Watching the news lately has been sobering. As a writer, I can’t find a conflict more heartbreaking to create than what’s actually happening. But it’s got me thinking, “What is a hero?”
Given that he couldn’t have foreseen the invasion, does any word besides “hero” apply to Ukraine’s President Zelensky? Just a glance at the devastation there shows how dire their situation is. Still, he is rallying his people to stand in defense of their nation against astonishing odds.
What is a hero according to the dictionary?
Let’s take a look at how the dictionary defines a “hero.”
A hero (outside of literature) is someone recognized or admired for courage, achievement, or personal qualities. This hero may also be idolized or romanticized.
It’s from this definition that heroes in literature take their cues. As readers, we typically sympathize with the hero of the story. Throughout the narrative, we connect with them for the noble traits they have that we perhaps see or would like to see in ourselves.
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the characters were just so unlikeable that you couldn’t make it to the end? There are a number of sitcoms I could point to where this is true. I just can’t resonate with any of the characters enough to care about what happens to them. Usually, I brush it off as “not my kind of humor.”
The real problem, however, is that it’s not my kind of story.
Not every character has to be from Gryffindor to be sympathetic, either. While I certainly enjoy Frodo, Wonder Woman, and Percy Jackson, there’s also a place in my heart for Anne Shirley and Sheldon Cooper. Those two are endearing for their personalities and their circumstances even if they aren’t charging off into battle against Orcs.
So who—or what is a hero?
As is evident in a lot of my writing, the hero isn’t always a warrior. Sure, Del is an easy hero to write and to admire—she’s a child warrior prodigy. But Maryn’s journey is no less important for lacking either a sword or a clear enemy. She’s a quieter sort of hero, more like Jo March than Joan of Arc.
In my current WIPs, none of my main characters are warriors. These heroines that inspire the story make their contributions to the conflict and the plot in other ways. They are more challenging for me to write. I despise the damsel-in-distress trope and try to avoid it where I can. In order for the main character to be a hero—to gain sympathy from a reader—they have to have some agency in their lives.
A hero’s actions and decisions have to drive the plot and make us care about the outcome.