The most exciting—and fear inducing—part of starting a new novel are the choices. You could go anywhere, with anyone. So the question is: who is going on the journey? Who will your hero be? There are many types to choose from, and any could work depending on your style and genre. Remember, a hero should capture the spirit of the story and carry the theme. Here are the three most common hero archetypes. I’ll share the plusses and pitfalls of each.
The Eager Hero
This is your prototypical hero. This person is why the word “hero” exists. When faced with adversity, this hero is ready, willing, and able to tackle the problem, defeat the enemy, and persevere no matter what. Sometimes this hero has super powers or magic, but other times he or she is simply talented, keen, or a lover of adventure. When danger calls, this hero runs headlong into trouble. Examples include James Bond, Nancy Drew, or Odysseus. Superheroes are often this type of hero too.
The eager hero does not hesitate getting involved in the action. They’re thrill-seeking, usually ethical, and ready to solve problems. The downside is that few people are brave all of the time, so it’s easy for this type of hero to come across as one-dimensional. The challenge is to make them human. Some of the newer takes on superheroes focus on their tragic backstory (Superman) or dark side (Batman), which anchors these characters. I loved watching the Adam West Batman reruns when I was a kid, but it wasn’t for the moral nuance.
The Reluctant Hero
The reluctant hero is perhaps the most common type of hero because this character is the most relatable. This is your seeming everyman who, after great consternation and hesitancy, accepts that she must get involved and go on the journey. This hero doesn’t want to do it, but sucks it up anyway once it’s clear only she could do the job. Readers often like to imagine they could be this ultimately courageous Regular Joe too—if only a twist of birth, fate, or circumstance allowed it.
Remember, the reluctant hero is an ordinary person who shows bravery, even though all they really want is for everything to go back to normal. Their initial doubt is key to being relatable. The challenge is to show ambivalence without boring the reader. The other factor is that this is a dynamic character. They’ll grow significantly from the beginning to the end of the book, so you’ll have to keep characterization pacing in mind as they become braver and more willing. Harry Potter doesn’t want to mess with Voldemort. Frodo Baggins wants to leave the ring alone. But that’s not how it works out.
The hero who’s captured the imagination of screenwriters lately (for TV shows in particular) is the anti-hero. This character is not a good guy. Often, this person is a bad guy—the worst guy. He could be a murderer or a thief, yet he elicits sympathy. The reason this person isn’t a straight villain is because 1.) they’re the main character. 2.) Even though the reader knows this is a self-interested bad person, there’s something likeable about her. You root for her, even though you know you shouldn’t.
This is a delicious character to follow. If you don’t believe me, see also the success of the Sopranos or Breaking Bad. However, be warned that this is a hard character to write. The reader needs to see their flaws right away yet still be in their corner. Showing the challenges these anti-heroes face is an effective way to do this. In Breaking Bad, Walter White had a disabled son and a new baby. He was a kind husband and father. Meh, maybe it’s not so bad that he starts cooking meth. He does have a family to support….If you can pull it off, you might have a winner.