Visual Storytelling 101: The Hero: Shades of the Main Character


Foreword


Humans have been creating stories since the beginning of time. In any form, be it myths and legends, tragedies, poems, novels or movies, all the stories are populated by a variation of the same ancient and, to their core, immutable archetypes. These figures, who appear in narrations of every culture through space and time, are at the very basis of the art of storytelling. This series is intended to analyse the characteristics of an array of characters through a contemporary lens, as even in our time, they are ever-present in every form of visual narration.


Visual Storytelling 101 will be divided in these chapters:

  • Introduction: The Hero's Journey

  • The Hero: Shades of the Main Character

  • The Shadow and the Shapeshifter: the Other, Darker Side of the Coin

  • The Mentor and the Ally: Aid, Direction and Loyalty

  • The Trickster: a Catalyst of Change


The Hero: Shades of the Main Character


The term hero (derived from the ancient Greek word ἥρως) is intrisically embued with a plethora of archaic epic connotations. In ancient cultures a hero was any character, whether they be human or demi-divine creatures, who led their existence with a defining exceptional sense of courage and strength, often in service of a higher purpose and most frequently with an overarching intent to protect others, at times to the point of self-sacrifice. These figures, who, in old myths, were endowed with moral and physical skills that may appear to be far beyond human capacities, have always been the main archetype of the collective unconscious. Their extraordinary characteristics, however, are none other than humankind’s extremized projection of every individual’s most desired qualities and their apologues the representation of every person’s path through life’s wonders and adversities.

(Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014)

As a narrative archetype, the Hero is the absolute nucleus of the tale and the de facto protagonist of the story. The entirety of the narration is built around this figure, as the Hero is the one leaving their ordinary life in order to face the character-molding journey in all its challenges, come across all the other archetypes and finally confront the ultimate enemy in order to emerge from the experience as an improved and wiser version of their old self.


This perilous and forging path, though, is merely a metaphor for life’s trials, as the Hero’s archetype is, in fact, nothing more than the epitomized depiction of every human being experiencing existence, as it “[…] represents the ego's search for identity and wholeness. In the process of becoming complete, integrated human beings, we are all Heroes facing internal guardians, monsters, and helpers.” (Vogler, 2007, p. 30)


On a psychological level, in fact, the Hero represents what Freud defined as the ego, that part of the personality that considers itself different from the rest of the human race. The real task of the Hero’s journey, and of life’s path, is then to ultimately learn to transcend this binding feeling of isolation and incompleteness and integrate all separate parts of oneself into one fully balanced entity.

The Hero usually begins their adventure as a potentially admirable but somewhat childish and unripe figure, their flaws as evident as their strong moral sense, and through the path’s trials and the interplay with all the other characters they discover a deeper side of their own personality, as their struggles are part of a quest for identity of their role within their inner framework more than the societal one. This gradual transformation is fundamentally dependent on the reciprocal exchange with all the other archetypes, as they each represent a different facet of the Hero, who needs to learn how to assimilate all their characteristics in order to gain a full-scale equilibrium. The Hero, as the avatar of the final potential of every real-life individual, is the sum of all the archetypes, whose extremized traits merely represent all the nuanced sides of human nature.


The completion of the Hero’s odyssey towards self-improvement is always accomplished with a sacrifice. Either literally, giving their life for an ideal, a cause or a group, or metaphorically, giving up on something of extreme value to them. It’s the final, awaited, definite purification, a conclusive act intended to denote their journey as a spiritual achievement and the ultimate step towards the possibility of regeneration and rebirth. Sacrifice is the apogee of the Hero’s journey and their true, indisputable mark.


