10 Traits of an Epic Hero

10 Traits of an Epic Hero

posted in: Storytelling | 11

Last month, we talked about how to write epic villains. Naturally, it’s time to discuss the other side of the coin: Epic heroes. There will be some overlap with these two posts, because the traits of heroes and villains are often parallel to each other. But it’s important to understand both. And, as you’ll see, heroes have specific needs of their own.

All right, ready your sword and capes. It’s time to get heroic!

Frodo ring
Frodo’s goal is always clear: Get the ring somewhere. First, it’s Rivendelle; then, it’s Mordor.

1. She should have a clear goal.

Just like the antagonist, the hero needs to have a clear goal; but in this case, it’s even more important. Without a clear goal, the entire story will lack direction. What does your character want more than anything? That goal should drive her every action.

Even if some scenes aren’t about the character’s main goal, she should still be pursuing something at all points in the story. She should never be passive; she should never let things happen to her. A hero gets up and makes things happen, even if she repeatedly fails in the process. Otherwise, she’ll simply become boring to read about.

2. She shouldn’t be completely good.

Because who can relate to that? Have you ever met someone who was completely, thoroughly perfect? I sure haven’t. Unfortunately, human nature is flawed, even for the best of us. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone does the wrong thing, sometimes. A character who doesn’t mess up will feel artificial. We won’t be able to connect with her. It will be hard even to sympathize with her.

3. He should be human.

In the case of villains, this is because they need to have complexities and emotions outside of their evilness. A villain needs to be a full, real person, not just a menacing shadow on the wall.

For heroes, it’s somewhat of the opposite situation. Similar to the previous point, they need to be flawed, but also down-to-earth. They need to have familiar imperfections, like bed head in the morning, or a habit of awkward social mistakes. These moments make them real.

Peter Parker waving
I think we can all relate to the uncomfortable moment in Spider-Man (2002) when Peter Parker thinks Mary Jane is waving at him… then realizes… oh, nope, she wasn’t.

4. He should be relatable.

The more a hero reminds us of ourselves, the more we come to care about him. This can be strengthened by emphasizing the hero’s universal emotions, such as his longings, his fears, his insecurities, or his love for his friends and family. Perhaps even more potently, a hero can be made relatable by highlighting his flaws and foibles, as explained in the previous point.

It is also surprisingly powerful to show a hero conducting simple, menial tasks, like taking out the trash. Whenever we can point to the hero and say, “I’ve done that!” or “That’s just like me!”, we forge a deeper bond with him.

5. She should be admirable.

Despite all the hero’s imperfections, there should be things about her that we can look up to. The best heroes inspire us, encourage us, and challenge us. Their admirable traits are made even stronger by their flaws, because we can relate to them more easily and say, “If she did it, so can I!” Heroes face adversities, and they fail many times, but after everything they come out stronger and more victorious. Reading about these kinds of heroes will embolden us to face our daily challenges with more grit and bravery.

Jack Sparrow gif - You smell funny

6. She should be likable.

A great hero needs to be endearing, and if possible, amusing. We all love to laugh at Captain Jack Sparrow’s antics, and it’s hard not to love Malcolm Reynolds for his swagger and laid-back humor. It’s almost impossible to care about a character who’s annoying or dull, so make yours interesting. Give her a colorful, entertaining personality, and she will be sure to capture your readers’ heart.

7. He should have quirks.

Your character needs to be more than just a hero. Make him a well-rounded character by adding random, unique details to his personality. Maybe he loves building things. Maybe he enjoys classical music, or he bites his nails when he’s nervous, or he snorts when he laughs. These quirks may not have anything to do with the story, but they will make your hero feel more like a real person.

8. He should be original.

Protagonists often fall into the typical “hero type.” They are ENFJ, or something close. They are headstrong, bold, and naturally adventurous. They have no qualms with speaking their mind, they are terrible at listening to good advice, and they let their hearts lead them into all sorts of danger. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, d’Artagnan, Achilles, and Eragon all come to mind.

The problem with this character is that he has been used again and again in epic stories throughout history. Part of the reason, of course, is that the “hero type” works very well. However, because he’s so familiar, he can be cliché and predictable. Not to mention, the “hero type” is hard to relate to for most people.

When heroes exist outside of this stereotype, it’s very refreshing. I think of Katniss Everdeen, with her quiet strength and love for her sister. I think of Bilbo Baggins, who begrudgingly faces adventure even when he’d rather curl up in his cozy Hobbit hole. Unique hero types make for more engaging characters, and for more variety in literature and film.

