature, the term everyman has come to mean an ordinary individual that the audience or reader easily identifies with. Also, the everyman hero has no outstanding abilities or attributes. An everyman hero is thrown into extraordinary circumstances where they must act with heroic qualities. Moreover, they have sound moral judgment and show selflessness in the face of adversity.

Many protagonists in realistic fiction are considered everyman heroes.

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The Superhero

Superheroes can start out as classical heroes or even everyman heroes and be given a power that makes them 'superhuman'. They can also be born with a ‘superhuman’ power.

Famous examples would be Superman, Thor, or Wolverine.

The Tragic Hero

It was the great philosopher Aristotle who first defined the ill-fated protagonist as a tragic hero. Aristotle suggested that a hero of a tragedy must evoke a sense of pity or fear from the audience. Also, the tragic hero has to be someone whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or fate. To this day, literature is inundated with the use of this type of protagonist.

Aristotle’s Principles of a Tragic Hero
Hamartia Flaw that causes the downfall
Hubris Extreme pride
Peripeteia Reversal of fortune
Anagnorisis When the hero makes a critical discovery
Nemesis Fate that cannot be reversed
Catharsis Tone (pity or fear) that the audience is left with after the hero's fall

Shakespeare was famous for using this archetype in his plays: notable tragic heroes include Romeo, Macbeth, and Brutus!

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The Epic Hero

As with the tragic hero, the Greeks were first to define the protagonist known as an epic hero. These are heroes of a tragedy who evoke in the audience a sense of heroism and legendary awe-inspiring lore. An epic hero is a man whose fortune is brought about by their admired characteristics. Many of the famous Greek Epics, such as The Odyssey and the Illiad, contain these larger than life heroes and deeds:

The 7 Characteristic Principles of an Epic Hero
Noble Birth An epic hero is usually a king, prince, demi-god, or nobleman.
Superhuman Strength/Courage The warrior has the potential for greatness based on their attributes, for example: cunning, brave, humble, sagacious, and virtuous.
Vast Traveler An epic hero is known for making travels to exotic locations by choice or chance, usually to battle against evil.
Unmatched Warrior Skill This hero typically has a reputation for being a great warrior. Epic heroes commonly have a status that precedes them prior to the beginning of the story.
Cultural Legend Before an epic hero can be universally accepted, they must first be a legend in their culture.
Humility This hero's greatest attribute is his humbleness. Despite the fact that he may be the best of the best, he never brags, boasts, or becomes ostentatious about his abilities.
Battles Supernatural Foes The Nemesis of this hero is usually a supernatural being, for example: Grendel, Poseidon, or a cyclops.

Odysseus, Lancelot, and Beowulf are all epic heroes.

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The Anti Hero

Anti Heroes begin with traits that are very uncommon or unbecoming of a hero. They display qualities that are more in-line with a villain's characteristics. With traits such as conceitedness, immorality, rebellion, and dishonesty, they are not viewed with admiration. Like many of the other heroes, anti heroes start out as average people who are controversially flawed and inherently good at the same time. An anti hero, by definition, is a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. These characters can range from a good person with an unattractive vice to a criminal mastermind who has a heart of gold.

Famous examples of the anti hero include Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, and Lady Macbeth.

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