Recipe for a Hero
Note: I’m using hero as a gender neutural term in this post
Today I need to revise for my history test, so to make use of my procrastination, I’ve decided to analyse our favorite heroes.
So what is a hero? Real life people, like Malala or Martin Luther King? Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen? To me, a hero is someone who inspires others to step up and become better people. This might mean to be nicer to strangers, or to loved ones, to put others before yourself or to just do something you’ve always wanted to. Whatever it may be, we readers can’t get enough of it. Our favorite characters, Harry Potter, Aelin Galathynius, Percy Jackson, Clary Fairchild, Kady Grant, Wonderwoman, Tris Prior, Katniss Everdeen and thousands more, all have thier own stories, but it may or may not suprise you that these stories are often very similar in their pattern. I’ll be using Hercules, Harry Potter and Aelin Galathynius (from Throne of Glass) as my examples throughout this post. So without further ado, here’s my recipe for a hero.
The Birth of the Hero
Often in classical mythology, the hero’s parentage is supernatural or royal, one or both parents a royal or a god. However in modern literature, it’s more common that the child is born in danger, such as Harry Potter, or brought up without parents, such as Aelin. Absent parents are particuarly prevalent in YA, as parents are very inconvenient to a teenager’s adventures The birth of the hero is almost always a influence on the hero’s character. Harry is abused by his aunt and uncle, locked in a cupboard, starved as punishment for accidental magic, and as a result grew up to be someone with issues managing his anger (as shown often in The Order of the Phoenix), his emotions (especially regarding Sirius’ death) and accepting help from his friends (particularly clear in The Deathly Hallows). Aelin was born to royals, however they were murdered in the same bed she was in, leaving her in the care of a master assassin. This led her to face issues regarding her true name, identity and emotions.
Often, we are not told much about this stage in life, only that they are trained by thier mentor. In the case of Harry Potter, this is not true, much of the story is centered around his education from Hogwarts professors. However Aelin fits this perfectly. She was brought up and trained as an assasin by Arobynn, and the story starts once that part of her training, and her childhood, is complete.
Nearly always in their adolescence, the hero proves their worth in some way. This is often a display or strength, standing up for a principle or fulfilling a prophetic sign. In the case of Harry Potter, this could be many things, arguably his whole first year is his initiation. It is equally unclear for Aelin, perhaps the murder of her parents was her initiation, the competition to be the Kings assasin, or maybe that bit at the end of Crown of Midnight I won’t spoil for you. Because these examples have been unclear, I’ll use Katniss Everdeen. Her initiation was when she volunteered in Prim’s place to enter the Hunger Games. This scene showed one of her primary traits and motivators, her bravery, and love for her sister.
Task or Quest
Either as part of the initiation, or because they have proven themselves at initiation, the hero is given labours to perform (such as Hercules’), a task to accomplish or a quest to fulfill. For Harry, it’s the mysteries and trials of each book, with the overarching quest to kill Voldemort. For Aelin, this is a number of tasks, including the competition to become Ardalan’s Assassin, and the quest that spans the later books, to banish the valg from the world.
Almost always, the quest involves a journey. Some, like those of Moses and Odysseus (we now even use the word Odyssey to mean a great journey) took up to forty years, others only days. Harry doesn’t make many journies besides the ones in the deathly hallows, but Aelin spends a lot of time journying to various corners of her world. Some notable journeys in modern literature include Kady and Ezra’s journey to the Heimdall jump gate in Illuminae, and Percy Jackson’s journeys to Greece, the underworld, through Taturus and more. It’s fitting that these quests include long journeys as in Greek mythology, which Percy Jackson was based on, pretty much every legend included a long journey of some sort.
The Talisman, Weapon or Magic Object
Many heroes take a special object into battle or conflict. Examples include Thor and his hammer, Harry Potter with his wand and invisibility cloak, or Gandelf with his staff. If the heroes have one, they are almost never seen without it, and often the plot includes a search for this object, whether that’s part of their quest, or once had it and lost it.
A hero’s hamartia, or fatal flaw, is what ultimately results in the failure, or near failure of the hero. Often this flaw is excessive selflessness, loyalty or mercy. This can be seen in heroes such as Harry Potter, who refused to let anyone else sacrifice themselves and handed himself over, and Percy Jackson, who nearly sacrificed the world for his friends. Aelin’s hamartia is her stubbornness. She refuses to sacrifice her loved ones for any cause, insisting on carrying through dangerous plans her way, often not telling her friends those plans in fear that they will insist on not doing them.
This is what makes a hero extraordinary. It could be a feat of intelligence or cunning, of physical strength or of strength of character, and is what sets the hero apart from the general public. The opponent is never an ordinary humans, always an extraordinary one. This makes for a tense fight in which the hero only just overcomes the villain. Harry performs many feats, such as the tasks in the goblet of fire, destroying the horcruxes, and saving his friends and the wizarding world from danger. Aelin is constantly fighting and overcoming her enemies. She takes on dreadful creatures with incredible strength, saves her friends and has endless love for her country.
The hero is never alone on their journey, always accompanied by close friends and occasionally family. Harry has Ron and Hermione, along with Dumbledore’s army and the support of most of the wizarding world. Aelin travells and fights with her court, including her mate, cousin, and friends. Often the friends of the hero are shown to be almost as strong as the hero, more than just ordinary, not quite extraordinary, helping the hero with their individual strengths, but in the end the hero must go on alone. This is shown in Harry’s final battle with Voldemort.
Reward and Death
In almost every instance the hero gains the reward of his quest. While in classical mythology few live on to peaceful old age, a happy ending is becoming more and more prevalent in modern literature, especially YA and children’s novels. In mythology, the heroes rarely get to simply enjoy their rewards, often forced into exile, murdered, or had already sacrificed their own lives for the reward, however in modern literature, we see the hero have their happily ever after. This is particularly clear in Harry Potter, as in the epilogue we see Harry and Ginny at platform 9 and 3/4 waving their children off. Although this is satisfactory, neatly tying up the plot, it’s starting to make the endings of stories rather predictable. The hero gets the girl or boy, saves the world, and lives happily ever after. As the ending of Aelin’s story has not yet been released, I’m hoping it won’t follow along with this growing cliche.
So now that you’ve read this I’m sure you can recognise this pattern in many heroes. Many heroes won’t fulfill all of these categories, however they will all fulfill some. This pattern, even if we are not aware of it, helps us to recognise a hero in the story. Even characters in contemporary novels, ones without epic battles, magical creatures and sacrifice of life can fit the hero pattern, just in more metaphorical ways. Have you noticed this pattern before? If not, after reading this can you see it in the book you’re currently reading?