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Term Definition

The meaning of the term hero changes subtly depending on whether it is used in a broad or a narrow sense. In the broad sense, a hero is simply synonymous with protagonist. In the narrow sense, though, a hero is a character who exemplifies the traits that his own people and culture find admirable and/or morally good. This narrow use is especially relevant in genres such as tragic drama and epic poetry. The female equivalent of a hero is a heroine.

Definition of hero

The term hero is one of those words that seems to have an obvious meaning, until you start thinking about it. Then things get more complicated. A hero is essentially a main character in a narrative who behaves in a brave or exemplary way. When the audience looks at the hero, they admire him for possessing valuable moral traits (like courage). 

The audience sympathizes with him and "roots" for him; they want him to win. They also identify with him: in the hero, the audience sees a reflection of the best parts of themselves. 

Examples in literature

The quoted sentences below outline clear examples of hero usage in a literature story.

  • "King Arthur's knight Percival was destined to embark on the classic quest of the hero: the search for the Holy Grail." 
  • "Because he killed the terrible dragon and saved the village from the tyranny, the man was remembered as a hero for generations to come." 
  • "The soldier was posthumously recognized as a hero because he sacrificed himself in order to save his comrades." 

In all these examples, the hero is someone who acts in an exemplary way that is respected and admired by others. 

If you are still confused about what the term hero means, here are a couple further points that can clarify the meaning for you. 

1. There are different kinds of heroes. For example, there is the epic hero, who usually overcomes a danger or fulfills a quest of some kind; and there is the tragic hero like Hamlet, who is usually defeated by fate but is admired by others all the same. So, a hero isn't a hero because he "wins". He's a hero just because of the values he exemplifies in his own character. 

2. A related term is "antihero": this is basically a hero who lacks the positive traits associated with a traditional hero. (For example, he may be a cowardly and stupid person.) Sometimes, such a person can be called a "hero", in the sense that he is the main character of a story. But it would be more accurate to call him an antihero. 

Heroes in other contexts

The hero can be found in some of the earliest works of art of all of human culture: in fact, one of the earliest genres of literature is probably the heroic epic. From Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia to the Mahabharata in India to Beowulf in England, there can be seen an impulse by the people of a culture to tell stories about their hero. The fact that this impulse can be seen across all cultures probably means that the concept of the hero is deeply rooted in human nature itself. 

From a psychological perspective, experts have suggested that the concept of the hero is essential to all human beings (including us today), because it is only through heroism that we can become convinced that our lives have meaning. The hero is a mirror who shows the people of a culture their own ideal version of themselves. In this context, the fact that the antihero is perhaps more common in literature today than the hero may be reflective of modern skepticism about whether our lives really do have meaning after all

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