Heroes choose what’s right over what’s practical. This is what gets them in trouble with the rest of the party, really. We talked about that. We talked about how heroes can be better understood by their values than by any abstract system of good and evil, and about six different heroic values. But this all assumes a certain kind of hero, the paragon of virtue, the knight in shining armor who acts on her value without fear or reservation. And not all heroes are like that. Today, I want to talk about some other kinds of heroes, and how they fit in with this mix. There are four other kinds of heroes that I can think of besides the paragon. If you can think of more, leave them in the comments, and we’ll talk about them!
1. The Antihero
The antihero is the hero who isn’t a hero. Which is a super-useful definition, I know. What makes them different from a paragon is that they don’t have some of the more common heroic attributes. Maybe they’re grim pessimists, or or mildly concerned misanthropes. I’ve talked about the challenges and benefits of antiheroes in the Loniest Wolf that Ever Did Wolf, but the most common way of thinking about them is as a sort of grim reflection of the paragon. They share the same values, but don’t embody them. This might be because they have their own inner demons to contend with, they can’t escape their past, or a million other reasons. Batman’s a good example of an antihero. He has heroic values, but hides in the shadows and is hunted for his heroism. He’s driven not out of hopefulness, but out of the need to avenge his parents. Paragons beat back the tide of darkness, but antiheroes struggle just to stay afloat.
2. The Reluctant Hero
The reluctant hero does more than refuse the call to heroism, he distracts the call with something shiny and books it out the back door. Maybe he’s cowardly, maybe he’s lazy, maybe he’s just disinterested in other people’s affairs. But for whatever reason, he’s not having any of it. He has to be dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the lair of the dark lord, where his real heroism finally shines though. The reluctant hero has the same values as the paragon, but has a motivation not to act on them. Without a doubt, the best example of a reluctant hero is Bilbo Baggins. He doesn’t want to leave the Shire, and moans his way across Middle Earth, but he saves the day over and over again though cunning, care, and dumb luck. He has all the same heroic values that Gandalf does, but he’d much rather be home in bed.
3. The Tragic Hero
The tragic hero has a fatal flaw, usually a vice. Any one of the seven deadly sins works. there’s all kinds of ways to express them. They’re not reluctant, and they’re not grim reflections of the paragon, they just have one or more factors that lead them to make really poor decisions. They share the same values as all the other heroes, but their vice gets in the way, often leading them to terrible ends. The quintessential tragic hero is Achilles, from Homer’s Iliad. His pride drives him to his tent, and when his cousin is killed in the field, his anger eventually leads him to his death, despite being a nigh unstoppable warrior. The tragic hero’s tale is supposed to end in tears, with their vice bringing them down.
4. The Sidekick
I’m not kidding. The sidekick has all the values of the paragon, and might even be a paragon themselves, but they always play second fiddle. Robin to someone’s Batman, Samwise to someone’s Frodo, What makes the sidekick different isn’t their values but their purpose, which is to inspire and motivate the hero. Robin reminds Batman of the lighter side of life. Jimmy Olsen reminds Superman of what ordinary people are like, and Samwise gives Frodo the strength to carry on. Sidekicks can be hard to play, even undesirable in a game where everyone needs to be the star of the story, but they’re a valid form of hero. I employ sidekicks as a GM sometimes, to help heroes get back on track, and to remind them of what they believe in. Sidekicks lead heroes by leading by example.
Antiheroes, reluctant heroes, tragic heroes, and sidekicks, along with paragons, make up an array of heroic possibilities. When making a hero, don’t just think about their three most important values, but what kind of hero they are. Be conscious of the limitations of each type. Tragic heroes end badly. Sidekicks stay out of the limelight. Reluctant heroes and antiheroes have to become paragons eventually, or they get silly. Similarly, paragons can fall into one of the other archetypes. Helping your party understand the archetype you’re shooting for will help them understand where you see your character fitting in, which is important for anyone. Anyway, I’m off for Christmas. Happy heroing, and happy holidays!