Heroes are everywhere in stories. Swashbuckling or timid, larger than life or ordinary, they diligently work to save the day. Without a hero, we don’t have a story. But if you seek a quick and simple definition, it’s not easy to find; dictionaries are frequently not a great help. Definitions like "admired for achievements and qualities," "mythological or legendary figures endowed with great strength and ability," "one with great courage" or "the principal character in a literary work" all hint at parts of the whole, but fail to convey the true nature of the hero. Looking under "heroic" is even less informative: "having the qualities of a hero." That's no help at all. (I hate it when reference works do that, don’t you? I’m always telling my students you can’t use a term to define itself, and then the local dictionary smugly throws my edict in my face. A pox on you, unimaginative editor. You Can Do Better.)
To be fair, perhaps such difficulties stem from the fact that hero characteristics range so widely. After all, as the saying goes, "heroes come in many guises." Although they do, it is possible to list some common characteristics, so let's start by dividing heroes into "traditional" and "non-traditional."
The traditional hero is the person we automatically associate with the words: strong, capable of great feats and attractive (not always in terms of great beauty, but definitely possessing a wholesome air, an aura of "good"). They’re intelligent and wise (there is a difference). Spiritually, they’re often close to God and possess what we would call necessary hero characteristics: courage, daring, kindness, imagination, mercy, justice, insight into human nature, the capacity to lead and instill confidence in others, and in general, a chivalrous nature.
We can subdivide the traditional hero further into "flawed" and "unflawed." The unflawed hero is just that, so you’ve got to be careful not to make them so saccharinely perfect, no one can stand them because of their perfection. The flawed hero possesses many of those attributes, but is more like an ordinary person, with some of the faults we all have. This makes the flawed hero easier to identify with, because we can relate to their bad habits, having (ahem) one or two ourselves.
Take it back to The Lord of the Rings a moment. Aragorn and Boromir are traditional heroes. Boromir, captain of Gondor, eldest son of the Steward (therefore in line to become de facto king), is definitely a flawed traditional hero: he covets the Ring, doesn’t understand its evil nature --- and eventually commits the cardinal sin of trying to take it from Frodo. Tsk, tsk, Boromir. That’s bad. In fact, dramatically speaking, it’s so bad, he has to die. (But here’s an interesting thing: notice that Tolkien gives Boromir a chance to redeem himself before he dies --- which he does, trying to save Merry and Pippin.) Aragorn is a traditional hero too, although you can debate whether he’s flawed or unflawed. Jackson makes Aragorn far more unsure of himself than I ever recall Tolkien doing.
The non-traditional hero is more an ordinary person. It’s in the spiritual category that the non-traditional hero most resembles the traditional hero. They may or may not have most of those requisite characteristics listed above, but definitely will have at least one: willingness to accept circumstances and do whatever is required to complete the great deeds demanded. In that regard, the non-traditional hero is often, I think, more worthy of respect and admiration than the traditional hero, because non-traditional heroes are thrust into circumstances not of their own making and certainly not of their own choosing. Traditional heroes go out and do what they are already suited by ability and temperament to do; non-traditional heroes have to rise up and go beyond that which they are normally capable of and/or comfortable doing.
Frodo is the perfect non-traditional hero. He doesn’t want to take down Dark Lords or save empires; he just wants to quietly live his life. And he screws up from time to time. But he is prepared to take the Ring to Mordor when he must. Jackson makes Frodo’s moment of decision about taking on the Ring rather more dramatic than Tolkien. You can almost see Frodo’s line of thought --- “Crap! I don’t want to do this! I’m not sure I can. But---” (long sigh) “---okay… give me the damned thing back and I’ll do my best.” Atta boy! We applaud, because Frodo acknowledges the reality and what must happen. And secretly, we nourish the hope that in the same situation, we’d do that, too. Now, this is important because not every hero makes that acknowledgement and accepts their role with good grace, and I don’t know about you, but that attitude drives me up the wall when I encounter it. For example, I enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy, but I didn’t really like Katniss Everdeen very much. “Katniss,” I wanted to tell her, “I get it: you don’t want to be the hero. I don’t really care. You’re drafted, ‘cause strange as it may seem, you are the Katalyst.” (Sorry. Awful pun.) “So suck it up, sweetheart, and stop being sulkily reluctant about it. You’re the hero. Deal with it. I’m not saying you have to behave like you’re having the time of your life, but I want a little more can-do mentality and a little less moody teen angst from you. ”
What about the hero of Gryphon’s Heir, you ask? Well, given what I’ve discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say he’s a non-traditional hero. Self-confidence is a huge issue for him, which I think most of us can relate to. And he makes mistakes --- sometimes rather major ones. But when push comes to shove, he too is prepared to say, “I really don’t know whether I’m the right person for this. In fact, I don’t think I am. But---” (long sigh) “---I’ll give it my best shot.”
And, you know, ultimately, that’s really all that can be asked of any of us, isn’t it?