Katniss standing in defiance
Katniss is a girl of few words, but her actions speak volumes… enough to unite a nation and topple an oppressive regime.

9. She should be complex.

Just like any good character, your hero should have multiple sides to her personality and character. Sometimes, these sides will appear to contradict each other. But that is just because no real person behaves the same way, all the time, in every situation. We are influenced by a myriad of different motivators, desires, and points of pressure. We change our minds, we grow, we adapt. We are not always predictable. Allow your hero to live and breath as a three-dimensional being, not a cardboard cutout.

10. She should have a special skill.

Protagonists with special abilities – in other words, abilities we do not have – are especially fun to watch or read about. They allow us to live vicariously through them. In a way, we get to experience their power for ourselves.

Note that your hero’s ability doesn’t have to be fighting skills or super powers. It could be resilience, resourcefulness, emotional strength, or the power to do what needs to be done without hesitation. So long it’s something that we don’t have, we will be drawn to her. We will long to walk in her shoes. And reading her story will allow us to do just that.


For discussion…

What are some of your favorite epic heroes? Do your own heroes have any of these traits? Which ones?

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11 Responses

  1. authorswilliams
    | Reply

    I love this! Soo many awesome heroes come to mind. Though I love the ENFJ heroes (so like me LOL) but it’s fun to find a different kind of hero as well. Half my favorites tend to be heroes with anger issues and some kind of terrible past. Some of my favorites – Batman, Spiderman, Jack Sparrow, Robin Hood, But I have found characters like Enza from The Shoemaker’s wife very authentic, different than the normal hero. She has strength, independence, determination, strong faith-based morals. Hannah from The Yesterday series because she’s extremely emotional, flighty, deeply caring, easily terrified and overwhelmed, yet determined, and strong in a different way. Enjoyable post, thanks!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I can imagine that you’d like ENFJ heroes if you can relate to them! xD Ooh, I’m always drawn to characters with dark pasts, too. My heart just goes out to them. It’s probably the easiest way to make me care about a character, honestly. 😉 Batman and Spiderman are some of my favorites, too. *nods* And Jack Sparrow is so wildly entertaining.

      As for Enza and Hannah, well, I haven’t read/watched those stories, or actually even heard of them! But those sound like great characters! ^_^

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. gregforeli
    | Reply

    I find that any hero/heroine needs to have some serious soul searching going on. It needs to be a visible struggle to the audience.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Great comment. Those kinds of characters are certainly easy to identify with!

  3. gregforeli
    | Reply

    I think audiences and writers should distinguish between an ordinary person who does noble or heroic on a personal/intimate level; acts of kindness or acts that affect a small group, acts that are deemed heroic by society. Then those who are truly heroic in that they thwart an evil in a fashion that is seen and heard by all.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      This is also a great point! There are many types of heroes. I’m personally a big fan of the small, ordinary heroes that nobody sees. 🙂 Their actions are even more admirable, in my eyes; they act because it’s RIGHT, not because they will gain recognition. And that often takes more courage!

  4. Nads
    | Reply

    So, maybe it’s just me, but do you think it’s possible to write a character who is ENFJ without falling into the ‘headstrong, independent troublemaker’ cliché? I ask because, in spite of my being an ENFJ myself (last I checked), I don’t relate at all to the characters you listed. I personally find most characters like that to be boring and/or annoying, with a few exceptions.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hey Nads, excellent point! Of course there is so much variety even within each personality type, and I’m just speaking according to generalizations. 🙂 (I also get annoyed with stereotypical INTJs, for example, which is my type.) Writing about someone who is outside of the mold for their stereotype always makes for a more dynamic and interesting character… in fact, I’d say it’s preferable. So in short, yes! 😉

  5. Lupa
    | Reply

    Hey, I know you said that they should always be trying to achieve a goal, but what if your character is waiting to see how things play out? For example, in my story, the main character, Sephta, is in prison and not really trying to escape because she’s used to life in captivity (long story). She’s trying to determine whether this one person is reliable or not, but she’s not doing it as part of an escape plan. Sephta is not trying to escape. What then?

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Good question! I’d say in that case, she may still is trying to achieve a goal. She’s not trying to escape, but she’s trying to survive, perhaps. She’s figuring out the dynamics of her prison, perhaps for another purpose. She always should have a goal, even if it’s a seemingly minor one. I’d saying her trying to figure out a person – seeing what they’re made of – is a goal in of itself. Just make sure she’s not being passive about it, and you’ll be good to go!

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