There are many types of hero, from Superman to Sherlock Holmes, and from Thor to Deadpool! And thinking about hero archetypes and types of heroes can help you fine tune your characters. That’s true whether you’re DnD characters, NPCs in a campaign, or main characters in a story or novel.
And whilst no hero will fall precisely into a neat box of analysis, starting with an archetype can help you develop a new kind of hero you haven’t used before! So here’s a list of 5 different kinds of heroes, with tips on how to write and play them!
Pssst – remember if you’re making heroes, World Anvil’s character template and RPG Character Manager are fantastic tools to keep track of all the important bits and pieces!
1. The Everyman Hero Archetype
Is your hero an average Joe, just someone going about their daily life? Do they work a nine-to-five job, until the catalyst or adventure hook comes screaming towards them? Are they just a normal dude with a problem (as Save the Cat! Writes a Novel puts it), an ordinary person, flung into an extraordinary situation? Chances are, you’re writing the everyman hero archetype!
Everyman heroes include Bilbo Baggins, Dr. Watson, Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Chief O’Brian in Deep Space Nine. These heroes aren’t special, and they’re certainly not ready for what’s happening to them.
Just a note that DnD characters can be Everyman heroes too! If low level adventuring is a “nine-to-five” and they involved in something above their paygrade, that can absolutely be an everyman situation! And remember, an everyman hero can be the Chief of Operations on a Starship, or even a specialist (like Andy Wier in the Martian). The point is that the problem goes far beyond what they’re trained to handle.
Everyman heroes can be tricky because:
They’re often hesitant and full of doubts —I mean, they’re not trained for this stuff! So they need a strong push to get them into an adventure. They can often feel like they’re being dragged by their ear throughout the story. And that’s problematic. It takes away their agency, which makes them feel less engaging. And it makes them reactive. Reactive heroes are fine at the beginning of a story, but they’ll get boring if this goes on too long. What you want is a hero who’s making decisions. Who starts to shape their own destiny. And that’s where my tip comes in!
Show how they change! Of course, all heroes with a character arc change, but with Everyman heroes, you need to galvanise them. Give them some direction, and have them learn to take charge of the situation. Often this is by making them more committed to the adventure, by having them start to say “yes” instead on “oh-crap-oh-crap-oh-crap“. This usually works because their own goals, motivations, and survival become tied up in their success. And that makes them even more compelling, because they start making decisions! Decisions give a character agency, which makes them feel active, and that’s fun to play or read about. And that’s when we learn even more about the Everyman hero! What decisions will they choose? What will they risk?
Rather watch a video than read? Here’s the same topic as a video from our youtube channel!
2. The Classical or Epic Types of Hero
Classic or Epic, these are most associated with the heroes of old. We’re talking characters who possesses either a great skill like Odysseus’s cunning or Harry Potter’s extra magical strength compared to his peers (Classical hero), or a supernatural talent (Epic hero) like Superman or Hercules. The difference here is usually that a Classical Hero seems like an everyman until their talent is revealed, whilst an Epic Hero is clearly different from the outset. Either way, your main character is clearly special, set apart from others —they may even be the Chosen One!
Examples of this type of hero include Thor, Luke Skywalker, and even Superman! They can be really fun to play or write about, and as the name suggests, they’re a great ticket to writing truly epic stories if handled correctly.
Classic/Epic Heroes are tricky because:
It’s easy to make them Mary Sues by accident! Mary Sue characters are heroes who are miraculously good at everything. (Often Gary Stu is used for a male, but it’s the same principal.) And Mary Sues are REALLY hard to watch. Bascially, any character who is flawless is very difficult for people to sympathise with! That’s true whether it’s readers of your novel, or players around the table. So make sure you add a healthy dose of flaws to the characters too! Give them blind spots, make sure it’s clear that they can do somethings great, but they’re oblivious of others! Flaws are also a good way to make characters reliant on others, which is a fantastic way to develop relationships.
Make them the underdog! This trick is used time and time again with classic and epic heroes. Sure, Superman is great, but Clerk Kent is a much put-upon nice guy who (at least in the beginning) doesn’t get the girl. In fact, ironically, the girl is in love with his alterego! Harry Potter may be one of the most powerful characters in the novels, and a downright celebrity in the wizarding world. But every summer he has to deal with the Dursleys, who don’t care how powerful he is, and who hate him! Making a powerful character or chosen one an underdog in one part of their life brings instant sympathy. Even better, it makes us excited as players and readers when they thrive in one area, because we know that other parts of their life are crappy!
3. The AntiHero
If those types of hero aren’t to your liking, how about the AntiHero? This isn’t your classic good-as-gold type of hero, with his underpants over his lycra. An anti-hero might indulge in vices like smoking, drinking, and drugs. They might get a bit too violent once in a while. Or maybe they’re involved in petty crimes or blur the lines of the law to get what they want. More likely than not they’ve got deep flaws —selfish, greedy, lustful, angry, or all of the above. But the audience roots for them and, when their deeds are weighed, they’re more of a force for good than for ill. In fact, usually, the end justifies the means. In fact, your anti-hero may struggle to overcome their flaws —at least the ones they identify with as flaws— which provides a rich emotional tapestry for their character arc.
