What Makes a Hero/Heroine?

Lately, I’ve watched a number of videos on YouTube (like this one if you’re curious) where the same complaint was made about protagonists in television shows and films who are portrayed as powerful but without growth or struggle. Two of these protagonists are the title character in the live action Mulan and Rey from the last three Star Wars films. I didn’t see the live action Mulan, though I love the 1998 animated version. I saw all of the Star Wars movies, however.

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This isn’t a post for or against the Star Wars movies or the live action Mulan. Many better qualified people have videos on YouTube discussing these movies. But rather, this is a post asking the question posed in the title. YouTube videos aren’t the only catalyst for that question. A friend showed me a book she’s in the middle of. I won’t share the title or the author’s name. But I will say that on the first page of the book, the main character announces her lack of fear in a situation. (Sorry to be vague.) She is calm in and in control, like a strong hero/heroine should be, right?



Okay, I’ll answer that, since you’re clearly waiting for me to do so. In Mulan and the Star Wars movies (episodes 7-9 to be exact), Rey and Mulan do great feats because of their special gifts. As I mentioned, I didn’t see the live action Mulan, which is very different (I’m told) from the animated version where the title character trains hard, instead of being born with power, and uses ingenuity in extremely difficult situations. As for Rey, though she is an orphan left to fend for herself, I never had tension in regard to her situation because the movies kept telling me how special and amazing she is without showing me the efforts she went through to gain mastery over her gifts.

I have an easier time rooting for and identifying with a character who starts at a low point (I’m afraid; not sure what’s happening), rather than in a position of strength (I am fearless; I am in control; I am powerful), mainly because I have felt fear and a lack of control. (Hello, COVID.) When a character admits to some kind of weakness (fear; lack of proficiency) and then goes off on an adventure, I have tension because the character will have to learn and grow in order to survive.

I can’t help thinking of a chosen one character like Harry Potter, who has innate magical ability, but at the beginning of the series lacks control over that power and has to grow in proficiency. Even in the seventh book of the series by J. K. Rowling, he still makes mistakes. Another chosen one character who comes to mind is Paul Atreides in the Dune series by Frank Herbert who keeps having to say this litany, “Fear is the mind-killer. I will face my fear. . . . I will permit it to pass over me and through me” though we know he is terrified.

harry-potter-deathly-hallows-part-2-poster-daniel-radcliffe-01 220px-Paulatreides

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter; Alec Newman in the 2000/2003 Dune miniseries

Above all, I think of Wonder Woman, a character undeniably powerful, but vulnerable also, who trains hard (at least in the first movie; I didn’t see the second one).


I also think of a well-known speech given by Theodore Roosevelt on April 23, 1910 (found here).

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

What about you? Do you like your heroes/heroines totally proficient and fearless from the get-go or do you like see an interval of growth? While you ponder that, FictionFan, get ready to receive your Amazon reward! Just in time to make your TBR pile grow even higher!

Wonder Woman movie poster from dvdreleasedates.com. Deathly Hallows Part 1 poster from collider.com. Alec Newman as Paul Atreides found in the Dune Wiki. 

34 thoughts on “What Makes a Hero/Heroine?

  1. I think witnessing character growth makes for a more likeable character. Seeing them overcome the obstacles along their path and continuing to persevere despite their fears is a hero’s journey I want to cheer for.

  2. Fearlessness isn’t a bad thing in a character for me. I do that with my heroes. It’s when their risk-taking always results in success with no negative results. That’s why I have Luke Callindor take so many physical and emotional blows. It’s fun to see if fearlessness can stand up to loss and struggle. That’s why I get bored and frustrated with heroes who coasts through or only get the development equivalent of a hangnail as a downside. It shows they started at the top and never had any room to grow in the first place.

    • I thought of your series because of your champions. I don’t mind a character who is fearless if I know that the author is going to take that character through a storm of some kind in order for the character to grow. But I can’t identify with a character who tells me he or she is fearless and then goes skipping off to an adventure without the other shoe dropping. I don’t have tension if a character is so capable.

  3. I definitely agree with you, L. Marie: so-called protagonists in television shows and films who are portrayed as powerful but without growth or struggle, come across to me as “flat.” Almost like stereotypes or “stock” characters.

    To my mind, authors have to show growth, or TRANSFORMATION in their characters; otherwise, the reader may find the reading experience unfulfilling. That was my goal in writing memoir. Great examples! 🙂

    • Transformation is a good word, Marian. I remember that about your memoir. You didn’t shy away from the painful parts of your story. I admire that. It makes for a more fulfilling journey (though no one wants to go through pain).

  4. Love this, Linda. And I totally agree! Making the journey alongside a character who grows and changes feels cathartic and so satisfying.

  5. I prefer my hero and heroines to use “ingenuity in extremely difficult situations.” I don’t relate to the ones that have it all under control from the beginning or who are just naturally gifted, learning little about themselves along the way. It’s the struggle to know who you are combined with the challenges at hand that draw me into a story. Great question.

  6. Going off at a tangent, that Roosevelt quote seemed to sum up what I’ve been feeling for ages about our govt and their Covid response. Well, really more about the tons of criticism that have been heaped on their heads. They made mistakes, sure, and huge ones sometimes. But they were the ones who had to deal with the pressure and make the difficult decisions all along the way, and it’s too easy for the rest of us to sit with the benefit of hindsight and criticise. It’s all made me very grumpy. So yes, I guess it would be nice to have infallible heroes with superpowers, but heroes with weaknesses who make mistakes are much more realistic…

    Goodness, did I just imply politicians could be heroes? I do apologise! I promise I won’t do it again… 😉

    • I love your comment here. It’s too easy to be a hero with super powers and no faults, and it’s even easier to sit at home in front of your TV, criticizing the people who are doing the work and making the difficult decisions about a once-in-a-century pandemic and a virus we’ve never seen before. The scientists and CDC employees have made some mistakes, but, as Teddy Roosevelt says, it’s the man who’s in the arena, daring to fight COVID who is the hero not the armchair critic.

  7. Usually I like my heroes/heroines to start out with weakness and grow. However, I also find it interesting if they start out strong and then run into a challenge they cannot overcome, lose their strength, and then figure out how to regain it. For me, the whole point of plot is change, both in events and, more importantly, in the character. They must be changed in some way. If they aren’t, meh.

    • I totally agree about the need for change of some kind, even if a character starts off strong. I need some indication though that a change is going to happen, like maybe some foreshadowing that the character is going to get taken down a peg or two. But if the character just continues in an “I’m wonderful” vein, I usually bow out before the end. So if the change happens in the last 50 pages, that’s a little too late for me.

      • Oh, I agree. If it’s left that late, it isn’t earned. Foreshadowing helps, or at least people who express the hope they’ll get their comeuppance. I much prefer it if the big challenge happens around the midpoint, because then they have to scrape their way back up, and by the time they get there it’s earned.

  8. I like to see growth, otherwise what’s the point of the story? Watching a hero/heroine struggle also gives me the opportunity to feel empathy, to perhaps relate to their struggle, and that engages me more in the story. If a hero/heroine starts off as fearless and totally in control, I’ll often think that (1) they are overcompensating for something; or (2) it’s just a veneer and their vulnerability will be revealed later; or (3) they better get their butt kicked at some point 😉

  9. Well . . . I like the characters of Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. So I guess that means I don’t need my heroines to struggle. Of course, in both stories, it was really the parents who were having to learn to step up to the plate.

    • Nancy, I love both of them too. But I look at those stories as morality stories, where the characters teach other characters a lesson–like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. They need to be strong because they have bratty children to work with. In these cases, the main characters are not insufferable I’m-so-wonderful annoyances.

  10. A character arc requires growth, so at the beginning the main character’s missing something they need to reach their goal (and if it’s a hero/ine, it’s a good goal). So I’m with you. Either the character is at a low point, or the character doesn’t think they’re at a low point, but they’ll soon find out that’s the case.

    • Yes. I need something to cause me to sympathize with that character. Even if the character thinks he or she is perfect, I would need to see someone who immediately proves that person isn’t all that. If the character’s pride takes a blow (thinking of you, Mr. Darcy), I would sympathize.

  11. Some ordinary people who never intended or expected to be a hero have the challenge thrust upon them. If they find within themselves a hidden strength and meet the challenge, that also makes for an interesting story, especially if they’re tempted to run away from the challenge.

  12. This is a great question, what makes a hero/heroine. Like you, I haven’t watched the live action Mulan. But I grew up watching the original Mulan over and over. I identified with her struggles, especially cultural barriers and later on becoming an important part in the war. I like learning with the character, watching them transform and growing into a better person. Like Nicki said, it ordinary people don’t expect to be thrusted in the spotlight as a hero and it can be inspiring to see them develop.

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