(Peaky Blinders, 2013 - 2022)

Because of their intrinsically indispensable relatability factor, the Hero’s characterization prerogative is to present both universality and originality. They need to be a well-rounded, almost tangible character, comprised of not just a single trait but a unique combination of many qualities and flaws, their resolution and fears recognizably conflicting. They’re the prosopopoeia of the audience’s most quintessentially prototypal motivations and “they are propelled by universal drives that we can all understand: the desire to be loved and understood, to succeed, survive, be free, get revenge, right wrongs, or seek self-expression.” (Vogler, 2007, p. 30)


The Hero’s aim on a dramatic and meta-narrative level is to give the spectator a window into the story, as each person experiencing the tale is invited, in the early stages, to identify with the Hero, to merge with them and see the world of the story through their eyes.


As stories invite the audience to invest part of their personal identity in the Hero for the duration of the narrative act and in a way feel the experience through their point of view, it can be an almost immediate instinct to trust that the archetype is embodied in the first heroic figure presented in the tale. That is, in most visual contemporary products, not necessarily the case. Because of the shifting nature of the archetypes, a single story can present a wide range of Heroes, as the Hero’s only persistent and fixed characteristic is their consistent growth through the story.

(Lost, 2004 - 2010)

In the show Lost, the first image the audience is faced with is that of Jack Shepherd’s eye opening. As he gets up, runs towards the site of the plane crash (as the island is effectively presented as the 'Special World') and immediately takes charge of helping the situation as much as he can, the viewer is initially unconsciously tricked into thinking he is the Hero of the tale. But as the first few episodes of the first season unfold, it becomes almost immediately evident that, if the Hero’s figure is defined by their central role in the story and their personal journey towards a different, better version of themselves, every single one of the main characters on Lost is a Hero. As every episode shines the light on each character’s past and the way their life worked in the 'Ordinary World', and as they all slowly try to adapt to the island’s new way of living, they are also forced to constantly face their own inner demons in order to survive. These characters sometimes represent different archetypes to each other (i.e. John Locke is a Mentor to young Walt, Kate Austen is often a Shapeshifter figure to Jack Shepherd, and Sawyer can sometimes be seen as the Trickster of the group), but they are primarily, through the entire six seasons arc, the Hero of their own journey.

(The 100, 2014 - 2020)

The Hero’s journey is not always linear and straight-forward. There are instances, in storytelling, in which a figure initially unmistakably presented as the Hero winds up entering a path that will clearly lead them to follow their darker side, becoming the Shadow. Or, in other occasions, in a more nuanced approach, the Hero begins to walk a fine and ambiguous line between heroic, anti-heroic and villainous deeds.


In the show The 100, the protagonist Clarke Griffin is originally unquestionably presented as the Hero, as she is the one receiving the Call to Adventure and being forced to enter the New World. In this post-apocalyptic future where the Earth hasn’t been inhabited in almost a century, humanity survives in a conglomerate of spatial stations called the Ark, and Clarke, along with other ninety-nine teenagers, is forcibly sent to a theoretically deathly Earth. As they arrive there and find the planet survivable, she immediately becomes the leader of the group and, as such, the character having to face the most difficult and burdensome choices and moral challenges. From initially widely acknowledged moral compass of the group, as the seasons unravel her role as the de facto leader forces her to make questionable decisions in order to save her people. As she does, she constantly compromises broadly accepted moral values and unwillingly brings upon herself several degrees of resentment not only from her enemies, but from the same people she fought extremely hard to save. The audience is therefore continuously confronted with the objective ruthlessness of her actions, while also being aware of and feeling sympathetic towards the purity of her intentions. As she keeps trying to redeem herself while also being charged with life-altering decisions, her path is a consistently unsteady walk on the very thin thread between the established figures of Hero and Antihero.


The Antihero is a distinctively characterized type of Hero, as they’re the protagonist of the tale but lack most attributes generally associated with the ideal of heroism. The Antihero is, either metaphorically or literally, fundamentally an outcast, distanced from the moral righteous ideals of the society they inhabit and the conventionally ethical values that the viewer might share. Despite their choice or instinct to remove themselves from the commonly established structure of correct moral alignment, most of the times out of self-interest, it is the Antihero’s fallibility that grants them the audience’s sympathy. Their willingness to follow their own internal moral system instead of an outside-imposed code, their evident flaws and their solitude and alienation are a compelling and poignant representation of every person’s most deeply-rooted feelings of loneliness.

