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“Hero” is a Four-Letter Word

By Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver Co-creator Dramatica

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If you are always writing with Heroes and Villains, you are limiting yourself.

Why?  Because these two familiar characters are not archetypes at all, but stereotypes.  They are culturally traditional blends of a number of traits that, in fact, can be rearranged in many other combinations to create a whole variety of other “leading character” types.

By breaking up your Heroes and Villains into their component parts and reassembling them in other ways, you can provide versatility and new opportunities for you, the author, and add interest, variety, and unpredictability for your readers or audience.

The Hero Breaks Down!

Groucho Marx once said, “You’re headed for a nervous breakdown. Why don’t you pull yourself to pieces?” That, in fact, is what we’re going to do to our hero.

Now many writers focus on a hero and a villain as the primary characters in their stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as we are about to discover, there are so many more options for creative character construction.

Take the average hero. What qualities might we expect to find in the fellow? In fact, there are four principal attributes.

For one thing, the traditional hero is always the Protagonist. By that we mean he or she is the Prime Mover in the effort to achieve the story goal. This doesn’t presuppose the hero is a willing leader of that effort. For all we know he might accept that charge kicking and screaming. Nonetheless, once stuck in the situation, the hero provides the push to achieve the goal.

Another quality of a stereotypical hero is that he is also the Main Character. By this we mean that the hero is constructed so that the audience stands in his shoes, or at least right behind his shoulder. In other words, the audience identifies with the hero and sees the story as centering around him.

The third quality of the most usual hero configuration is being a “Good Guy.” Simply, he intends to do the right thing. Of course, he might be misguided or inept, but he wants to do good, and he does try.

And finally, let us note that heroes are usually the Central Character, meaning that they get more “media real estate” (pages, screen time, lines of dialog) than any other character.

Listing these four qualities we get:

1. Protagonist.

2. Main Character.

3. Good Guy.

4. Central Character

Getting right to the point, the first two items in the list are structural in nature, while the last two are storytelling. Protagonist describes the character’s function from the Objective View described earlier. Main Character positions the audience in that particular character’s spot through the Main Character View. In contrast, being a Good Guy is a matter of personality, and Central Character is determined by the attention given to that character by the author’s storytelling.

You are probably familiar with the terms Protagonist, Main Character, and Central Character.  But you’ve probably also noticed that I’ve used them here in very specific ways. In actual practice, most authors bandy these terms about more or less interchangeably. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for structural purposes it’s not very precise. That’s why you’ll see me being something of a stickler in its use of terms and their definitions: it’s the only way to be clear.

In fact, it is not really important which words you use to describe the four attributes of the hero.  What is important is to recognize each of these qualities and to understand what they are.

At this juncture, you may be wondering why we should even bother breaking down a hero into these pieces. What’s the value in it? The answer is that these pieces don’t necessarily have to go together in this stereotypical way.

For example, in the classic story of racial prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Protagonist function and the Main Character View are separated into two different characters, rather than into a single hero.

The Protagonist is Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the movie version. Atticus is a principled Southern lawyer in the 1930s who is assigned to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl. His goal is to ensure justice is done, and he is the Prime Mover in this endeavor.

But we do not stand in Atticus’ shoes. Rather, the story is told through the eyes of Scout, his young daughter, who observers the workings of prejudice from a child’s innocence.

Why not make Atticus a typical hero who is also the Main Character? First, Atticus sticks by his principles regardless of the dangers and pressures brought to bear. If he had represented the audience position, the audience/reader would have felt quite self-righteous throughout the story’s journey.

But there is even more advantage to splitting these qualities between two characters. Here’s how it works, step by step:  First, the audience identifies with Scout. And we share her fear of the local boogey man known as Boo Radley – a monstrous mockery of human form who forms the stuff of local terror stories. All the kids know about Boo, and though we never see him, we hear their tales of his horrible ways.

At the end of the story, it turns out that Boo is just a gentle giant, a normal man with a kind heart but low intellect. As was the custom in that age, his parents kept him indoors, inside the basement of the house, leaving him pale and scary-looking due to the lack of sunlight. But Boo ventures out at night, leading to the false but horrible stories about him when he is occasionally sighted.

As it happens, Scout’s life is threatened by the father of the girl who was ostensibly raped in an attempt to get back at Atticus. Lo and behold, it is Boo who comes to her rescue. In fact, he has always been working behind the scenes to protect the children and is not at all the horrible monster they all presupposed.

In a moment of revelation, we, the audience, come to realize we have been cleverly manipulated by the author to share Scout’s initial prejudice against Boo. Rather than feeling self-righteous by identifying with Atticus, we have been led to realize that we are just as capable of prejudice as the obviously misguided adults we have been observing.

The message of the story is that prejudice does not have to come from meanness, but will happen within the heart of anyone who passes judgment based on hearsay rather than direct knowledge. This statement could never have been successfully made if the elements of the typical hero had all been placed in Atticus.

So, the message here is that there is nothing wrong with writing about heroes and villains, but it is limiting. By separating the components of the hero into individual qualities, we open our options to a far greater number of dramatic scenarios that are far less stereotypical.

Are there more ways to split up the stereotypical hero and redistribute his traits?  Absolutely!  But to explore these, we first need to take apart our villain as well.

The Villain Breaks Out!

A villain is the dramatic antithesis of a hero, and therefore has the following four attributes:

▪ He is the Antagonist

▪ He is the Influence Character

▪ He is second in prominence to the Central Character

▪ He is a Bad Guy

By definition:

The Antagonist is the Principal Impediment in the plot – the chief obstacle to the achievement of the story’s overall goal.

The Influence Character is the most persuasive character – the one who argues the devil’s advocate position to that of the Main Character regarding the personal or moral issue the story seems to be about.

