There are many different kinds of hero types used in popular stories, and many different kinds of villains. I’ve only listed a few different kinds in these next few blog posts, and as storytellers get more creative I expect more types to pop up. So don’t take these posts about heroes and villains to be a complete list – I don’t want to box any authors in – but I do want to give you an idea of some of the more common types and how they’re used. Some characters will even fit multiple categories, or switch categories as the story progresses. We’ll start with the most common type of hero.
(Star Wars Spoiler Alert)
Unlikely heroes are among the most popular kinds of heroes because they tend to be the most relatable. Most of us don’t feel like we could be heroes, but a lot of us wish we could be. To see someone like us, with the same disadvantages as us, plucked out of their normal everyday life and brought into an adventure where they somehow manage to save the day is one of the most inspiring kinds of stories. And there’s a lot of ways it can go wrong.
Going back to what I said about the ‘What If’, if you take someone who can’t fight, and put them in a situation where they have to defeat a master martial artist in order to save the world, the Natural Conclusion is: the world ends.
The audience knows that. They know you have to take the story that Step Further that sees the protagonist somehow pulling it off, but it’s in the Step Further that I think a lot of writers make unfortunate choices.
Methods of enabling the Unlikely Hero to succeed
- Just make it happen
This is of course the laziest solution, and it tends to be obvious and put off audiences. A problem I’ve seen too many times is writers making their villains so powerful that there’s no reasonable way the hero can win, and then the writers just make it happen anyway. It’s the reason the Emperor has no defense against being picked up by a one-handed Darth Vader. It’s the reason Darth Maul is suddenly paralyzed when Obi-Wan jumps over him.
The audience knows that the only reason the hero won is because the storyteller wrote it that way. It would not have happened without the writer’s intervention.
That may sound silly, because of course the story was written by someone. But when you’re telling a story – a gripping, immersive story – the point is for the audience to get so caught up in the story that they feel as if it’s really happening. They should, at least for the duration of the story, forget that you exist. That’s the goal of a truly immersive story. But putting in outcomes so unlikely that the audience knows they wouldn’t have happened without the writer’s intervention, reminds them that they are reading/watching a work of fiction, and suddenly the illusion is lost. If they know that the hero is going to win no matter what, then why does any perilous situation after that matter anymore. The Tension is lost. Game over.
- They’re the Chosen One
I would generally (but not universally) recommend against this. It has its merits if done right, but in most cases it just tells the audience that the unlikely hero is going to magically become a likely hero and save the day automatically. It is then impossible for them to lose. Game over.
There are versions of this where being the Chosen One does not mean automatic victory – it just means they are the best choice available. Most cases of a “chosen one” tend to be linked to a prophecy though, and prophecies have a nasty habit of breaking tension in stories. A good way to get around this may be to replace phrases like “you are destined to do it” with phrases more like “you are the only one who can”. This still places responsibility on the character to live up to their supposed potential, rather than removing all sense of worry, and can feed into the inner struggles of Reluctant Heroes (which I’ll discuss in the next post).
This is the route I recommend most strongly. Without creating a prophecy of victory or making it just happen, training allows the hero to have both a chance of winning and a chance of losing, thus maintaining the tension. You do still have to make sure they train properly for the particular challenges they will face.
- They are given a powerful gift
This is best done in combination with training rather than on its own, just because of the messages it sends depending on how you do it.
As much as audiences want to see a protagonist overcome significant challenges, because it makes audiences feel as though they can too, the story loses its impact if the victory makes no sense, or if it is attributed to something unattainable like pure dumb luck or outside forces. Hard work, intelligence, quick thinking, perseverance and various positive character traits that play into the struggle are much more significant to audiences as reasons for the hero’s victory. Being given a magical weapon as a free gift from someone outside the circumstances of the story is not as significant as the protagonist searching for the magical weapon, overcoming obstacles and earning the weapon themselves, or discovering the power within.
Examples of Unlikely Heroes…
Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit
Sarah Conner from The Terminator
Ripley in Aliens
Emmett from The LEGO Movie