(Marvel's Daredevil, 2015 - 2018)

There are mainly two types of Antiheroes. The first, the wounded Antihero, is most of the time a Hero who’s rejected society or been rejected by it. This figure’s motives are at the very least on a morally understandable, if not outright good, level, but their way of conducting their deeds is often times questionable and unconventional. They have the audience’s full sympathy at all times, but the world they reside in has deemed them outcasts.


In the show Marvel's Daredevil, Frank Castle, an already well-known Marvel comics Antihero, is introduced as an almost perfect narrative foil to the main Hero Matt Murdock. Frank, an ex-soldier whose life has been destroyed by criminal activity, takes on the role of the Punisher, acting as judge, jury and executioner of every culprit of the death of his family. He does this following his own code of honor, as he prides himself in saying that he only kills dangerous and evil people, but his personal values are soon opposed by Matt’s more standardized and agreed upon idea that even the worst of criminals shouldn’t die but should instead be brought to justice. Their intense and at times extreme interactions are of great importance for both of these characters, as discussing their similar intents but different executions leads each of them to consider and face some of their worst inner demons.


(How To Get Away With Murder, 2014 - 2020)

The second type of Antihero, also known as the tragic Hero, is a flawed character who “[…] never overcomes their inner demons and is brought down and destroyed by them. They may be charming, they may have admirable qualities, but the flaw wins out in the end. Some tragic Antiheroes are not so admirable, but we watch their downfall with fascination […]” (Vogler, 2007, p. 36)

This category, extremely common in contemporary visual culture, is comprised of notorious examples like Don Draper in Mad Men, Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder or Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders. These figures, despite being largely aware of their own deep-seated issues and being haunted by their past wrongdoings, seem to never be able to defeat their worst instincts. Their constant inner conflict against their own self is, to the viewer, however, deeply compelling in its torturous nature, as it opens a window to the touchingly profound and complex core of human nature.

The Hero, in all its adaptations, is its essence the all-encompassing portrayal of mankind. As traditionally balanced a figure as it may seem, the Hero’s crucial core lies its eclecticism and its many shades, as “the warrior is only one of the faces of the hero, who can also be pacifist, mother, pilgrim, fool, wanderer, hermit, inventor, nurse, savior, artist, lunatic, lover, clown, king, victim, slave, worker, rebel, adventurer, tragic failure, coward, saint, monster, etc.” (Vogler, 2007, p. XXI)


(Game of Thrones, 2011 - 2019)

Bibliographical sources

Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Kindle Version). Retrieved from Amazon.it


Schanzer, E. ; Vitolo, A. (1977) Gli Archetipi dell'Inconscio Collettivo. (C. G. Jung, Trans.). Turin: Editore Boringhieri S.p.a.


Vogler, C. (2007) The Writer's journey: mythical structure for writers (Third Edition). Los Angeles: Michael Wiese Productions.


Visual Sources

Abrams, J.J., Lieber, J., Lindelof, D. (2004 - 2010). Lost [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3MguvNZ


Benioff D., Weiss D.B. (2011 - 2019). Game of Thrones [Photo] https://bit.ly/3Nfcj7y


Goddard, D. (2015 - 2018). Marvel's Daredevil [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3a0vcwS


Knight, S. (2013 - 2022). Peaky Blinders [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3FHz3L4


Nowalk, P. (2014 - 2020). How to Get Away with Murder [Photo] https://bit.ly/3MiI67C

Rothenberg, J. (2014 - 2020). The 100 [Photo] https://bit.ly/3PmN70G


Russo A., Russo J. (2014). Captain America: The Winter Soldier [Photo] https://bit.ly/3FJhASk

Author Photo

Elena Maiolini

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