What is a hero? Heroism is a concept we’re taught at a very young age. But is the definition we’re taught really accurate? Today, we’re going to explore the hero definition in a new light by looking at examples in psychology, film, and literature. By the end, you’ll know what makes a hero, and how to make your own characters heroic. 

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Hero Meaning Explained

Let's define hero

When I say “hero,” who do you think of? Hercules? Superman? A role model? Heroes play an important role in our everyday lives because they serve as a beacon of excellence that we strive towards.


What is a hero?

hero is a person who demonstrates an utmost commitment to their morals, no matter the obstacle or consequence. Heroes are venerated in stories for possessing extraordinary abilities, such as exceptional strength, intelligence, or fortitude. This character is not to be confused with a superhero. A superhero often shares the same moral and charitable qualities but they also have special powers or abilities.

Classic Hero Traits:

  • An unwavering dedication to their morals
  • A priority to uphold the greater good
  • Courage in the face of adversity

The hero is almost always the protagonist of a story. But a protagonist is not always a hero. Those two terms get confused a lot and while there is overlap, they are distinct categories.

But in many ways, we believe that heroes are beyond reach; idealized to an unattainable degree – but that doesn’t have to be the case. This next video from Academy of Ideas examines the psychology of heroism, and explains how you can be your own heroic character.

The Psychology of Heroism by Academy of Ideas

This is not a messianic figure – it’s simply a person who defends their moralistic beliefs vigorously. Of course, those moralistic beliefs have to be rooted in charity; the utilitarian notion of the greater good outweighing the greater evil need not apply.


Hero examples in literature

Literature is defined simply as a written work; so as you can guess, there have been a lot of heroes throughout the history of literature.

Let’s take a look at a few:

Gilgamesh from The Epic of Gilgamesh 

By contemporary standards, Gilgamesh is more of a superhero, but considering that he’s regarded as the first hero in literature, we had to include him here. Gilgamesh demonstrates exceptional persistence against overwhelming odds to become a hero of feat.

Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird 

Atticus demonstrates extraordinary resolve by defending Tom Robinson against bigotry.

Nancy Drew from the Nancy Drew series 

Nancy represents an outlet for women seeking heroes in a market saturated with male heroes. Nancy displays great intelligence in her quest to unmask various villains.

This next video from Ted-Ed breaks down Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey by looking at famous literature examples of heroes.

What Makes a Hero? by Ted-Ed

The Hero’s Journey may serve as a blueprint for effective storytelling, but it’s not the only way writers characterize heroes. Remember, heroes are simply individuals who defend their morals in spite of potential consequences. 

Now, let’s look at some hero examples in film and television.

Heroic Characters Explained

Heroes in movies & television

Big-budget cinema – at least nowadays – is a medium for the sensational, which means that its heroes are often “super” in nature. It’s worth noting that superheroes are different from heroes. 

Heroes demonstrate extraordinary ability within the realm of reality, superheroes demonstrate extraordinary ability outside that realm.

So, we’re going to stick to regular heroes in this section. Here are a few hero examples in film/television (some of who are rooted in plays/literature):

Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men: Juror #8 is a classic example because he defends his morals with absolute conviction, despite limited support from his peers. For more, check out our 12 Angry Men script teardown.

Rick Blaine in Casablanca: Rick represents a sub-type that we regard as the dormant hero. This character rejects heroism due to a traumatic defeat. However, they are later called back into action, and overcomes their greatest foe to emerge victorious. For more, check out our Casablanca script teardown.

Indiana Jones in the Indiana Jones movies: Indiana Jones is the perfect example of a classic Hollywood hero. Indy doesn’t possess superheroic abilities, but he does possess extraordinary intelligence and courage.

Now here’s a thought exercise for you: is Thanos the hero – or more appropriately the superhero – 0f Avengers: Infinity War? Let’s examine that question with a video essay! Check it out below.

Avengers: Infinity War Script Breakdown  •  Subscribe on YouTube

I’d argue that Thanos displays a sense of heroism by defending his moral beliefs. However, his call is a perverse one: rooted in utilitarian justice rather than charity. 

Up Next

What is an anti-hero?

Now that we know what we call an individual who defends their moralistic beliefs no matter the consequence, let’s explore the question: what is an anti-hero? Anti-heroes are incredibly popular in today’s media scene. In our next article, we break down how characters like Walter White and the Underground Man rejected the hero’s call and became anti-heroes instead.

Up Next: Anti-Hero Explained →
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