5 Hero Archetypes You Should Know

From classic heroes to enigmatic antiheroes, uncover the complexity and evolution of cinematic heroism. Here are 5 film hero archetypes.

Sep 26, 2023By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication

hero archetypes you should know


Heroes are usually the central characters of a story, the main characters who must prove their true worth through actions and sacrifices. In the captivating world of cinema, heroes aren’t confined to traditional molds. They are diverse and enigmatic and they even redefine heroism itself. From victors and champions to morally complex antiheroes, this article ventures into the realm of 5 fascinating hero archetypes that we see in films.


Everybody Needs a Hero: Unmasking the Layers of Hero Archetype

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Hero with Cape. Source: Paxus


Everybody needs a hero, although it is not so common to meet one in everyday life. The public has an infinite need to read about them in literature or see them in action in theatrical plays or on the big screen. Most of the time, heroes are known for their honesty, kindness, and courage. These strong characters overcome their limits and the challenges they face in order to restore balance in the universe. In the grand scheme of things, the Hero of a story is not a regular person. Heroes are always a bit above us. They are superior beings with skills, talents, courage, and integrity. These ingredients lead to the constant success of any Hero-protagonist. Here are 5 hero archetypes that we see in many films.


1. Classic Hero: Unveiling Legends

hercules animation classic hero archetypes
Hercules by Disney, 1997. Source: Areajugones


The Classic Hero was born in order to meet the needs of his era. The concept of the classic hero serves as a mirror for their society and their time. Stories of Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and even Hercules are only a few examples of Classic Heroes from different times who leaped from the world of literature onto the big screen with remarkable success.


2. Tragic Heroes: Aristotle and the Three Pillars of Ancient Tragedy

hero archetypes greek theater masks
Terracotta theatrical masks, 1st century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Tragic Hero is one of the oldest protagonist types since the earliest documented stories. This type of hero has left a lasting mark on theatre, television, and film. Tragic Heroes clash strongly with forces that threaten their spiritual values. In ancient Tragedy, as well as in modern literature and cinema, the Tragic Hero is a person of noble origin with heroic traits who also has a fatal flaw that defines him by leading him to his inevitable downfall and constant suffering. Most of the time these heroes face a dilemma that could shatter their world. Aristotle, studying in depth the works of others, noticed the recurring patterns of characteristics in the popular protagonists—so he noticed heroes. According to Aristotle, “The change of fate should not be from evil to good, but vice versa from good to evil”.


aristotle bust marble
Marble head of a philosopher (possibly Aristotle), 1st or 2nd century. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Aristotle’s tragic hero is the main protagonist of a Greek Tragedy. This particular type of hero is always a prisoner of his own destiny. His life is marked by a traumatic experience that leads to his misfortune. The most popular Tragic Heroes emerged from Ancient Greek literature, mainly from the works of Euripides and Sophocles.


The Ancient Greek Theater formed the basis of the Western Theater of the modern era. It also influenced the world of literature and film all over the globe. Many fictional characters are seen as evolutions of the Tragic Hero archetype.


The characteristics of the Tragic Hero are linked to the three pillars of ancient tragedy, according to Aristotle. Pillar number one is the sin, the second is the adventure, and the third is the recognition. Hamartia or sin is the tragic flaw that leads the hero to a massive downfall. It is often a blatant personality trait such as arrogance or hubris. Peripeteia, or the adventure, is a turning point. It features a steep change in the flow of a story. It can be an action or a specific event that changes the narrative and exposes the hero’s flaw. Anagnorisis or recognition is the critical point that happens when the hero realizes the burdens of his actions and his identity.


macbeth shakespeare tragic hero
Poster for Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, 1967. Source: MutualArt; next to the poster for Macbeth film by Shakespeare, 2015. Source: IMDB next to Anakin Skywalker in Starwars, Episode III, Revenge of the Sith by George Lucas, 2005. Source: Pxfuel


In Sophocles‘ play Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s pursuit of truth is tainted by arrogance, revealing the prophecy he unknowingly fulfilled. Shakespeare’s Macbeth portrays a loyal General consumed by ambition due to mystical witches, leading to the ultimate guilt-driven tyranny. Anakin Skywalker’s transformation in Star Wars exemplifies the motif of the Modern Tragic Hero, shifting from a gifted Jedi to a dark villain due to his fears and desire for total control. These famous narratives collectively emphasize themes like human instinct, ambition, and redemption, reflecting the eternal battle between darkness and light. In the grand scheme of things, all people think that their flaws could mark them negatively.  These innate perceptions make Tragic Heroes timeless since the audience can relate to them.


