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

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