Unheroic heroes are fascinating even as they disappoint the audience.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” ~ Rudyard Kipling

The Warrior archetype surprises people looking for heroes.  We expect him (or her) to be a savior.  The warrior assaults problems with all intentions of winning.  And he never analyzes to determine when the moment of achievement actually occurs.  Or he never analyzes to determine when his pursuit turns in the wrong direction.  Boromir in the Lord of the Rings is a great example of the unthinking Warrior.

The Creator archetype also surprises us.  We expect creativity to help us progress.  Undisciplined creativity and innovation, however, merely create change that might hinder as much as help.

Frankenstein never considered the consequences of his creation.  He didn’t consider if he should bring man back to life, only if he could.

Both Warrior and Creator, however, will not anticipate that they can cause evil in their pursuit of good.  This is not the case with the Magician and the Sage.

These other two Unheroic Hero Archetypes in Jung’s List of 12 have a definite inclination toward evil.

The Alchemist / Magician Seeking Gold

The Magician

The Magician focuses on transformation.

He seeks change—whether that change is needed or not.  In this respect, the Magician is like the unthinking Warrior.  He wants change so much that he may destroy a good thing.

Yet transformative catalysts like these unheroic heroes do have great power.  They can achieve the nobler ideals through discipline focused on benefitting others.  The best traits of the magician:

  • Extremely long-sighted in viewing any project.
  • Remaining stalwart as old systems collapse.
  • Steadily guiding new systems into place.

The negative form of the Magician is the Machiavellian:  the ultimate manipulator.  Machiavellians can charm people as they deconstruct and reconstruct systems, whatever those systems may be.

The Machiavellian may also manipulate others into transforming processes without letting the disciples know the destruction that will occur—or more horrifically, convincing the disciples that such destruction is necessary to change and achieve a utopia.  This version of the unheroic hero becomes a seductive antagonist.

In their pursuit of changing lead to gold, Machiavellians may use up valuable resources that others depend upon.  When confronted, their argument will always be, “Look.  We’re going to get gold.  Just give it a little more time.”  And people starve as the process never quite works out.  But those people go to their doom blinded by the master manipulator, believing the dream.

Iron Man Attempts to Charm

The Magician in Film

The Magician will appear charming to those who do not have to deal with his day-to-day single-minded transformations.  Then the charmed spell is broken when people must cope with the consequences of this catalyst.

Iron Man presents the magician archetype across a series of films.

In the first film, he delights in his invention.  Then he must play back-up and finally catch-up as he deals with the consequences of his invention falling into the wrong hands.  He charms his world audience.  He has the talismatic charm that keeps the official military on his side.

Pepper, whom he loves, must deal with his focus on his transformations.  She loses patience as she realizes his charm does not change the consequences of his actions to the company and to their relationship.

Notice how carefully the writers have crafted Iron Man in the third film.  He must sacrifice his talismatic charms to rescue what is most important.  He tempers his transforming powers because he no longer needs those catalystic abilities.  And he is now satisfied with what he has achieved in life.

Un savant dans son cabinet, avec lecon de vanite :: Jacob van Spreeuwen, 1630

The Sage  

The Sage is a problematic hero.  Seeker of wisdom, he has a keen-edged blade that cuts the difference between truth and deceit, reality and artificiality, knowledge and stupidity.

Although they are unheroic heroes, the best sages become teachers.  True teachers will question the status quo, point out its flaws, and then guide toward a replacing perspective.

Wisdom, however, is problematic.  The Sage is an unheroic hero that we may admire but should not emulate.

  • What may be wise for the immediate future is not always wise for the long-term situation.
  • What may seem like wisdom, cast into a different form, becomes hidebound belief rather than wisdom.
  • Wisdom can have puzzling forms.  The Sage may become so impressed with cleverness that he must cast everything in a riddle.

The Sage may mentor the protagonist, but a good hero will judge whether or not to follow the Sage’s imparted wisdom.

The Warrior will not judge the validity of the wisdom, which is his weakness.  The Creator will try to twist the wisdom into a form that he can work with, thus twisting the truth from the wisdom.  The Magician may bypass the Sage entirely.

A negative Sage becomes robotic in her/his arrogant stance on the truth pedestal.  All those who do not meet the truth standard are criticized by the Robot with “Why can’t you see it?  It’s so clear.”

The negative Sage may also seem so rational as to appear cold and merciless.  With such a Sage, the heart will be missing.

As a writer, consider the problematic wisdom bulleted above.  All three can individually drive a conflict for a protagonist.  Sages, rather than perform as unheroic heroes, may elevate the story when they are presented as shapeshifters or shadows.

The Sage in Film

Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the Star Trek series is the perfect example of the aloof Sage, filled with wisdom.

Nimoy’s Spock is beloved by many only because we fans caught glimpses of his angst.  He fought against his admiration for the intelligent yet emotionally driven humans that his society told him were fools.  His wisdom told him that the humans held the truth needed for the universe to remain progressive as opposed to regressive.

A truly tortured Sage is Bobby Goren of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.  The mind that so truly understood the psychological twists that produced criminals created a barrier between himself and what he wanted most in life.

Next Up

I’ve been discussing hero archetypes as if they could only be male—which is totally wrong.  Every aspect of archetype can have a masculine and a feminine and even both through a yin/yang dynamic.

In celebration of Spring and the rebirth of the land, on March 20 we discuss . . .

Women Leaders >> Bright Lights & Hot Messes

After our focus on women, giving them extra time, we will continue our expanded look at Jung’s List of 12 Character Archetypes.

