Here’s something I’ve discovered after more than a decade of research into pop culture and the social sciences, and it can be summed up neatly into one sentence.
There are four types of heroes, and four types of villains.
Don’t believe me? Read on, and afterward, I dare you to create a new category or find a hero that doesn’t fit one of the four. As for my theory on villains, that post can be viewed here.
Here are the four hero archetypes and their respective mottos:
1. The Liberator - “Free your mind.”
A LIBERATOR is a hero who identifies an enemy or an oppressive condition, then tries to overcome it using research and strategic planning. When Gandalf found out Frodo had the One Ring, he went to the ancient tomes and to Saruman for knowledge on how to get rid of the problem. He’s a wizard, which involves learning spells by consulting scrolls and magical texts. He’s the man behind the plan when it comes time to take the ring to Mount Doom.
When Batman is faced with a problem, he uses technology – a direct result of humanity’s drive to amass knowledge about the rules of reality so he can change it – to bug a skyscraper with cell phones, create antidotes to weaponized substances and design his own armor and vehicles.
Professor X realizes the need humanity will have for a group of mutant protectors and creates a “school” that will train them for battle while uniting them under a common banner, that of the X-Men. This is his strategy for a future that is balanced among the three groups: good mutants, bad mutants, ordinary people.
LIBERATORS rely on ideas and reason, not emotions or physical prowess, to come up with intricate plans to defeat their enemies, and are therefore “independent” (they’ll follow any good idea regardless of social approval), “idea-oriented” and “strategic.” Technology or magic, as the physical embodiment of their ideas, is almost always a weapon in their arsenal.
As a result of being “idea-oriented,” friends, allies and loved ones come in second. This doesn’t mean that LIBERATORS see people as being expendable, like their villainous counterpart, the MASTERMIND, but it makes the LIBERATOR more inclined toward solitary study and a “loner” style of fighting the enemy (Batman, for example, or even Ironman, who appears extroverted but actually spends a lot of time alone with his machines).
They are long-term thinkers. LIBERATORS are not concerned with helping a woman avoid a mugger or sending a thug to jail, though (for dramatic effect, mostly) they may at times perform such services. Mainly, they are concerned with complex frameworks that take into account the long-term consequences of their actions. In Watchmen, Ozymandias (whom I didn’t include here because he is not exactly a hero and not quite a villain) hatches a plan to avoid nuclear apocalypse that is so complex, and involves so much time and so many millions of dollars, that he makes most LIBERATORS (and their villainous counterparts, MASTERMINDS) look like third-graders.
2. The Crusader- “With great power comes great responsibility.”
A CRUSADER is a hero with a highly-developed emotional core who believes in the value of human life down to the individual. Rather than spend their time in the world of ideas like the LIBERATOR, or managing logistics like the GUARDIAN, CRUSADERS devote themselves to public displays of heroism so they can set an example to the ordinary people of the world. They “cooperate” with the good and denounce the bad, and follow strict, publicly-approved codes of moral conduct.
They are driven by “faith,” especially faith in mankind, which guides their decisions instead of scientific knowledge or logical explanation. Peter Parker has faith in his friend Harry to not become a villain like his father. He has faith in New York City’s goodness and keeps submitting photos of Spiderman to The Daily Bugle, even though the paper makes him out to be a villain. He never gives in to cynicism or rage (imagine what Wolverine would do if a newspaper started spreading photos of him as a villain terrorizing the city).
When Peter Parker rejects Mary-Jane so his enemies can’t use her to get to him, he is exemplifying the CRUSADER’S prioritization of another person’s well-being over his or her own safety. His mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility” might as well be the motto of the CRUSADER.
Another example is Storm, from X-Men. Despite being a low-profile character in the movies, Storm is devoted to protecting her team and fostering harmony. Her ability to control weather is a form of sorcery that is more emotional than rational. She may not display the idealism of other CRUSADER heroes (at least in the films) but she is devoted to her team and never second-guesses the morality of the good guys.
