What Is the Hero Archetype?

Mark Wollacott

The heroic archetype is a literary or movie character that is all-round good. He or she will save people, do the right thing, protect that which is good and will fight any monster that comes his or her way. They are one of the basic paradigms in tales and mythology from across the world, but particularly in European culture. Such examples of the hero archetype range from Achilles to Beowulf via superheroes like Superman and 1980s action heroes.

Don Quixote is an archetype known as a wannabe hero.
Don Quixote is an archetype known as a wannabe hero.

The roots of the hero archetype go back to ancient Greece and the beginnings of many polytheist and animist religions. They are based, like many other archetypes, on folktales linked to Gods and ancestors. Over time, the attributes and deeds of these ancestors have changed as the stories are repeated down the generations. These social developments are linked to Carl Jung’s ideas on archetypes and collective dreams.

Achilles is one of the first hero archetypes.
Achilles is one of the first hero archetypes.

There are a number of basic characteristics for the hero archetype. Traditionally, the hero is strong of both physique and moral character. They may have special fighting or intellectual skills that allow them to function as a hero. This runs from martial arts skills to weapon knowledge. They are moral and do good. They do not have to be intellectual giants, but they are skilled and resourceful while doing the right thing.

Beowulf, who fought the monster Grendel, is one of the earliest archetypal heroes.
Beowulf, who fought the monster Grendel, is one of the earliest archetypal heroes.

Types of heroes include action heroes and superheroes. The action hero does not have to be special, but fights his or her way to defeating the main villain. Action heroes were common in the 1980s and early 1990s with action stars such as Bruce Willis, Dolf Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Superheroes such as Superman and Spiderman link back to more mythical heroes such as Hercules, who have special abilities to aid their good works.

There are also types of the hero archetype that deviate away from the traditional mold. J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter in a different way than many other heroes. Harry Potter is small and weedy compared to the traditional hero. He has many of the tropes of a hero, such as the tragic back story and birth, but he remains small and weedy. He does, however, retain the strength of character to be a hero.

Other variations on the hero archetype include the wannabe hero and the anti-hero. The wannabe hero is a wide-eyed idealist who, due to a lack of skills or the wrong circumstances, fails to become a hero. He or she often looks up to the main hero. The wannabe hero often dies heroically trying to emulate the hero. Examples include Don Quixote and Boone in “Lost.”

The anti-hero is a character lacking many of the good qualities of the hero. They often do the right thing eventually, but their lives and personal back stories are more dubious and less wholesome than that of Superman or Spiderman. The anti-hero is often morally compromised. Examples include Ender Wiggins from “Ender’s Game” and Sam Spade.

Hero archetypes often act selflessly to help others.
Hero archetypes often act selflessly to help others.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - I've got to confess that I prefer the more archetypal hero. I like it when they have depth and a few flaws because that makes them interesting, but I want them to win in the end. I'm usually watching a movie or reading a book to escape real world consequences.


@Iluviaporos - I remember reading somewhere once that one of the differences between good people and evil people is that good people are constantly questioning whether or not what they are doing is the right thing, while evil people are convinced that they are right and never question it.

I do think that the tragic hero archetype might fit neatly into the idea of someone going too far in their quest to be a savior. Like Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. He stuck to what he thought was right even when it was hard and you might expect that to be rewarded. But he eventually basically started a massive war because he wouldn't bend. If he had acted differently, he probably couldn't be considered a hero, even if more lives were saved. But since he acted heroically, he did more harm.


I have really enjoyed the few times I've seen authors or filmmakers tear down the archetypal hero and show them to be ultimately flawed. A well known example is Ozymandias from Watchmen.

On the surface, he's a perfect hero-type, with wealth, physical perfection intelligence and perfect control, as well as a burning desire to save the world. But his methods for doing so are not something that most people would support and he is ultimately recast as the villain of the piece, not because of corruption, but because he goes too far in his efforts as a hero.

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