3. Romantic Hero: Hearts Aflame

romantic period chopin romantic hero
Chopin concert by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1829. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The concept of the Romantic Hero first appeared in the literature of the Romantic period from the late 18th to mid-19th century. The Romantic Movement is based on the idea of the supremacy of the human spirit over matter. This particular idealized hero is portrayed as a tormented reactionary individual who cannot accept the established rules and conventions.


Romantic Heroes draw strength from their deep passions, allowing their emotions to guide their actions and decisions. This emotional intensity gives them a strong sense of purpose. Most of the time, they decide to walk alone, feeling superior to those who do not understand them. The Romantic Heroes are in constant conflict with their own personalities and the society around them.


Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


For the Europeans of the 19th century, Lord Byron was not only the father of the Romantic Hero but a glorious embodiment of it too. The Byronic hero has been characterized as a wandering and marginal figure who subverts social norms and acts according to personal moral codes. The Byronic hero is characterized by passion, arrogance, cynicism, melancholy, guilt, and self-destructiveness.


4. Folk Heroes:  Legends Among Us

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America Its Folklore. Source: Saladogt; next to Robin Hood by Disney, 1973. Source: Disney; next to Mulan by Disney, 1998. Source: Disney


The Folk Hero can be a real or imaginary person. Folk heroes are mentioned in fairy tales, folk songs, and literary texts. Many folk heroes originate from oral storytelling traditions when their stories are passed down through generations by word of mouth. Folk heroes exist in many cultures around the globe. Examples include Robin Hood and King Arthur in England, Mulan in China, and Joan of Arc in France. The term Folk Hero is also used for a character that is popular and has earned the respect of common people.


5. Antihero: The Complex Charisma of an Enigmatic Hero Archetype 

walter white heisenber breaking bad antihero
Heisenberg of Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan, 2008-20013. Source: Maclean’s


An antihero is a type of protagonist that is defined by his focus on self-interest. Always trapped within his big ego, pursuing his ambitions without any sign of guilt, he strives against society’s norms. Most of the time, the Antihero faces society’s rejection and follows a predetermined self-destructive path, typically ending in death and isolation. These characters are obsessed with wealth, power, fame, and ultimately, the goal of overcoming the system. Failure and loneliness are common in an antihero, while a regular hero achieves success at any cost, even if it means sacrificing his own life.


The archetype of the antihero has been used in different narratives for over 4,000 years. The first antiheroes can be traced back to the 2nd millennium and the Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the earliest recorded stories involves Gilgamesh, the king of Mesopotamia. Experiencing an unexpected death, the death of his closest friend, he becomes vulnerable as he faces his own mortality. This haunting realization triggers a change in his perspective on life and death.


gilgamesh statue Khorsabad anti hero
Statue of Gilgamesh in Khorsabad, late 8th century BCE, at Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Source: Harvard Wiki


Epic of Gilgamesh portrays Gilgamesh not as the typical hero, but as a complex Antihero. Initially arrogant and self-centered, he mostly tyrannizes his own people. However, his quest for immortality transforms him into a different man. Gilgamesh’s evolution from a reckless ruler to a reflective seeker showcases multiple antiheroic traits and flaws.


Gilgamesh’s fear of death is so profound that his life turns into a unique quest for immortality, hoping to escape his fate through the mythical elixir that promises eternal life. His efforts lead to failure, so symbolic immortality through heroism seems to be his only way to success. While his body may perish, as long as his name and legend endure, Gilgamesh will live on in a symbolic form forever and ever. Like many other ancient myths, this particular story contains a potential truth—perhaps the fear of death is the most potent motivator for action.


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Shakespeare by George Henry Hall, 1896. Source: RSC; next to Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872. Source: Columbia University; next to Albert Camus. Source: Pinterest


Famous authors define character’s depth and ethics in their timeless stories. We can dive into the world of Antihero-protagonists through the works of Shakespeare, Camus, and Dostoevsky. Iago’s mastery of manipulation in Othello, Meursault’s emotional detachment in The Stranger, and Raskolnikov’s complexity in Crime and Punishment are only a few examples that challenge the standard hero norms. A well-crafted Antihero remains an enticing archetype. Subconsciously, antihero’s actions compel us to ponder and delve into our inner thoughts. Are we as ethical as we think we are? Is our fate predetermined? Do we feel more alone than we care to admit? These and many more questions are the seeds that antiheroes plant in the back of our minds.

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By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.