I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist


Brace yourselves, people. I’m going to try and get both philosophical and political.

Literary Development

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThe development of the lead figure that we recognise today as the ‘hero’ is quite well documented, at least in technical terms. Popular opinion puts it in Greece, when the conceits of tragic theatre moved from a declaimer plus chorus to the arrival of an actual character being portrayed on stage by an actor (traditionally said to be Thespis). Things developed from there, with Aeschylus including a second and then a third speaking character in the play, and lo – the idea of a protagonist was born.

Well, not quite. Yes, the word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek one and literally means ‘one who plays the first part’. But it didn’t start in the 6th Century BC. Way before then, people were writing tales with leading heroes in them – the eponymous figure in the Persian Epic of Gilgames, Rama in the Indian Ramayana, and all the wealth of Egyptian and Chinese mythology, to name just a few.

The idea of a hero – a central figure in the story – has been around for a very, very long time. In all that time, down the ages and in different cultures, how has he changed? Different times and people need different things from their heroes, and uphold very different values. By our modern lights, Gilgames was obnoxiously arrogant, Achilles was a brutal spoiled brat, Romeo was (let’s be honest) a bit of a moron, and Biggles was racist. Our ideas of what constitutes a hero have had to evolve with social development.

Political & Social Influence

That’s the reactive approach. What about the proactive, when the role of the protagonist has been deliberately altered to make a statement? Before the New Testament, the idea of the messiah included fiery invective and warrior-like leadership. Not something the Romans would have tolerated in the 1st Century AD – it would probably have led to genocide. Instead the population is presented with a very different kind of hero, one suited to the times. I’m not going to go into whether Jesus was a literary, historical or divine figure. The point is that the deliberate inversion of the expected role of the hero informed the behaviour of the populace, and thus shaped history.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

Sometimes the protagonist represents the vox populi; sometimes it influences it. In the latter case, it’s almost always political. The smart politicians use them as a way in with the voters; the really smart ones use them to change society. This isn’t new. It isn’t even new to this side of the year 0 A.D. Achilles was used to make a point about acceptable behaviour in modern Greek society (the point basically boils down to ‘we’re not demi-gods any more, don’t be dicks’). Greek plays were used either by politicians to sway popular opinion, or against them to unseat them from power.

The protagonist is a powerful weapon. They are the figures we identify with, believe in and want to emulate. That brings me back to how they have naturally evolved, as what we believe in and identify with has changed. A hero in the Classical sword-fighting, city-state against city-state world is necessarily different to a hero in WW2, and both are different to modern-day heroism. Courage and patriotism are no longer the highest qualities it’s possible to possess – you need to include some multicultural sensitivity in there.

The Heroic Monomyth

In the 1920s and onwards, Carl Jung began building his concept of Jungian archetypes. This bought into the idea that heroes are instantly identifiable figures to the human psyche, but separated out different types. The differences were necessary to speak to subsections of the audience – different cultures, classes and so on. Different protagonists are needed for different stories. This separation seems pretty obvious to us now. So obvious, in fact, that we miss a fundamental underlying point.

The monomyth is a theory put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (although he nicked the term from James Joyce). It postulates that the figure of the hero is so fundamental to human storytelling that it exists in a recognisably similar shape throughout multiple cultures, despite those cultures and the beliefs within them being vastly different.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of wonder: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.   ~ Joseph Cambell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The details change – they have to, in order for the audience to fully engage with the protagonist – but the central heroic figure always fulfils the same basic function. Why is that? What is it about our psyche that needs such a role presented to us over and over and over again, in a billion different ways? Because, despite the modernisation of the protagonist and the evolution of what heroism actually means, we’re still using the same monomythic figure.

Addressing Gender

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

This blog post has contained a statistically disproportionate level of ‘he’s. There’s been plenty of studies into the role of the hero, both literary and historical, but what about the heroine? How has the female protagonist evolved over time? There’s no question that she has. From being the passive prize in the tower, or reward for great deeds, she has very slowly grown to be an agent in her own right. Having started from such different origins, does she fulfil a fundamentally different role to that of the male protagonist? Or has she become the same figure but with different curves? How has the empowering of the literary woman either impacted or been used by politics? And how far behind her male counterpart does she still lag, if at all?

I don’t know the answers to those, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

There’s a ton more stuff to talk about on this subject but I reckon I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. Here’s a good place to start reading and maybe I’ll come back to the topic at a later date.

6 responses »

  1. much modern story telling rely on a single protagonist, but more and more we are presented with stories of bands of heroes. Some would say that that is a new invention, to see stories from different view points, to experience different character views, but is is old as the hills. Malory’s knights, robin hood’s merry men, and even Greek legends like the argonauts. But there is always a main character, perhaps because the idea of self is important to humans, you need that one brush upon the canvas for us to understand.
    Also, compare and contrast Achilles and Odessedeus (spelling, I think my auto correct is wrong). A king of a poor nation, who uses cunning of man rather than godly might and who gives up sexual ecstasy and immortality with a goddess to go home and be with his wife who has not seen him for 20 years. Kidding aside, Homer odyssey presents a human hero, so often missing. Whilst he is flawed, he is human flawed, he doesn’t want to challenge the gods, not intentionally, he has no super powers. as you said before Achilles was a shit and the Trojan war ends the lines of the Demi gods ( Ajax son of Hercules also bites it) and presents the Greek world with the end of their mythic heroes, whilst the odyssey shows them that they as an ordinary individual can rise to the occasion.
    That I think is why you have a protagonist, because in stpry telling it is an individual listening and it it is that individual that needs be effected. Would write more batter dying…

  2. The first thought this has triggered in me is how the tendency to want a protagonist is similar to the attraction of the ‘great man’ view of history. I wonder if our increasingly nuanced view of history, in which we start to see the greats as flawed and history as shaped by social trends as much as individuals, has contributed to a rise in stories about groups and ensembles. Of perhaps it adds to our desire for clear protagonists, as we flee from the complex towards the safely simple?

  3. As a first response, I’d be inclined to say the former. With an increased appreciation of nuance, we no longer see individuals acting alone – they are only one part of a wider picture.

    This isn’t all that new – the Iliad has a number of protagonists (Achilles, Hector, Priam, Patroclus, etc), but it does seem to have become more prevalent recently. I wonder if, at least in part, this is because the writing techniques required to make it work have only recently been explored. Writing groups and ensembles is much harder, after all.

  4. Hi! I’m (sorta) new to WordPress, and while exploring, boom, I run into your post… it was meant to be 🙂 because I’m currently reading “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”! It’s has enthralling concepts and at times confusing ones, and I love it.

    Thank you for your thoughts, very interesting to think about them while I read… especially about the heroine. So far the word “hero” in the works of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, etc I’ve encountered has been completely interchangeable in my mind. HOWEVER, now that you point it out, I no longer know if it is that simple. I will definitely pay more attention in that regard to my current reading and explore further. Interesting to improve my heroine’s journey knowledge a bit.

  5. Pingback: I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist | Zen Seagull

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s