Wolverine: “Magneto’s right. There’s a war coming. Are you sure you’re on the right side?”
Storm: “At least I’ve chosen a side.”
Morpheus is the best example of a CRUSADER driven by faith to complete a spiritual mission. His belief that Neo is “The One” has no basis in scientific fact. Thomas Anderson (Neo’s real name) shows absolutely no sign of being any different from any other ordinary citizen (his name’s Thomas Anderson. I mean, come on!) And yet Morpheus has faith in him. Morpheus is guided by a prophesy tailored especially for him by “the Oracle,” an aspect of the film so religious in its implications that the writers had to show her baking cookies and shuffling around her kitchen to give her character some sort of grounding in reality.
CRUSADERS are “value driven,” which means their emotionally-founded values always win out over more logical, less compassionate options. Morpheus believes in Neo despite criticism from his fellow rebels, and signs that Neo is not The One, because he values the Oracle’s advice above anything logic or reason could throw his way. (Click the link below to continue on to RENEGADES and GUARDIANS)
3. The Renegade - “No code of conduct, no law.”
RENEGADES live in the moment. You can often find them at bars, drinking away their pain or trying to look tough, or in their dreary, unfurnished apartments, where the only thing of value is a hanging photograph of someone they once loved and lost. Try and reason with them, and they’ll spout one-liners and insults.
They are by far the most cynical of any of the heroes, seconded only by LIBERATORS. However, unlike LIBERATORS, who are generally optimistic about life and the goodness of mankind, RENEGADES are often doubtful about whether or not regular folks like us are worth saving.
RENEGADES have their own way of doing things and are “practical” in the sense that they value what works over what is right. A true RENEGADE will sacrifice others to meet a goal, if that’s what has to happen for the mission to be a tactical success. They’ll sacrifice themselves, too, if they have to, and will do it without a single complaint.
A true RENEGADE hero doesn’t care about doing the right thing, though he’ll do it because deep down he loves his friends. To save Rogue and destroy Magneto’s tower, Wolverine places a hand on her face and transfers his regenerative abilities to her–even though it almost kills him. RENEGADES don’t care what it costs to make a mission succeed, probably because they hardly care about anything at all that they haven’t already lost in some tragic personal event they wish they could bury in the past.
Daredevil is the perfect example of a RENEGADE driven by the need to dull his pain (as most of them are). According to IGN.com in this article, “There’s just something deeply appealing about a man whose Catholic guilt forces him to don red tights and venture out into the streets each night to battle ninjas and psychopaths.” This is the true appeal of the RENEGADE; we know that behind his tough-as-nails attitude is a child looking for a way to heal his pain and emotional insecurity.
RENEGADES will sometimes agree (always grudgingly) to become part of a crime-fighting force of heroes, though they’ll never fit in as well as the other three types, and will often see the others as “goody-two-shoes.” Constantly in the shadow of GUARDIANS and CRUSADERS, RENEGADES must carve out their own niche. Catwoman, an iconic female RENEGADE, was at one point a prostitute and cat burglar. It was her mysterious nature and cold arrogance that allowed her to embed her nails into Bruce Wayne’s heart (she eventually becomes a hero in the DC universe, which is why I’m including her here). It’s no secret that LIBERATORS are fiercely attracted to RENEGADES and vice versa (Batman/Catwoman, Wolverine/Jean Gray, Neo/Trinity).
RENEGADES rely on physical prowess and tactical genius to defeat their enemies. Wolverine has his agility, super regeneration ability and, of course, his adamantium claws with which to survive even the most brutal melee fights. Catwoman uses her agility and an arsenal of homemade goodies to prowl through the night and get what she wants. In the comic books, she is also a master of burglary, deception and blackmail. Daredevil can’t see, but that doesn’t stop him from using his other senses to become the master of his physical surroundings. Tactical intelligence does not require long-term planning or social fluidity. It is the way of the body and the senses, the way of the RENEGADE.
Other notable RENEGADES: Batou from Ghost in the Shell, Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, Han Solo from Star Wars.