~~ M. A. Lee

Have you ever created an unheroic hero?

The protagonist you started with has transformed from the original vision?  Or the protagonist will never achieve the goal your story needs him to achieve?  When this happens, your protagonist has turned into an unheroic hero.

Writing’s hard work, and if anything’s true about the process, it’s that fact that a good story is hard to find and even trickier to get on paper. ~~ Adam Johnson

Heroes of All Archetypes in the TV series The Walking Dead

The unheroic hero may twist and writhe within the parameters we set for our protagonist until his personality transforms.  Or the story may twist and writhe until it takes unintended directions.  Both of these situations can be creatively wonderful but frustratingly challenging.

Meet the first two of four Unheroic Heroes, courtesy of Carl Jung (who first developed the idea of character archetypes).

These archetypes might entice the writer in us to construct a story around them.  Nevertheless, that story will not become what we imagined when first we embarked on our manuscript.

These unheroic hero archetypes can become extremely rich for us writers when they turn to evil.

The Warrior as an Unheroic Hero

If ever an archetype was looking for the name ‘hero’, this one is it.

The Warrior is courageous in the face of insurmountable obstacles and stolidly tough against dragonish opponents.  He rides straight at the problem, attacks it, and usually wins.  Why isn’t he a hero archetype? 

What’s wrong?

Let me at ’em, the Warrior cries . . . Gimli in The Lord of the Rings


The Warrior doesn’t think;  he just drives in.

Protagonists must think about these three:

  • the dangers to themselves and others.
  • the consequences of their actions.
  • the vacuum that will be left when the leader dies.

The Warrior is too simple :: Problem?  I’ll knock it down.

Honor and Discipline.  Compassion and Mercy.  Morality and Ethics.  These are the nobler ideals of the protagonist, and the Warrior lacks them.  Thus, he is an unheroic hero, for internal conflict is necessary.  Without internal conflict, our readers will not cheer when the hero overcomes obstacles.

The Warrior makes an excellent Ally for Leader Heroes, as we discussed in the previous two blogs:  “Oh Men!” parts 1 and 2.

The positive Warrior becomes the Tool when he acts as little more than an automaton.  As writers, we can point the Tool at anything, wind him up, and let him go, a wind-up soldier who never questions.

His actions are a series of achievements, notches on his swordbelt.  He doesn’t care how he wins, just that he wins.  When he reports in to his leader, he doesn’t expect praise;  he wants the next assignment.

Warrior William Wallace and Beta Ruler Robert the Bruce

The Warrior in Film

A story with a Warrior will have little angst.

William Wallace in Braveheart sacrifices himself in pursuit of his goal.  He has no middle ground, not for himself and not for anyone around him.  Those who seek the middle ground are beneath him.

The angst resides with the Beta character of Robert the Bruce.  It is his decision to attack the English army at the end of the film that makes us shout “Yes!”  Without the Warrior Wallace, the Bruce would never have decided to attack.  The Warrior Wallace’s sacrifice drives the Bruce to refuse continued capitulation.

Gimli in The Lord of the Rings is another example of a classic Warrior archetype.  Gimli is always focused on defeating the enemy.  He doesn’t consider any repercussions;  he just heads for the battle.

When the great battle at Minas Tirith ends, Gimli prods Aragorn not to release the Dead Men of Dunharrow from their curse.  He sees only that they can be kept in thrall to defeat more and more enemies.  Aragorn proves his mettle as a heroic leader by freeing them.  He knows that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (the first Baron Acton).

The Creator as an Unheroic Hero

If a Destroyer/Rebel is a hero leader, why is the Creator Archetype considered an unheroic hero?

After all, we need imagination and innovation.  We need vision and idealism.  This defines the Creator.  Why is he unheroic?

The Creator often lacks the self-discipline needed to stay with one task and not be distracted by shiny new ideas.

The Creator flies from any thought of being static—just as the Destroyer does.  Yet we need a protagonist who knows when to change and when to hold fast, a dichotomy that causes the necessary angst that a protagonist requires.

The negative form of the Creator is the Dreamer who never takes action.

Imagination is necessary, but too many flights of fancy can overwhelm plans.  The Creator can juggle multiple projects, but anything that loses its sparkly newness will be dropped by the Dreamer.  And both forms of this unheroic hero will not be concerned with ethics and other people in their pursuit of the new.

What ethical considerations drive the need to create new life? None. I dreamed it; I will do it. ~~ This is the problem when the unheroic hero Gene Wilder portrays Frankenstein.

The Creator-Dreamer loves the new and blingy, yet the daily grind will have this character archetype looking for a new road—and nothing is more challenging than a relationship.  (What a Beast!)

The Creator in Film

A story with a Creator-Dreamer may never have an end.

John Hammond in Jurassic Park is the classic Creator.  He had the wealth to pursue his dream.  He had the wealth to direct people to turn his dream into reality.  Yet notice that he does not know what to do when his dream falls apart.

Frankenstein in any film iteration, including the wonderful Gene Wilder’s comic take, is also a Creator, driven by new ideas to improve the world.  Yet he has to keep improving it—and improving it >> until they can dance a duet of Putting on the Ritz.

Only a dreamer Creator would not anticipate any problems with his monster creation.  Is that fire?!

Coming Up

The next two Unheroic Heroes are the Magician and the Sage.  See us on March 10 for a new perspective on these two Character Archetypes.

Also in March, we take a look at “Bright Lights and Hot Messes”, women as leaders.  Your female protagonists will use different methods to control your story.

Until then, enjoy the writing!

~~ M. A. Lee