All stories have a protagonist, but all narratives have a hero. So if you’re telling a narrative of your own experiences, then who’s the hero? You, of course! Whether it’s as an individual, a group, or even someone else entirely, there’s real power in framing the subject of your talk as a heroic archetype, or model.
Why an archetype? Because these characters have stayed with us for a reason. They embody something we as a society want or need or think.
Figure out what sort of hero you or your subject is, and you figure out why their story is worth telling. Here are four heroic archetypes you can consider. Of course, you aren’t limited to one. A single person could be all archetypes at different times or when viewed through different lenses.
(You can also check out our infographic summary at the end of this article.)
The little company that takes on the giant mega-corporation. The public defender going against the US government. The tiny nation who goes head to head with the super power. We’re always drawn to stories of people who take on insurmountable odds. The Underdog is the hero we want to root for and see succeed.
The Underdog often follows the Hero’s Journey (a universal storytelling model) more closely than other heroes. They often start out as everymen before walking the path to greatness. Audiences love the Underdog for escapist reasons.
In real life, the bigger and stronger and better funded side wins 99 times out of 100. Since that’s the typical story, we seize on the subversion of a smaller and weaker competitor winning through cleverness and heart. Our brains are scientifically proven to see success from the disadvantaged to be the result of hard work, while the success from the favored is just natural ability.
An Underdog by nature loses more often than they win, and we naturally gravitate towards winners. But if you root for the favorite, you’re crushed if they unexpectedly lose and unsurprised if they win. It’s the opposite for the Underdog: their impossible victory feels incredible while their likely loss is easy to swallow.
A lot of this comes from the phenomenon of “inequity inversion.” Put simply, people inherently want to see contests and competition as fair and balanced. If one side is heavily favored, we’re drawn to the other as a means of “evening the odds.”
Everybody, from billion dollar corporations to presidential candidates, wants to be seen as the underdog. Rags-to-riches success stories, or tales of courageous challenges against horrendous odds permeate our culture. Of course, most stories of people taking on the odds end in them losing— so count yourself lucky if you get to tell the opposite.
A great real-life example of this is Oprah Winfrey, whose rags-to-riches story (from poverty in rural Mississippi to enormous wealth and power) has resonated with millions. The classic American underdog story is Rocky Balboa, the no-name boxer who becomes champion out of hard work, grit, and pure luck.
Or consider the branding of Apple not so long ago—the scrappy whizkids against the gigantic machine that was Microsoft in the early 2000s. Underdog branding allows even examples of enormous success to remain identifiable with their audience.
The freedom fighter who accepts the destructiveness of his cause. The unscrupulous defenders of the downtrodden. The woman who consorts with the very bottom of society to change things at the top. The antihero is anyone whose methods or actions are questionable or even revolting. What makes them a hero is why they do these things—what noble cause drives them. An antihero, in short, is someone who does bad things for a good reason.
The Antihero plays on a base thought that runs through everyone’s mind at some point or another. We see corruption, wrongdoing, evil, or tyranny and think “someone ought to do something about that.” The Antihero does just that, but nobody ever said solving such big problems would be done cleanly. The Antihero always has naysayers, always has those who curse their name. One audience’s Antihero is another’s villain.
And yet the antihero is admirable even to those who hate their guts because of their conviction. It’s one thing to risk your health for the good of others, but the antihero risks their very soul. If they commit enough crimes, they’ll become just as bad or worse than the wrong they once tried to correct. The razor’s edge is always exhilarating to audiences: ask the viewers of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, Dexter…
Note that an Antihero does not necessarily have to commit morally questionable deeds. They can simply be apathetic, alienated, or angry. They simply must be different from a typical heroic archetype through their failings to fulfill the role of an antihero. The antihero may be the most relatable of the heroic archetypes, even more so than the Underdog: after all, few of us are saints.
We’re in the midst of a most antiheroic election. Donald Trump’s fiery rhetoric and insistence on doing what he believes needs to be done has earned him countless enemies, but countless more see him as America’s savior.