4. The Guardian - “To serve and protect.”
A GUARDIAN is that superhero that women dream of having as a husband (though it’s the RENEGADE with whom they picture having the affair). GUARDIANS exist to serve the masses and offer protection from enemies, often fascist or communist in ideology.
Superman, despite having godlike abilities, chooses to protect human beings on an individual level rather than group them into armies/think tanks, as a LIBERATOR might do, lead them into battle against evil, as a CRUSADER might do, or train them in the killing arts like a RENEGADE might do.
Superman does this because it’s the best way to inspire people to maintain the status quo, which is what the Guardian is all about. As mentioned above, the CRUSADER inspires people to be good to each other. The GUARDIAN inspires people to believe in law and order.
GUARDIANS are the keepers of justice, bound by their devotion to protect the innocent, which they do by establishing and maintaining order. Thus, they are “cooperative” like CRUSADERS, but not nearly as idealistic. To them, fighting enemies isn’t about coloring morality black and white and then choosing white, it’s about protecting the status quo so ordinary people can go on with their lives.
Captain America represents another facet of the typical GUARDIAN: the need to be part of a fighting force and unite with others. Unlike Superman (who, because of his god-like power, doesn’t really need to be part of a team), Captain America began his career as a skinny kid with a big heart whose goal in life was to defend his country as a soldier. He gets his wish and becomes a symbol of the American fight against fascism and communism, two systems that always lead to war and suffering.
Along the same lines, Wonder Woman does for women what Superman and Captain America do for humans and Americans, respectively. According to this scholarly article (bet you can’t say that five times fast), “Wonder Woman was created as a distinctly feminist role model whose mission was to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace, and sexual equality to a world torn by the hatred of men.” Her feats of heroism are meant more to inspire women to unite and be strong (typical GUARDIAN ideals) rather than fight against evil (men are not inherently evil in the Wonder Woman universe; they’re just jerks).
Wonder Woman was a tough one to include here, the reason being that GUARDIANS at times appear to be just like CRUSADERS. However, one thing to keep in mind is that CRUSADERS are more idea-driven and people-driven, whereas GUARDIANS like Wonder Woman fight out of a beilef that they are “duty-bound” to complete certain tasks.
SIDE NOTE: Many incarnations of Wonder Woman depict her as more of a RENEGADE, focusing on tactical warfare and martial arts. She can go either way, which is the beauty of superheroes capable of adapting to different social climates.
Since this article is targeted mainly at writers of fiction, screenplays and comic-books, I’ll conclude by saying that the process of creating any hero is one fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. If you’ve been reading comic books and watching action films all your life, you might be able to get away with relying on your intuition and what “feels right.”
But if you’re just starting out, or if you’re someone making the switch from writing literary, non-herioc stories to hero fiction (like I did in grad school), you should keep in mind that the most identifiable, popular and inspiring heroes are the ones whose actions we can predict most of the time. The only way to do this is to understand their personalities.
HERE ARE SOME QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELF WHEN CREATING YOUR SUPERHERO.
1) Is she a loner? (RENEGADE, LIBERATOR)
2) Can I picture her joining a church or a book club, or helping the poor? (CRUSADER, GUARDIAN)
3) Is she a bookworm or a tech wizard? (LIBERATOR)
4) Does she talk a lot about ideals like beauty, harmony and peace? (CRUSADER)
5) Does she believe that the strong have a duty to protect and serve the needy and the weak? (GUARDIAN)
6) Does she use bionic implants, smart armor, high-tech cars or gadgets, or high-concept surveillance technology to monitor enemies and exploit their weaknesses? (LIBERATOR)
7) Does she seem moody and irritable most of the time? (RENEGADE, LIBERATOR)
8) Does she ride a motorcycle or a fast sports car? (RENEGADE)
9) Does she stay away from alcohol and avoid tattoos? (GUARDIAN)
10) Is she sweet and outgoing around allies and friends? (CRUSADER)
All right. This post has gone on long enough. I’ll leave you with a question: