The other night, I was watching Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. I quickly realized that it was an adaptation of the Greek myth of Persius (which you can watch in The Clash of the Titans — the real one).
As I watched a young boy struggling to fulfill his destiny, I thought, “This is just like Harry Potter.” Then, when I realized that he never knew his father, I thought, “This is just like Star Wars.”
And when I saw that they were following a map to find valuable pearls all over the United States, I thought, “This is like National Treasure.”
Of course, you could also say that the movie is a lot like Avatar or Eragon or any number of other stories. And that’s the point. While the “hero’s journey” genre may be overdone, there’s something compelling about heroes.
Characteristics of a Hero
Here are seven characteristics of a hero that explain why we love them:
- Heroes are unexpected. The people we expect to be heroes are guys like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Charming, muscular, and over-confident. Usually, they just end up being jerks, though. The real heroes are the ones hiding in obscurity, waiting to be discovered, like Arthur in The Sword in the Stone.
- Heroes are unknown. The real heroes are lurking in the background somewhere. They aren’t famous. They’re nobodies. They’re Frodo Baggins, dreaming of adventure, while maybe slightly scared of the cost. They’re the shepherd David, defending the flock and longing for a fight.
- Heroes are ordinary. At the beginning of the story, our heroes are losers. They’re mopping a floor somewhere. They’re the Marty McFlys of the world, complete with dorky suspenders and awkward social skills.
- Heroes become heroes through adversity. At the beginning of the story, their skills are untested. Conflict must draw out the courage of a hero. That’s why Gaston or Biff can never be a hero. Those guys are all bravado. They put on the air of a tough guy, but they run when the real fight begins.
- Heroes show up at the 11th hour. It’s not until the last moment when all hope seems lost that a hero distinguishes himself from the rest of the pack. Heroes surprise us.
- Heroes push through the fear. They live what we all claim to believe — that courage isn’t absence of fear, but rather facing it. They acknowledge their feelings but rise above them.
- Heroes fight for others. Heroes emerge when the innocent are in peril. Heroes fight, not because they want to, but because those whom they love will die if they don’t. That’s why you often see reluctant heroes (Han Solo, Shrek, William Wallace, to name a few). It is only when times are tough, when all that they have will be utterly lost, that they emerge ready to fight.
Finding the hero within
What happens in you when you read that list? Do you find yourself identifying with the prospect of being a hero? Do you get excited?
This is not a coincidence.
The reason that we love epics is because they speak to something deep inside of us. These stories and myths and movies are designed to teach us one thing:
Anyone can be a hero, but not everyone will. Will you? (Cue Bonnie Tyler song.)
*Photo credit: Lance Neilson