The Man With No Name is a cold-blooded killer, but his honor and craftiness make him the closest thing to a hero that the Wild West has got. Or look at Domino’s Pizza, which openly acknowledged that their pizza tasted like crap to a powerful turn-around.
Audiences crave genuineness and honesty, and the surest way to find that is to look for something that isn’t ashamed of its flaws.
The man who rushes into a burning building to save a stranger’s child. The villager who finds herself as a symbol for the fight against tyranny. The housewife who stumbles upon the cure for a terrible illness.
The everyman is just that, a typical person of no real note until the burden of changing the world fell into their laps. Despite being “ordinary,” they accomplish extraordinary feats. The Everyman is the most inspirational of heroes, since their feats could in theory be replicated by anyone.
You see it on the news every day: something terrible happens, and one of countless faces in the crowd steps up against it. Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, mass shootings, major accidents… when enough people are caught in some horror, some of them will fight rather than accept their fate. None of us know how we’ll act in such a situation until we’re in it. A lot of us would like to believe that we could be heroes in the right circumstances, and the Everyman is our inspiration to that end.
There’s a lot of overlap between the Everyman and the Underdog, and most examples of one are an example of the other. The key difference between the two is the Everyman is not an exceptional person. They don’t possess the superhuman perseverance of the Underdog. They were simply in the right place at the right time. The Everyman is thus defined by their courage and self-sacrifice.
Of course, since the Everyman lacks exceptional qualities he may be deeply flawed and imperfect. He may even qualify as an Antihero. You can be as frank as you want about his failings, to show that even a “loser” can be a hero under the right circumstances.
Eminem is a celebrity who has never moved far from his roots as a poor urban youth raised by a teen mother, and has never shied away from pointing out what an unremarkable and flawed person he is— but that makes his success much more inspirational.
Or see John McClane, an action hero who is half the size of Conan or Rambo and cries in pain and fear while plucking shards of glass from his feet— but is beloved for that very vulnerability.
Levi Jeans tries for something similar, foregoing smoky photos of models for more ordinary individuals in urban spaces in their advertisements. They’re a product for normal people, and they frame themselves as such.
The inventor who ignores every single naysayer. The dreamer who cuts through cynical social norms with sheer idealism. The pacifist who brings fighting to a stop with words and kindness rather than weapons.
The Romantic sees the world not as it is, but as it should be and will stop at no end to make their vision so. Driven and individualistic, the Romantic is the sort who rallies others to follow in their footsteps.
An archetype dating back to the ancient Greeks, the Romantic is a person who stands alone for a cause or idea. Art, nature, science, nationalism, all are championed by a Romantic. The Romantic is never deterred by self-doubt or weakness, only the world around them can keep them from their goal.
While their unerring passion earns them loyal followers, the Romantic often has just as many enemies. Many of them are outcasts from society, and some are even wanted criminals. The Romantic sees anything that stands in their way as ignorant, corrupt, or evil. They view the world in black and white, and do not think that The Right Thing is ever complicated or unclear.
Their commitment to their cause gives the Romantic a good deal of overlap with the Antihero, but a Romantic’s methods can be pure as permafrost if that’s what their ideal calls for. If the Antihero is exceptional for the lengths they’re willing to go,
The passion of the Romantic is infectious, earning admiration from even their enemies. The best thing about them is how simple their story is: they view the world in a childish, uncomplicated way which makes them easy to understand and love.
The quintessential modern Romantic is the late Steve Jobs, whose uncompromising vision of the future provoked strong feelings in supporters, rivals, and consumers alike. Or look at Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, the smoldering and charismatic warrior who reluctantly transforms into a great king for the sake of his people.
The best example of a romantic brand today is Dos Equis, whose “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials promoted a mature, assured image of their product that would be compromised for nothing.
Here is our visual summary of this article, created with Visme. Feel free to share the infographic below on your site or blog.
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