Examples of Anitheroes include Deadpool, Han Solo, Jessica Jones, and even Professor Snape!
Antiheroes can be tricky because:
It’s hard to tread the line between edgy badass and bad guy! Go too far one way and they can be hard to root for. Or too far the other, and you won’t get the gritty Anti-Hero vibe you’re after! If you’re a writer, make sure you check in with your beta readers. As a DM or DnD player, see how other people are reacting to your character. That’ll help you fine tune them like you want them.
Have them save a puppy! I’m serious —showing that they’re capable of kindness to defenseless creatures (or characters) is often a very useful device for making your antihero more likable. OK, so it doesn’t have to be a puppy. It might be an innocent civilian. It could be a defenseless child! This is particularly so before your audience has gotten a chance to sympathize with whatever traumatic backstory made them this way! It’s a trick as old as time, but it works.
4. The Byronic Hero
He’s —and it’s usually a he— a tragic misfit, woefully misunderstood by those around him, or just downright angsty, but he still strives for good. Well, he might be a Byronic hero! Named after the romantic poet and author Lord Byron – both for the kinds of characters he used to write and for his winning personality – these guys are the epitome of complicated. And if you’re not careful, wangsty too.
Byronic heroes are known for being intelligent, broody, and often falling outside of —and perhaps openly defying— the conventions of the society they’re from. They’re usually pretty active and motivated, which makes them very fun heroes to watch. And having them rail against the status quo is great for world exposition, and for moving the plot forward!
Examples of this type of hero include Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, and Jon Snow, along with arguably Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender later on in the series. If anyone can think of some good female Byronic heroes, let me know in the comments, by the way!
Byronic heroes can be tricky because:
Their broody angst can come across as teenage wangst unless it’s properly explained. Make sure you measure it out, and break it up with lots of action and bold decision making. And be wary of giving them too much downtime, as they tend to turn into brook-central.
Give them a REASON in their backstory! That might be a clear, tragic past, a lifetime of horrors or a single terrible event (looking at you, Batman). And you don’t need to reveal too much, at least not at first. You can just allude to it, you don’t have to spell it out. Either way, it helps justify some of their more outlandish behavior to the reader or the other players around the table. They’ll have more patience with their hero if they understand a little how they got to be this way.
5. The Tragic Types of Hero
This is one of the least used types of hero, at least for the main character. Things don’t always end well, but for the Tragic Heroes, the core of the reason why is their Tragic Flaw. This flaw can be their inability to let something go, ruthless ambition, or anything else, but it sows the seeds for their downfall.
Examples of these heroes are Macbeth, Harvey Dent/Two Face from Batman, Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, and both Ned Stark and Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones. Ned Stark is a wonderful example of how something good, like uncompromising honor, can ALSO a tragic flaw in the gritty and unfair world of Game of Thrones. Acting only according to honor, rather than common sense, can be a character’s undoing. Brutus’s unquestioning loyalty to his country is his fatal flaw in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Usually, though, a fatal flaw is something bad, like Romeo’s impulsiveness or BoJack Horseman’s Pride and selfishness.
Tragic heroes can be tricky because:
It’s hard for your readers and players to watch a character you’ve connected with make terrible decisions! In fact, that’s often why tragic heroes are often used as bad guys rather than main protagonists, OR set up as rivals to another main character.
Foreshadow clearly HOW your hero is getting to their unhappy end! And make it clear that they’re complicated. Like, sure, they’re on a doomed path, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bad. In fact, tingeing them with good makes their downfall even more tragic!
Whatever kinds of heroes you’re creating, whether characters for novels and short stories, Player Characters or NPCs for Dungeons and Dragons or other Role Playing games, World Anvil has you covered!
Our character template —perfect for novel characters and NPCs— has a detailed questionnaire that helps you get into their mindset, and figure out their motivations, traits, and those all-important flaws! Our RPG Character manager lets you detail your character and writer about their experiences in journals, as well as tracking their equipment, health, stats, and more!
Challenge time: Types of Hero!
Ready to do some worldbuilding? Well, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to answer this prompt:
Choose a hero archetype —Everyman, Classical, Epic, Anti Hero, Byronic or Tragic— you’ve rarely or never used before, and create a character in your world that fits the profile!
Click here to answer it, where you can see other people’s answers too if they’ve chosen to make them public! If you’re stuck, use the examples I’ve shared as templates to get started from. So, if you’re creating a Byronic hero, Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House would be a good place to start; and for an Antihero, try Jessica Jones or Deadpool!
This challenge should help you experiment with different kinds of heroes in your stories and games, as well as fleshing out your world setting. After all, background, education, culture, and religion play an important part in a character’s identity, so this is a great way to flesh those out from a character perspective!
So, which is your favorite Hero archetype to read about, write about, or play? Let me know in the comments below!
Reading this I realized one of the female characters in the story I am currently could be classified as a Byronic Hero. As well as possibly Kat from Halo: Reach?
Great article! Jessica Jones of the Marvel Netflix series is a great example of a female Byronic hero. I also think Michael Burnham of Star Trek Discovery is another great example.