In literature, a hero is a type of character who shows courage and ability to endure dangerous or difficult situations or sacrifice themselves for the sake of the greater good. Heroes often perform feats and brave deeds and usually act according to their strong beliefs.
Rayhanova (2006) explains that these beliefs may develop during the story as the hero grows mature, but in any case, a hero has their own distinctive features of character which drive them, make them positive personalities and differentiate them from everyone else (p. 170).
The first heroes appeared in classical Ancient Greek literature, where they were sons of humans and gods. For instance, Heracles was a son of Zeus and Alcmene; he is famous for his twelve feats that include slayings of various monsters who were a blight on many people. Through his own strength, virtue, and wit (as well as help from divine agents), Heracles was able to accomplish his brave deeds.
Heroes are not always able to get what they strive for. For instance, such a genre of literature as tragedies tells stories about heroes’ downfalls; their desire to achieve an aim is confronted by factors they cannot overcome (Aristotle & the elements of tragedy, n.d., para. 2).
A tragic hero, according to Aristotle, is “a [great] man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake” (as cited in Aristotle & the elements of tragedy, n.d., para. 10); such a hero, despite not being a perfect person, is not bad or average; he or she is “basically good and decent” (Aristotle & the elements of tragedy, n.d., para.11), and these positive features are developed and strengthened during the story.
An example of a comic character called a “hero upside-down” by Sobré (1976), can help to clarify the notion further. Cervantes’ Don Quixote attempts to mimic heroes from books and perform brave feats; albeit he fails to differentiate between the reality and the products of his own imagination, and his actions are laughable, fruitless and often harmful. Still, Cervantes’ parody ridicules the main features of a literary hero, which allows us to see them more clearly: valor, nobility, behavior-driven by firm beliefs, and desire to do good for the sake of good.
A hero is often opposed to villain, a character who creates obstacles and dangers for the protagonist and serves as a source of conflict. Villains often think they are doing the right thing (Tapply, 2004, p. 35), but it is usually obvious to the reader that their actions are wrong, or result in wrongs, even though they might at first seem contradictory.
It is also important to differentiate an anti-hero from a hero and a villain; an anti-hero is a character that possesses some traits that are typical of a villain, but in the end turns out to be doing the right thing, even though their reasons are sometimes related to personal benefit of various kinds (Love, 2008, para. 1).
Therefore, heroes in literature are protagonists possessing some distinctive traits of character and often some fundamental beliefs that help them endure difficult or dangerous situations and either overcome obstacles or fail to do that, still showing virtue and valor.
Heroes are always of good nature, doing good for the sake of good; it differentiates them from anti-heroes, who also accomplish good, but in more contradictory ways and for more ambiguous reasons, and from villains, who usually play the role of a “force of evil.”
Aristotle & the elements of tragedy. (n.d.).
Love, S. (2008). The anti-hero.
Rayhanova, B. (2006). The concept of the hero in modern Arabic prose. Middle Eastern Literatures, 9(2), 169-178. doi:10.1080/14752620600814343
Sobré, J. M. (1976). Don Quixote, the hero upside-down. Hispanic Review, 44(2), 127-141. doi: 10.2307/472831
Tapply, W. G. (2004). Creating a worthy villain. The Writer, 117(7), 34-38.