I’ve been studying story for a long time now but have only recently given a lecture or two about the characteristics of a hero. I created the lecture in response to a speakers series in Minnesota and greatly enjoyed delivering the content.
I enjoyed it mostly because, well, a hero looks nothing like you’d think. And in a way, I found the revelations quite comforting.
Admittedly, this is no scientific analysis.
I basically studied a bunch of movies and tried to find common characteristics of the character that “saved the day.” What I found, though, whether it was Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Tommy in Tommy Boy, Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones Diary, is that heroes are not exactly what they seem.
I created the talk because intuitively we all understand ourselves, or rather experience life, as the protagonist in a story. Stories resonate with us, then, because they are cleaned up, clear versions of the dynamics of a human life.
We all want things.
But we face resistance, and we have to risk and fight to make those things happen. It’s comforting to see romanticized, hyped versions of these plots play out on screen.
That said, what does it take to be a hero?
Here are 6 surprising commonalities of movie-screen heroes:
1. They are flawed – It’s true. We think of heroes as people who have it all together but this doesn’t work in a story. Perfect characters are not interesting. They’re boring. Heroes have to have something in their lives that holds them back in order to be interesting. Tommy Boy thinks he’s dumb, Luke Skywalker is told he’s too young and Bridget Jones is an emotional wreck. So if you’ve got a flaw, you’re in luck. You can be a hero in your story.
2. They are filled with doubt – The external problem in a story (the bomb needing to be disarmed or whatever) only serves one purpose and that is to manifest the internal conflict of the lead character. And the internal conflict is almost always the same: Self doubt. Heroes doubt themselves or the story loses interest. We have to wonder, along with the character, whether they can get this done. Tommy Boy struggles back and forth, so does Luke and Katniss. So if you’ve ever doubted yourself, you are hero material.
3. They seek a guide – Almost every hero I studied meets a guide who has “been there and done that” and can help them accomplish their obligatory task. Heroes do not have the knowledge, skill, or confidence to make it on their own. For centuries storytellers have used “the guide” character to help the hero along. Haymitch gives Katniss a plan, Yoda teaches Luke to use the force. So, if you want to be a hero, find a few guides to help you out, otherwise you’re doomed.
4. Heroes are lazy but get forced into action – It’s not believable to an audience when a character suddenly takes action on their own. We’re all too lazy to buy into that. Instead, heroes get thrust into the story when something happens that makes them move. In storytelling terms this is called an inciting incident. The point here is that, in real life, you’ll have to force yourself to move. You’ll have to ask the girl out, sign up for the marathon, quit your job or something. The story won’t come to you, you’ve got to jump into it.
5. Heroes change – The whole point of a story is the character arc. Unless the hero changes, an audience will lose interest. There are a few exceptions, James Bond being one, but in 99% of movies, a hero is cowardly at the beginning and brave at the end or selfish at the beginning and altruistic at the end. Every human wants to change and was designed to do so so when we see a character change in a story we enjoy it because we know we were designed to change ourselves. It’s as though they are showing us the way. And the only way to change is to, well, experience pain.
6. Heroes experience pain – If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. The only way a character changes in a story is through trial. No trial, no change – no story. And the greater the conflict, the better the story and the greater the character transformation. In fact, about 15 minutes before the end of a movie and you’ll start to notice an “all is lost” moment. This is the last bit of seemingly insurmountable conflict the character must overcome to save the day. It’s the final act of ultimate tension. And it makes the story great. All that to say, unless there is real conflict in your life, you’re not living the heroes journey.
So that’s it.
Those are the 6 common characteristics of a hero. And you’re likely experiencing all of them. So the next time you think of a hero as somebody else and think you don’t have what it takes, take another look in the mirror. You very well may be experiencing the heroes journey. Congrats.