1. Heroes often have an unusual origin story.
In spite of some people nowadays groaning at the origin stories in superhero comics and movies, they have a mythological basis. In folk lore and mythology, heroes may have an unusual conception. (Zeus was always turning himself into various animals so he could get it on with mortal women; several heroes in mythology were conceived this way.)
Or, they may be related to royalty, but for some reason are separated from their family. For instance, Perseus and his mother Danae are tossed into the sea by her father the king, because he was told by a seer that his grandson would one day kill him. Percy Jackson is a modern interpretation of Perseus, with a similar origin story (though his father is Poseidon, not Zeus).
King Arthur is conceived when his father Uther convinces Merlin to transform him so he would look like Queen Igraine’s husband. Later on, Merlin spirits the baby Arthur away so he can be raised in secrecy until he is ready to claim his rightful place as king.
Superman (born Kal-El) is sent by his parents in a spaceship to Earth to save him from the apocalyptic event that destroys Krypton.
The “bastard” hero is another common variation. Usually the child of royalty or the upper classes (or the gods) they are reviled as bastards but are also considered part of the elite. A good example of this kind of hero is Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.
“Royalty,” of course, can have other interpretations in modern stories. Besides being descended from royalty (their mother Queen Padme Amidala), Luke and Leia inherited a strong ability to use the Force from their father Anakin. Batman’s parents were very wealthy citizens of Gotham. Katniss’ father was a simple coal miner, but he won the love of a girl from the (relatively) wealthy side of town. He was also a rebel who ignored the rules of the oppressive society they lived in.
2. In spite of a royal/high class/special origin, heroes usually have humble or in some way traumatic upbringings.
Superman (Clark Kent) is brought up by adoptive parents on a farm. Tris in Divergent is brought up in the Abnegation faction, which teaches selflessness and living a humble life. Katniss lives in the poorest district of Panem and is forced by her father’s death and her mother’s mental breakdown to provide for herself and her sister. Bruce Wayne is a rich little boy, but he’s an orphan traumatized by the murder of his parents. Luke is brought up on a remote farm by his aunt and uncle. So is Dorothy. While Luke’s and Dorothy’s aunts and uncles are kind, Harry Potter is brought up by an aunt and uncle who are cruel and abusive.
There are many orphan and one parent heroes. This is sometimes criticized nowadays (Disney gets dinged for this a lot) but the reason for it is kind of obvious. During the course of the story, the mentor will step in and take the place of the missing parent(s).
3. The hero may in some way be “chosen” or a prophesied savior.
I can hear the groaning again. But hang in there with me for a minute.
There’s a lot of resistance to the notion of specialness in a hero. (The LEGO Movie did a brilliant satire of this very concept, while at the same time showing why it works so well in a story.) Many decry this as elitism, but it has its purpose.
Think of it this way: the world of the story has something missing that it needs put right. The hero has the missing something that can set it right again.
Remember also that not every protagonist is a hero. So if you really can’t stand the idea of a “Chosen One,” it’s O.K. to write a protagonist that is not based on the hero archetype.
It’s also perfectly fine to not designate your hero as “chosen.” The story itself can reveal that he or she is the one needed to bring back order to their world.
For instance, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket is about the last person anyone thinks will end up as Wonka’s successor at the factory. He is not designated as “chosen” but is revealed through the story as the most worthy of the prize.
4. While they may not be prophesied as “chosen” heroes are always in some sense “special.”
They may be from another world entirely (i.e. Superman and Dorothy). Or they may have a special skill (Katniss’ skill with a bow and arrow), or unusual wealth (Bruce Wayne), or a reputation that makes people want to follow them (Harry Potter).
Tris is special because she is “divergent”–fits into more than one faction of her society. This also makes her dangerous to the powers that be. Daenerys Targarean in Game of Thrones is impervious to fire. Bran, from the same series, is a “warg,” which means he can take over the bodies of animals or even other people.
5. They may have something about them that’s special, but that doesn’t mean they do everything well or always make the best decisions.
In fact, it is quite common for heroes to fail, sometimes on an epic level. Arthur’s discovery of Guinevere and Lancelot’s adultery disillusions him so much that the entire kingdom is plunged into famine and chaos. Daenerys means well when she saves some women taken as prisoners by her husband’s men, which results in one of the rescued women causing his death and her miscarriage.
Sometimes when heroes fail, it is because they take a chance no one else will take. So even though they fail, it’s a moment when the audience may cheer him or her on. One example of a hero who fails in this way several times is Indiana Jones.
6. The hero’s journey may start with a return to the place of their origin.
The world of the adventure is in some sense a return to the hero’s origins OR to where the society’s problems began. Arthur returns as a young man to Camelot with his foster father and brother. Harry Potter is sent to Hogwarts, where his parents met and fell in love. Luke is plunked in the middle of galactic war that started when his parents were young. Katniss is sent into The Hunger Games that began at the end of the last rebellion.
7. Heroes are nearly always reluctant, at least in the beginning of their journey.
It is quite common for heroes to refuse the call to adventure, usually dispensed by the herald character. The reluctance may end when they are faced with personal devastation (Luke’s aunt and uncle are murdered and their farm burned to the ground, Dorothy is threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West) which forces them to continue on their journey.
Or it may not resolve until almost the end of the story–or at all. Jack Shephard in the TV series Lost refuses to believe he is destined to save the island–and the world–until the final season. Katniss never truly accepts the mantle of heroism, and is relieved when her final, shocking act as the Mockingjay lets her return to obscurity.
8. The other archetypal characters in a story nearly always embody some element of the hero’s character.
When composing your cast of characters, keep this in mind. As I wrote about the shadow archetype, they are the flip side of the hero. The fool represents the hero’s optimism even at the worst moments in the story. The mentor is a possible future for the hero, once they evolve as the mentor did before them. Heroes may have to shapeshift at some point in their journey, or resort to the tactics of the trickster, or function as a threshold guardian.
9. Heroes change.
The change is mostly internal as they resolve repressed dark elements to their persona that they share with their shadow. Dorothy learns to cherish the home she wanted to run away from. Luke doesn’t give into hatred of Darth Vader and saves him from surrendering to total evil.
But the change may also be external. Luke loses his hand in a battle with Darth Vader. Katniss is burned in an explosion and has her skin artificially restored. (She refers to herself afterwards as a “mutt.”)
10. Heroes have a profound impact on the world of the adventure.
Dorothy vanquishes the Witch and forces the Wizard to be forthcoming about his true identity, changing Oz forever. Luke and his allies defeat the Empire. Katniss not only vanquishes the ruling elite of the Capitol, she stops someone just as corrupt and power-mad from taking over.
A perfect visual of what the hero accomplishes is in the movie Excalibur. When King Arthur drinks from the Holy Grail, his ennui vanishes and he once again rides across the land with the Knights of the Round Table. As they do so, the barren land begins to bloom, restoring life and hope to Camelot.
11. Heroes usually return to where the story started.
Dorothy wakes up on the farm in Kansas. Katniss returns to District 12 and begins to live a more normal life. Jack Shephard returns to the exact spot where he woke up after the plane crash just before he dies.
There are some heroes who can’t ever return home (Superman and Luke) but they may return at the end of the story to an obscure life–until the next adventure begins. Charlie returns home briefly, but only to pick up his mother and grandparents to take them to the chocolate factory.
12. Heroes sacrifice something important for the greater good.
It’s not unusual for heroes to literally die, as Jack does in the last episode of Lost.
The sacrifice doesn’t always have to be about life and death. Heroes may instead sacrifice love, a way of life, or ambition, among other things, for the greater good.
Please check out my other posts about archetypes: