For thousands of years, audiences have been enamored with stories of heroes going on quests to save the world. From Robin Hood to Luke Skywalker to Wonder Woman, the trope’s variations are endless. But recently a new trend has taken over fiction and film. The traditional hero has been replaced with a more relatable “hero” who’s afflicted with as many flaws and vices as he is virtues (sometimes more). Instead of Saint George slaying the dragon, we encounter characters like the Punisher, a tortured man who murders bad guys in the name of justice.
While these stories are more realistic and have their place on the shelf, that isn’t an excuse to outmode traditional heroes. Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces meticulously analyzes the archetype of the hero within mythological history, breaking down the basic narrative structure of “The Hero’s Adventure.” No matter who you are or where or when you were raised, this traditional hero is written in your cultural DNA. In your efforts to craft original, compelling, and perhaps more “true-to-life” characters, you may be tempted to stray away from the iconic figure who’s been appearing in the starring role for generations. But I have three reasons for believing that readers still resonate with stories about morally strong men and women who fight against evil.
1. Heroes Give Us Ideals to Strive for
The book of Romans tells us that “all men have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Humans are broken and prone to buckle under temptation—which may seem to invalidate traditional heroes. But stories that focus too much on the darkness within the human heart neglect the innate nobility and inherent value each of us possess as beings made in God’s image.
Heroes serve as an example of what we all were meant to be—and can still become. God designed human beings for good deeds and welcomes us as participants in His plans. When we’re united with Christ, we become new creations even while we continue to wrestle with our flesh on this earth. A hero is a type of redeemed man, whether he has already reached that milestone at the beginning of his journey or is mere steps away from it.
King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table embody honor, and as we’re entertained by their exploits, we see human beings allowing righteous standards to direct their lives. King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail (the legendary cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper and that caught His blood as He hung on the cross) reveals that the highest goal is the pursuit of God.
Readers need stories with valiant heroes who may at first fail but ultimately succeed at overcoming their weaknesses. Stories like these feed our souls and stir us toward growth. Though distorted and imperfect, we’re still image-bearers of Almighty God, and our stories must portray that, thus reminding ourselves of who we are.
2. Heroes Reassure Us That the World Can Be Saved
When Adam and Eve rejected fellowship with God, they brought a curse on themselves and the world—for we cannot have life apart from the true source of it. Since then, humans have messed up themselves and everything they touch. And yet, even in that dire situation, God promised that a redeemer would one day heal the sick and dying world. Writers who fixate on the reality of our hellish circumstances risk stripping hope out of the picture.
A hero who makes monumental sacrifices to reverse oncoming destruction highlights the truth that, not only can the world be saved, it should be saved. A society as tainted as ours may seem irreconcilable at times. But despair isn’t God’s answer—with Him all things are possible.
Even in darkness, God’s light shines through. Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia leads the war against the White Witch, not with weapons but with her faith in Aslan. She encourages others to trust him too, which results in Narnia’s eventual liberation from the wintry curse.
The world is worth saving because, although it has lost its wholeness, it still contains beauty. The hero who lays down his life for his city, his family, his world inspires the same spirit of selflessness and hope in us.
3. Heroes Are Reflections of Christ
Slain gods and heroes who rise again litter history and mythology. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection wasn’t beyond comprehension, because characters like Balder, Osiris, Adonis, and Tammuz had already depicted that miracle. Lewis and Tolkien both described Christ as “the myth that came true.” They believed that God used stories and mythology to prepare men’s hearts for Christ’s incarnation.
Aragorn from Lord of the Rings is the Hero-King who claims his rightful throne. Not only is he a warrior but also a healer, tending his wounded people in Gondor during the battle against Mordor. His victory and kingship are hard-earned through obscurity, ridicule, and suffering. But he holds fast to his purpose and calling.
Ultimately, the traditional hero points to the True Hero, Jesus Christ. While the mythology of the past primed the ancients to receive Christ, the traditional heroes after His ascension reacquaint us with who He is and keep His triumphant return in our minds and hearts. Every story with a traditional hero proclaims Christ the King whether readers are aware of it or not.
Heroes Teach Us to Hope
Readers do need stories that deal with human depravity, but they also need stories that offer solace. Don’t be afraid of your hero or heroine seeming “too traditional.” Heroes bathe our hearts in the goodness, truth, and beauty we desperately crave. If your story needs a hero, you can be confident that he’s joining the ranks of thousands of others who usher us toward grace and salvation. After all, we’re commanded to “hope in Christ,” and heroes help show us how.
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Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.
Thanks for the reminder of why I will never tire of “traditional” heroes.
Yes! I love this! I love to read and write about heroes and heroines who, while they’re not perfect, can inspire us and as you said, encourage us to grow.
We all love a good hero. I’m glad you enjoyed this.
I forget who it was that said, “We don’t tell children fairy tales to prove that dragons exist. Children already know that they exist. We tell them the stories to teach them that dragons can be slain.”
Thank you, Rose! Always good reminders. I agree.
I never trust a hero that relies solely upon their own power or arrogance. I need to see some degree of humility about them that causes them to realize they cannot always trust only in themselves. I want to see a hero who strives to pursue good values, not merely take advantage.
I am not impressed with the pompous but am impressed with the scrabbler who seeks to survive, but is kind enough to share a piece of a biscuit with a starving dog, even if he feels the portion left might be his last meager meal.
Too many flaws in a character, make it hard to empathize with them because they seem to revel in it, rather than show any personal accountability or remorse for any of their self-caused difficulty.
I want to see a hero who can learn from their mistakes, who looks out for more than just himself or herself.
There is a sense of rightness within us that resonates with those things, provided we are not given over to a reprobate mind. We want to see justice prevail, the underdog who finally succeed, the unloved find the love that heals them.
This one-upmanship game stepping on others to get ahead is tiring and disturbing.
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; [1 Corinthians 1:27 KJV]
I would like to see more “heroes” that are not themselves seekers of personal power, but rather seek to lift up, save and empower others, especially when written by persons of faith.
God does follow the traditional paths of mankind’s thinking on how to succeed. Rather He seeks those who are willing to lay down their lives so they may save it. (Matt. 16:25; Mar. 8:35; Luke 9:24)
Jesus is very clear on where our empowerment comes from.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:5 NLT]
I would love to see more MC heroes that recognize their hope and sufficiency in all things comes from their surrender to Him, and yielding even their weaknesses to Him so that even in that weakness, His strength is made perfect.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [2 Corinthians 12:9 KJV]
For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you. [2 Corinthians 13:4 KJV]
The true hero’s path lies through yielded surrender, forsaking his own will for the good of another.
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 KJV]
Love these points, Rose! I absolutely agree that characters don’t have to be dark and gritty to show truth. I think Aragorn is a great example of this in both the books and movies. He has more doubts in the movies about his role as the Chosen One, but he’s still an ultimately good character who we can all aspire to be like. And that strengthens, rather than detracting from, the story that Tolkien is telling.
Chris! Yes, I would agree that Aragorn is a great example of this. Thanks for reading
Love your thoughts on this, Rose! I think a great example of a near-perfect character is Aragorn. He’s believable because he has human emotions, but he’s still a role model that most of us can aspire to be like.