What is a (Modern) Hero?

People nowadays tend to steer clear of using the word “hero” when talking about stories, whether that’s a novel or a movie. The correct word to use is “protagonist” or “central character”. It’s funny, because back here in the real world we’re quite happy to call soldiers, doctors and teachers “heroes” (which is funny, because most people don’t actually like being labeled like that). I know that sometimes protagonists are not necessarily heroes. Sometimes the antagonist is. But the point is, where have the heroes gone?

Heading back to fiction, take a look at comic books and the movies spawned from them. They feature superheroes and supervillains and they often enjoy being referred to as such. The problem, I think, is that fiction has tilted towards realism and “grittiness” rather than the lighthearted, carefree (campy, even?) fun that seemed to be popular before. This means that heroes now have to have a great deal of depth and, usually, a tortured, dysfunctional past. If you disagree, look at Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, the new Amazing Spider-man or any modern war movie or spy thriller. These are modern heroes.

James Bond

We no longer have James Bond ordering martinis and hanging around in exotic locales in cream trousers. He’s now grim, determined, no-nonsense and very violent (not that I don’t love Daniel Craig’s interpretation). I guess it’s good, in a way. People are focusing more on story and substance now than flashiness and style. But, I still think it’s good to remember things that have fallen out of favour–one day they most likely will make a glorious return. Everything goes in circles, including the world of fiction.

Any character who goes out of their way to help or protect others is a hero. How many ordinary people do you know who would endanger their own life for a complete stranger? Any character who resists the pull of greed, selfishness and hate is a hero. Any character who’s made mistakes and has done terrible things, who can make a change and redeem themselves is a hero.

What is a modern hero? The person who decides not to be a sheep and makes a choice to make a difference. The person who stands up for what they and society really believe in. The person who is still standing after the weight of the world is piled on their shoulders.

Marvel Heroes

Next time you hear someone refer to a protagonist or central character, tell them its okay to use the word “hero”. We can always use more heroes.

I’d just like to remind you that these are just my opinions. If you disagree, agree or have something else to add, please feel welcome to drop in a comment.

7 thoughts on “What is a (Modern) Hero?

  1. limebirdkate 18-Jul-2012 / 14:48

    Thanks for the pingback, trackback-y mention 🙂 Great post. I agree that the term “hero” is perfectly fine to use as a term to describe any protagonist or antagonist who must defy the odds to get what he wants.

    • James 18-Jul-2012 / 14:52

      No problem at all 🙂 Glad you found the post interesting.

  2. tmso 18-Jul-2012 / 15:43

    Thanks for that. Someone called my protagonist a hero a few months back and it bugged me, and I didn’t know why. But, the thing is, he IS the hero of the story. I wanted to embrace the term but felt like I shouldn’t. Now I will. 🙂

  3. Janet Sketchley 19-Jul-2012 / 15:07

    I wonder if part of the reason we don’t call them “heroes” anymore is the whole “tortured/dysfunctional” thing you mentioned. To me, a hero is someone I can look up to and admire beyond the admiration I’d give an ordinary, messed-up human who took a stand when s/he had to. Someone larger than life, someone I’d like to be like.

    We may wish we had the courage or determination of someone who does what needs doing and fills the hero role, but we won’t wish to be that person if there’s a lot of unhappiness or a morality code we don’t agree with.

    For me, the trend to more realistic characters has maybe made them more believable but has vastly reduced the supply of fictional heroes.

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s cyclical and the days of fictional heroes may return.

  4. I think the term “hero” may have gone out of style because people want more “grey” in the characters. To me grey doesn’t mean morally depraved it simply indicates characters that aren’t exclusively defined as black or white. To me this means that the author is providing a complex or well rounded character portrayal by exposing both the good and bad aspects of their creations.

    But I still want to see heroic acts, even when…or especially when…a character might be sacrificing their own well being for someone else or a greater cause. What I don’t like is the settings that seem to lack heroes and are steeped in an overall morass of hopelessness. Often I see worlds portrayed where there is no joy, or even hope of joy. I’m not saying the world should be portrayed as filled with sunshine and unicorns. Of course there should be struggles (and the harder the better), death, and loss. After all it is through conflicts that plots are made, and it is how the characters adapt and grow that makes us feel invested in their tales. But shouldn’t there be the hope for triumph over adversity? Is it somehow wrong to hope that the world will be a better place? As mentioned in one of my favorite movies:

    “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

    What I don’t like in my fantasy books are places and situations where hope seems to have no place.

    • James 31-Jul-2012 / 07:45

      I agree that those worlds where everything is perpetually grim and there’s no hope in sight can take their toll after you’re immersed in them for some time. I have to admit, after I read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy back-to-back, I felt a weird sense of hopelessness wash over me. Nothing that extreme, but I had to kind of readjust to the real world again.

      And the Shawshank Redemption is one of my favourite stories 😀

  5. Tanya van Hasselt 25-Feb-2015 / 21:37

    Heroes in the traditional sense have largely disappeared from our lives – and from modern novels too. But don’t we long – and not just in romantic fiction – to look up to individuals and to be inspired by their qualities? To want them to have more vision, courage, or goodness than ourselves? Having nobody to really admire in real life is dispiriting enough; to be deprived of heroes in books as well is rather hard…

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