It seems to be the case that whenever we watch a film, read a book, or even turn on the news that we are swamped with stories about heroes. As writers, we are bound to eventually to wonder whether every story needs a hero.
You can write a story without a hero by having multiple leading characters, by making each of the characters morally complex, and by ensuring the leading characters don’t sacrifice themselves or display heroic characteristics. The Usual Suspects is a great example.
Hero Character Clichés
Let’s start by outlining what a hero character is, and what clichés we are used to seeing. We probably all feel we instinctively know what a hero is. But what’s the shortest and most useful way of describing this role?
It’s interesting that different cultures have different kinds of hero, and what’s considered a hero probably also changes over time.
Look at the Ancient Greek heroes for instance. They are heroic primarily because of their wealth and strength. That’s probably because that’s what people felt they needed most in their leaders at that time.
Then Christianity introduced notions such as ‘The meek will inherit the Earth’. This gave birth to meek, self sacrificing martyrs as heroes. This concept of self sacrifice is probably what is at the heart of modern conceptions, in the West, of heroism.
A contemporary dimension of heroics is self sacrifice, or someone who decides to put the needs of others before their own, usually to save another person from peril. Think Superman.
Historically, going back to Gilgamesh, a hero is a great person who goes on an incredible journey to achieve a mighty objective, and overcome difficult obstacles. The Greeks sailed to Troy to regain Helen, for instance.
One very popular work on Heroics is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In this work he argues that a particular story line with recurring characters appears again and again across cultures and across time, and that the building blocks of this particular story are inherent to the human mind.
Should I Use the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is not a structure that all writers must use. Its impact is so widely felt in Western culture that it is worth getting to know the basics of this theory, so you can recognize it when you see it. This will allow you to decide which elements are useful to you.
Learning as much as you can about story structure, and what has worked in the past, has the benefit of meaning that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you pick up the pen. However, you might write more original stories without being burdened by what has come before. It’s a balance.
Some people think the hero’s journey as outlined by Campbell is not particularly democratic, and fosters violent and potentially colonial ambitions. So it’s best to be aware of the criticisms aimed at this theory, and not just blindly jump on board.
Can you Write a Story without a Protagonist?
You can write a story without a protagonist, and without a central hero altogether. This plot structure might be perfect for you if you want to emphasize the important role that team work plays in life, or de-emphasize the notion that some people are extraordinary while others are ordinary.
Some stories, like Pulp Fiction, don’t have one central character, and instead feature many story lines which intersect. Some stories have anti-heroes, or people who are the leading character but do not display the characteristics usually associated with heroes.
Stories Without Heroes
There are lots of stories without heroes. Blood Meridian is regarded as a classic of literature, and features characters that in many ways do not display heroic tendencies. The short stories of Raymond Carver feature characters which are not heroic. Slice of life stories are also worth checking out!
How do you Write a Good Hero?
Good heroes are characters that the audience enjoys watching. They typically go on a journey that the viewer regards as ‘significant’, and they typically display characteristics that the audience approves of or relates to.
Significance is an interesting dimension of heroics. No doubt many writers use highly significant heroes in highly significant plots. What does significance mean in this context?
Superman saving the world is fairly significant to the lives of most of Earth’s inhabitants.
Tragedies were often set in royal families, like Hamlet, because the actions of members of royal families were once highly significant because of the power the royals wielded.
We can see that one aspect of significance is the number of people who are affected by an event, and the extent to which they are affected. If someone’s life is saved by another person, that is a significant action. If the entire planet is saved from disaster, that is arguably even more significant.
However, modern realist drama is all about exploring the impact of highly significant themes or actions on the average individual i.e. in the Death of a Salesman we see how the American Dream crushes Willy Loman, or how class warfare is infuriating Jimmy in Look Back in Anger.
What Makes a Hero Likable?
Usually characters are likable when they are sympathetic. This means that we feel sympathy for them. Aristotle mentions that characters should have an objective that the audience approves of in order to be likable. So ensure that your character has a likable motivation to make them sympathetic.
How do I make a Character Heroic?
Make a character heroic by giving them the biggest problem. One piece of advice I received is that the protagonist or hero is the person in the story with the biggest problem. If someone in your story has a larger problem than your protagonist then you might want to consider whose story it is.
So this applies to heroes: give your hero the biggest problem out of any of the characters i.e. it’s Superman who has to save the world, and it’s Willy Loman who believes he has to provide financially for his family.
Arguably a character or hero can also have the biggest problem by simply believing they do, to some extent.
In conclusion you can absolutely write a story without a hero, but it might help you as a writer to learn what others have written about heroes, so you can take what is useful to you, and recognize when other writers are utilizing heroic structures and characters.