We all 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 heroes, 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, I’d argue. That’s probably because that’s what people felt they needed most in their leaders at that time. Then along comes Christianity with ‘The meek will inherit the Earth’ and we get a lot of rather meek, self sacrificing martyrs for heroes. And that concept of self sacrifice is probably what is at the heart of our modern conceptions, in the West, of heroism. I think we currently describe acts as heroic if they put the needs of others before one’s own needs. Therefore a hero is someone who helps other people.
Significance is an interesting dimension of heroics. No doubt many tales use highly significant heroes on highly significant plots to explore the self sacrificing endeavours of their heroes. 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. So if you’re writing in a comic book heroic form, make the actions highly 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.
Hero has the Biggest Problem
One very good piece of advice I once received is that the protagonist 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 really 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. I guess a character can also have the biggest problem by simply believing they do … to some extent!