The Second Most Prominent Character is the one who stands out most strongly among the players, save for the hero.

The Bad Guy is the standard bearer of immorality – the character whose intent is to do the wrong thing.

Putting it all together then, a villain tries to prevent the goal from being achieved, represents the counterpoint to the audience position in the story, it the second most prominent character, and seeks to do the wrong thing. Now we can see that when we created a hero who was a bad guy and another who was an antagonist, we were actually borrowing attributes from the villain. In the same manner, the villain can borrow attributes from the hero. For example, we might fashion a character with the following four attributes:

▪ Antagonist

▪ Influence Character

▪ Second Most Prominent

Good Guy – (An element from the hero, rather than Bad Guy)

Such a character might be a friend of an anti-hero (who is a hero that is a Bad Guy), trying to prevent him from making a terrible mistake. Imagine that the anti-hero is trying to achieve a goal, represents the audience position, is most prominent, but has ill intent. The Good Guy variation on the villain would have good intent and would therefore try to thwart the anti-hero’s evil plan (antagonist), change his mind (impact character) and would be the second most prominent player next to the anti-hero.

Another variation on the typical villain might be:

▪ Protagonist

▪ Influence Character

▪ Second Most Prominent

▪ Bad Guy

In fact, it is this combination that is used most often in action/adventure stories. This character gets the ball rolling by instigating an evil scheme (protagonist/bad guy), tries to lure the “hero” to the evil side (influence character), but is second to the “hero” only in prominence.

As we can see, swapping attributes between the hero and villain opens up a world of opportunities for creating more interesting and less typical characters. But, these are not the only ways to swap attributes. For example, just because the hero is a Good Guy doesn’t mean the villain has to be a Bad Guy.

Suppose we have the following two characters:

Typical Hero:

▪ Protagonist

▪ Main Character

▪ Central Character

▪ Good Guy

Atypical Villain:

▪ Antagonist

▪ Influence Character

▪ Second Most Prominent

▪ Good Guy

Here we have a story about two people, one trying to accomplish something, the other trying to prevent it. One representing the audience position in the story, the other being the most influential with an opposing message argument. One is the most prominent; the other second in audience interest, but both believe they are doing the right thing.

These two characters are dramatically opposed. They are in conflict, both externally and internally. Yet each is driven to do what he believes is right. So who is right? Well, in fact, that is what a story built around these characters would be all about!

Indeed, the author’s message would center on convincing the audience that one of these characters was misguided and the other properly grounded. Such a story would provide an excellent opportunity to explore a moral issue that doesn’t easily fall into black and white clarity. It would stand a good chance to come across as deep, thoughtful, and provocative – and all by simply having two Good Guys duke it out.

At this point, it should be pretty clear that if you’ve only been writing with heroes and villains, you haven’t been doing anything wrong, but you have been limiting your creative opportunities.

And yet, there is still another technique to help make your heroes villains less stereotypical….

The Measure of a Hero

It is said that the stature of a hero is determined by the magnitude of the villain he must overcome.  While this does help to define the scale of a hero’s achievement, it says nothing about how much he must reach deep within himself to succeed.

To more fully measure a hero an author must provide the readers or audience with two yardsticks .  One that speaks to the magnitude of heroic effort required, the other to the quality of his “character.”  Hero and villain are judged not only by their achievements but also by their manner as defined by their underlying personalities.

Structurally, a hero is a protagonist who is also the main character (the character with whom the readers or audience primarily identifies – the one about whom the story seems to revolve).  By personality, he is also the central character (the most prominent) and in addition a “good guy.”

Structurally, a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character (the one who is philosophically opposed to the point of view of the main character).  By personality, he is also the second most central character and in addition a “bad guy” – a character of ill intentions.

So, as we can see, hero and villain are not purely archetypes but are stereotypes – a combination of structural and personal elements, comprised of underlying specifics and contextual attributes.  This being the case, we cannot look to a purely structural approach to tell our readers or audience how to measure our hero, but must consider his more personal attributes as well.

While it is possible to simply describe the personality of our hero directly to the reader or audience as commentary within a novel or by showing him in action in a movie, it is far more effective let your other characters do it from within your story.

To do this, we can employ to other stereotypes: the detractor and the booster.  The detractor is a stereotype who downplays or badmouths the qualities and abilities of the hero.  The booster speaks of the hero in hyperbole – literally in heroic terms.  One of these spreads the conception that the hero is inadequate to the task.  The other sets an elevated bar beyond realistic expectations.

Just as the hero is built upon the structural protagonist while the villain is built upon the antagonist, the detractor stereotype is constructed on the structural skeptic archetype while the booster is constructed on the structural sidekick archetype.

So, while the magnitude of the villain determines the stature of the hero’s achievement, the cross-dynamic between the detractor and the booster determines how well the hero meets expectations regarding the quality of his character, thereby reducing or enhancing it and, in effect, telling the readers or audience not only how hard the protagonist had to work but also how much grit he had to employ in order to succeed against the villain.

In your own stories, then, do not become so focused on the directly oppositional relationship between your hero and villain that you fail to develop subtle scenes and moderating moments in which expectations of the hero’s innate abilities, tenacity, and quality of character are both raised and lowered.  In this manner, you will contextualize his true accomplishments, humanize his dramatic function, and much more richly convey the measure of a hero.


I hope you have enjoyed these storytelling approaches to your hero and villain.  If so, please stop by my web site at for many more tips, tricks and techniques.  And while you are there, try free demo of my StoryWeaver Step-by-Step Story Development Software to help create your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

Melanie Anne Phillips

“Hero” is a Four-Letter Word

Copyright Melanie Anne Phillips

Published by Storymind Press

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