I’ve noticed something, in my time here on the internet. Actually, when I think about it, this goes back to before the internet. Maybe it’s just that being online and spending time looking at writing forums has made this certain misuse all the more apparent to me. But regardless of whether I’ve noticed it now or it’s been a recent rise, I want to talk about a certain word.
It isn’t hard to find this word being used on a day to day basis. In fact, nowadays it seems I see it being used more than ever. People want to talk about what they’re writing? They talk about the “hero.” They mention their character, or their place in the story. It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about with regards to the story, at some point it’s “hero this” and “hero that.” And ordinarily I wouldn’t mind … except there’s just one problem here.
They’re not talking about a hero. They’re talking about a protagonist.
You see the problem I’ve noticed is that today, the term “hero” has slowly become more and more blanket. People, especially readers and writers, have started using it as a catch-all description, a fill-in for the term protagonist.
And to be honest, it’s not hard to see why they would want to. We tend to think of some of our favorite characters as heroes, after all. Plus, the term comes with a nice, positive connotation. So naturally, when we think of the main characters of our works, we want to think of them in the best possible light. We think of them as the “hero” of their own little story.
But the truth is, they often aren’t, and that’s were the problem arises. Simply put, the majority of the times I read the term “hero” these days, I have to mentally substitute in the proper term, because simply put a protagonist is not a hero. Sure, they might be a nice person, but that doesn’t automatically qualify one for heroism. And most aren’t even close to the original definition of the word. I’ve seen authors of works with emo sad-sack characters—whose entire purpose is to wallow in drugs, tell the world how sucky it all is, and whine about how it’s everyone else’s fault—refer to their characters as “the hero.” Crud, I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen high-school students speaking about Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, and heard his character referred to as a hero.
No. Holden is not a hero. He’s not even an anti-hero—another term that has been butchered by the popular mind these days (so yes, we can expect to see a post on that before long). Holden is just a protagonist. There’s nothing heroic about him, and that’s part of the whole point.
But yet, people call him that because he’s the main character. Which brings us to the root of things, the cause: People don’t know what a hero is. The term that they’re looking for is “protagonist” but instead, they’re using the term “hero,” again perhaps hoping for that positive connotation. And this misuse stems to all areas of media these days. I’ve seen commentaries on popular romance series that refer to the main leads as as “heroine,” despite the fact that they don’t actually have anything in common with that term. I’ve seen people use it online when referring to the main character of their short fiction, who does battle with against breakfast and their diet. And, as pointed out above, I’ve seen people use it to describe their sad-sack emo character whose life is “so hard.” In other words, I’ve seen the term used everywhere, to describe a huge variety of characters.
Thing is, none of these characters are heroes.
So, we have is that people using the term “hero” in lieu of “protagonist.” The question then is, when is it appropriate to use the term “hero?”
Well, the answer to that is pretty straightforward. We use it when we actually have a character who has filled the criteria of what a hero is. Now, I’m not going to be speaking of the heroic monomyth here, rather I’m going just to look at the basic, most straightforward definition of the term. A hero, as used since the days of the ancient Greeks, is an individual who displays courage and self-sacrifice in the face of severe adversity in order to achieve something for the greater good.
Courage. Self-sacrifice. Severe adversity. A hero is someone who is faced with these things and overcomes. Why? Not because of what they’ll get out of it (though that can be part of it), but because they’re doing the right thing. If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Hercules, you’ve seen this differentiation in action. The title character’s father, Zeus, matter-of-factly tells him that his fame and success is “all well and good,” but that none of these things actually make him a hero.
I think a lot of people these days have fallen into the same trap, which is why we have characters whose greatest struggle is making it to school on time and deciding which illicit substance to imbibe being described as heroes. And these aren’t heroes. They’re characters. Calling them a hero simply isn’t correct.
Heck, even Avengers references this. For those of you who’ve seen the movie (and if you haven’t, what the what, dude?), you might recall one of the subplots and conflicts between two of the characters—Captain America and Iron Man—is over whether or not Iron Man is, in fact, a hero. As Cap points out, he does what he does not for recognition or glory, but because he wants to do the right thing for others, where Iron Man is all about himself and doesn’t really understand the meaning of self-sacrifice. Heck, this undercurrent question, of whether or not Tony Stark is a hero or just someone who’s in it for him, lasts right into the next Iron Man film.
Let’s look at another example of this distinction in action. For the majority of Colony, I would not call the main characters heroes. Why? Because they aren’t. They’re forced into a situation slightly against their will, despite receiving large paychecks in compensation, and spend a good chunk of the story simply doing what they consider a day-to-day job. Even when things really start to heat up at the end, the majority of their actions are done out of self-interest due to a disdain for the various factions and their methods, and it’s not until things really get bad and the situation changes that the characters themselves make the transition from protagonists to heroes, setting aside their own safety and goals in order to put themselves in harms way for the good of others.
Is there courage? Yeah, especially by the end, when they’re facing things that absolutely terrify them. Is there self-sacrifice? Definitely. And are they doing this not out of total interest to themselves, but to bring about a “greater good” and make the world a better place? Absolutely no argument there. And therefore, while they weren’t at the start, or even at the middle, by the end, the characters are heroes because of what they’re doing and why.
But calling them otherwise before that point? Not only is it incorrect, but it damages the term and weakens it for others. And “hero” is a term we shouldn’t be willing to do that to.
Because the truth is, people need heroes. Good ones. We need inspiration, real and fictional. And it’s not just because, as so many have tried to say, that we just like to imagine ourselves living action-packed lives or defeating evil, though that certainly is fun. Escapism can be wonderful, after all. But we need heroes because sometimes we need a reminder that we can be better. We can look at the hero who sacrifices everything for the good of others and find parallels in our own lives. And when we cheapen that term, when we start referring to Holden Caulfield as a hero? We’re polluting an ideal.
We shouldn’t. Plain and simple. Heroes need to be heroes before we so casually throw the term around. If we want to call our character a hero, or tell everyone what a hero our character is, we need to make sure that they are a hero. We can’t just call them one and declare things good. It’s like saying that every car is a sports car, it just doesn’t add up. Some cars are sports cars, sure, but not all cars. And characters are the same way. Some characters are heroes. Some are just protagonists.
So the next time you’re sitting down to tell someone about your work or describe someone else’s, stop and think about things for a moment before just casually throwing the term “hero” around. Think of what a hero is, what a hero is supposed to represent before declaring your character one. Otherwise it’s a misrepresentation, the comparative holding of a modded Honda civic as an equal to a Gallardo. If you want your characters to be called heroes, then make them heroes. Don’t just assign them the term and hope for the best. Because that’s not what we should be doing as writers. Or readers, for that matter.
So let’s keep things straight. Keep heroes, heroes. Keep writing them. But please, let’s not dilute the term by referring to characters who clearly aren’t heroes as such. In the end, all it does is cheapen the notion of a hero for everyone else, and I, for one, would rather than not happen.
Let’s make our heroes heroes, instead.