Picking the hero is the first step in planning your story. Heroes are so central in stories that a name can be enough to cause the audience to recall the entire story: Cinderella, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood, but also Harry Potter, Michael Corleone, and Jack Reacher.
But what is a hero? Technically, the hero is the focus of the story. The main character, the protagonist, the person who the story is about.
The hero plays an important role mediating the story for the audience. Lots of people have written about heroes. Christopher Vogler, author of the Writer’s Journey, dedicated a full and clear chapter to the qualities and role of the hero. It’s concise, coherent, and useful – read it! I’ll be combining his insights with my own ideas about both selecting a hero and applying this model to storytelling in both an academic and professional context.
According to Vogler, “the dramatic purpose of the hero is to give the audience a window into the story.” In other words, the audience experience the events of the story through the experience of the hero. Audiences sympathize with the hero and share their journey. When John McClane, Bruce Willis’s Die Hard character, walks on broken glass in his bare feet, the audience winces.
This identification that the audience experiences means the choice of hero shapes the entire story.
Let’s look at Cinderella. Cinderella is the hero. The high and low moments in the story are determined by her experience. She loses the love of her mother, the luxury of a pampered life, and finds herself separated from everything familiar. Then comes the ball and the fairy godmother and the dancing and the shoe and the happily ever after. The audience feels Cinderella’s peace, pain, and ultimate joy.
But what happens if the step-sister is the hero? Then you get Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Maguire rewrote the Cinderella story and told it from the perspective of the younger stepsister. The Cinderella figure, Clara, is petulant and over-protected prior to her mother’s death. In this version, the stepsister is aware of being plain, makes Cinderella’s ball outing possible, and starts a promising conversation with the prince before Cinderella arrives. She isn’t evil but misunderstood.
So, choosing the hero matters because it determines the story and the audience’s point of view. So how do you choose the hero in your story? Sometimes it’s obvious. If you’re using story structure to talk about your career ambitions, you should be the hero of the story. If you’re telling an anecdote about a friend who discovers purpose herself on a solo trip through the jungles of Borneo, then hopefully that person is the hero.
But what if you’re talking about a research project or a new business? Those choices are less obvious more challenging. You have to consider non-traditional choices as well.
If you’re telling a story about medical research, is the hero the researcher, a medication, or perhaps a unique methodology? If you’re an entrepreneur, are you the hero, or is your product, or perhaps the consumer?
What do you need to think about to identify the hero in your story?
Start by considering two things: agency and change.
Agency is basically doing things. It’s being active instead of passive. A hero has agency, they make things happen in the story. According to Vogler, “The Hero should perform the most decisive action of the story, the action that requires taking the most risk or responsibility.” Another way to describe this is that the hero makes things happen around them. They respond actively to the world around them.
The hero must undergo a personal transformation during the course of the story, they are “the one who learns or grows the most in the course of the story” writes Vogler. The journey described in the story has to fundamentally change the hero so that their interactions with the world and people that were familiar at the beginning of the story are changed by the end of the story.
Keeping these two key qualities in mind, change and agency, you can pick the hero for your story or shape the story to make your hero heroic.
These criteria give the story crafter something to work with.
How does this approach translate to academic or business storytelling?
In medical research, a researcher hero sees a problem, sets out to understand or fix it, and has positive or negative resolution at the end of the study.
A medication hero is active in the body or blood stream, acting on cellular level. When introduced, it is full of potential. Through the course of a study it encounters obstacles and has triumphs. By the end, it is either a success or relegated to the bin of failed projects.
A methodology hero starts out as a newcomer in a field of well-tested methods. If it can survive the trials of scientific rigor, it can change the way an entire field works.
In business, entrepreneur heroes are those who are driven to make a change in the world. They face external and internal obstacles and emerge (hopefully) victorious.
A product or service hero can change the way people interact with their environment if it can overcome the challenges of design, production, and finding its niche. Some products, like the iPod or AirBnB, will change an entire market or the way society interacts.
The consumer hero can change their own lives and possibly the lives of their family or business by using a particular product or service, if they are willing to take the chance.
The hero you select will ultimately lead your hero. They will be associated with the story, a singular image or individual that refers to the story you want to tell.
Who’s the hero in your story?