There are many types of heroes in film, comics and television but many of the most memorable have a few things in common. These are all realizations I’ve made while watching action films. There are five laws to ensure the hero is a lovable character audiences will connect with. There are of course exceptions to all of these laws but for the most part, these are a great start to creating an epic hero.
Law One: Make Your Hero Lose Something (or someone)
Most of the best heroes start from a place of loss. Luke’s aunt and uncle. Ripley’s crew. Bruce Wayne’s parents. Spiderman’s uncle. Basically any comic book hero and some family member. In some cases, the hero works to get revenge, to make sense of their loss and, in other cases, the lost item serves as the Macguffin for the rest of the story. For the audience to identify with the main character at all, they have to start from a common place emotionally. Everyone has lost someone or something important to them and can easily identify with the main characters when starting from this place of misery.
Law Two: No Love
This is a tricky one as the hero can love someone but their love can’t be the driving force behind their actions. Some good examples of this are Aragorn, Han Solo, Spiderman, and Batman. All of these characters have love interests, wives, partners, whatever you want to call it but all of their journeys take place independent of these significant others. The driving force for each of these isn’t rescuing their loved one, winning their true love etc. in fact, most characters that are driven by love or passion end up being villains: Darth Vader, Gollum, Magneto, etc.
Law Three: No Killing (humans that is)
Almost every great hero ends up killing the antagonist at some point in their story. In some cases there are a few other casualties along the way but in almost no cases do the heroes end up killing a human to win the day. All of these villains are memorable, killed by our heroes and none are totally human: The Alien Queen, Darth Maul, Sauron, Malekeith, Greedo, Ronan, Red Skull, The Terminator, General Grievous, Jabba the Hutt. More often than not, if the villain is a human, they end up committing suicide, falling into a reactor, a vat of acid, a construction site, or a star while the hero tries in vain to save them. Rest assured in most cases, the hero killing their nemesis is accidental or an absolute last resort (Man of Steel).
Law Four: Lots and Lots of Faceless Killing
Star Wars, Avengers, Lord of the Rings, 300. These are some of the highest body count movies of all time and there are almost no humans with faces killed by our heroes in any of them. Star Wars has storm troopers and droids, Avengers has the Chitauri, Lord of the Rings has Orcs and Goblins. By having our heroes slay dozens of faceless cronies we are always on their side. We don’t feel guilty cheering for them. We revel in watching them cut down their foes because we don’t sympathize with orcs or storm troopers in the same way we would a human guard. Look at the good guys in all of these movies, they have armor with their faces showing and all of them are human or very close (elves are the only exception). Whenever our heroes do fight human enemies, they more often than not just knock them out or subdue them. You aren’t going to see Aragorn or Captain America beheading a human henchman.
Law Five: Suicide Mission
What better way to show that a hero is selfless than have them end their movie on a suicide mission? Of course they rarely, if ever, die (300 being the exception). Han flies into the Death Star core, Captain America crashes a plane, Ironman catches a Nuclear Warhead, Frodo and Sam march into Mordor. All of these characters emerge from certain demise relatively unscathed. Apparently a hero is willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good but a real hero does so and survives.