Posted by: kshayes513 | February 6, 2009

Defining the hero

In  “Worlds I Love, Part 2” I wrote:

“The main characters [in my favorite childhood stories] often are not heroes to start, but discover that they can become heroes. I desperately wanted heroism in my life along with the adventure; maybe because heroes always seem to know what to do, and how to handle anything that life deals out. I see the hero as the person who has the most power to make the story come out right.”

And Marilyn commented,

“I would suggest that the heroes *didn’t* know what to do, or how to handle things. They did the best they could, and that best turned out to be right. And as for “the most power”, well, Gandalf would qualify under that idea, but Sam is the chief hero of LOTR (as Tolkien himself proposed). So I think there are heroes and there are heroes, and power to *make* things right is not always the best thing to have. As Gandalf knew!”

When I say the hero has the power,  I’m not talking about “power over” others, as in the power to “make” things right, nor any of the other kinds of power that we normally associate with the word (magic, as Marilyn automatically assumed, political power, wealth, might of arms, etc etc.).

The hero has the dramatic power in the story. For me, the hero (or protagonist, if you prefer) is by definition, the person whose decisions have the most impact on the plot. The hero choses, and the story turns to follow his or her choice.

To stick with the example of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is the dramatic hero of the story, because its his choices from beginning to end, that move the Ring from Bag End to Mount Doom. At every step along the way, he makes the critical, and often excruciating choice to continue, no matter the cost to himself.

Yes, you can make all kinds of arguments for other primary heroes in LOTR, especially Sam, and especially later in the story–but I’m not going to do that here, its beside the point. As I see it, all those other potential heroes, do everything they do, ultimately to help Frodo’s quest, because:

No hero is an island (not even in the most macho Clint Eastwood movie); heroes have their friends, sidekicks, allies, lovers–helpers of any kind. Frodo has his Sam, the rest of the Fellowship and others met by the way, and even Gollum.

True to the nature of the helper, those friends are there to rescue Frodo just when all seems lost, and even the hero’s utmost seems like it won’t be enough. And they’re there because of Frodo’s choices. The hero earns his helpers by trying to do the right thing. Sam goes on the quest because Frodo goes; if Frodo had decided to return home from Rivendell and give up the Ring, Sam would have gone home with him. Gollum comes to Mt Doom in the nick of time, because Frodo spared his life and even befriended him for a while.

Of course, not all stories have only one hero, but if there’s more than one, the same still applies; and multiple heroes tend to take turns serving as helpers to each other. Unless each hero is the other hero’s villain…

For game design, the hero may be even more important, because in most RPG’s, the player becomes the hero, otherwise what’s the point of playing? So its especially important to give the gaming hero meaningful and important –and entertaining!–choices.


  1. I suspect I was prompted to think in terms of power-over due to the phrase: ” the most power to MAKE the story come out right” (emphasis added). Power-with and empowerment, in my mind, are not about “making” things happen. Encouraging, allowing, assisting, even doing, yes. And that’s the essence of the helpers: power-with. I understand the idea of Frodo as dramatic hero, though I suspect that if he hadn’t taken the Ring, another hobbit might have (such as Sam, who says way before Rivendell, “I have something to see through to the end, and it lies ahead of me, not behind.”). It’s just that putting the words “make” and “power” together in the same phrase suggest domination to me, something Tolkien opposed most definitively (he considered it the essence of Sauron’s evil, and that of the Ring).

    One reason why I love LOTR so much is that there isn’t one hero over and above anyone else. They ALL need each other, another definition of power-with. Another sign that there isn’t one over-arching hero is the way the story divides into several plot lines, and each one in turn seizes my attention.

    I like your notion of “the hero earns his [or her!] helpers by trying to do the right thing.” Classic fairy/folk tale stuff, which Tolkien would have considered a compliment!

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