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What Is the Definition of a Hero?

by Kalinda Rose Stevenson

What Are the Essential Characteristics of Heroes?

The definition of “hero” is a question to be pondered. We live in a time when the word is used to apply to all kinds of people doing all kinds of actions. The question is: What are the essential characteristics a hero?

Are Superheroes "heroes" because they have special powers? Are parents heroes because they take good care of their children? Are people heroes because they are honest and honorable in everything do? Are they heroes because they are work hard to master certain skills? Are they heroes because they win Superbowls, World Series, World Cups, and Olympic medals? Are they heroes because they serve in the military? Are they heroes because they are willing to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of others? Are they heroes because they are persistent in pursuing their goals?

At this point, it's worth asking such questions without attempting to answer them right away.  Simply consider the explicit or implicit definition of a hero in each of the articles below to consider your own perspectives on the definition of someone as a hero. 

  • In 1949, Joseph Campbell published his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This book introduced into our culture the concept of the “hero’s journey.” This hero’s journey model has become the foundation for many of the most popular stories and movies ever since.

    If you’re not familiar with this model, this post by Wikipedia gives an excellent overview of the hero’s journey story structure.  “...The hero's journey is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.” The essential point is that this model has shaped storytelling throughout human history.

  • Screenwriter Christopher Vogler used the foundation of Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces book to write a hero’s journey guide for writers. His excellent book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd Edition is available on Amazon.

    He refers to classic movies, such as Witness, the Star Wars movies, Casablanca, and ET, as he describes the elements of the hero’s journey in his own version of Campbell’s hero’s journey structure.

    Whether or not you are writer who is interested in writing a hero’s journey novel or screenplay, his outline of a hero’s journey will give you a different perspective on your favorite novels and movies.  In addition, they will give you new perspectives what it takes to change your own life for the better.

  • Rob Cipriano Founder, CEO, The AllHumanity Group & Redemption Film Partners wrote an article asking the question, What Is a Hero?

    He asks these compelling questions: “What is a hero? Who are the people we make heroes? Why do we need heroes? What happens when a hero falls?"

    His thoughtful essay refers to the heroism of ordinary people.  "There are different types of heroes. Heroes that, by example show us that anything is possible. Heroes that by their decisions, demonstrate a courage that is not common in the average populace and we see a hero that finds strength to overcome adversity and thrive."

  • Scott LaBarge is a philosophy professor in the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. In his article, Heroism, he defines "why heroes are important."

    He encourages us to ask important questions about what kind of heroes we have. Are they genuine heroes or cultural celebrities? He states that “the greatest obstacle to the appreciation and adoption of heroes in our society is pervasive and corrosive cynicism and skepticism.” 

  • In an article in PsychologyToday.com, Scott T Allison Ph.D identifies 5 Surprising Ways That Heroes Improve Our Lives. He claims that heroes are not only inspiring, they also give us psychological benefits.

    He describes how we benefit from the actions of heroes and how heroes can and do transform the lives of other people. 

  • Bill Murphy, Jr. of TheMid.com, writes about veterans who received the Medal of Honor. In each case, the award came years—even decades—after the heroic act of each recipient.

    Murphy identifies the 5 Qualities of Incredibly Heroic Leaders. As he identifies these 5 qualities, he reminds us that “we make choices every day about whether to act heroically or ordinarily.”

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