Category Archives: Fictional Heroes

Why We Love “Star Wars”

star-wars-which-classic-film-have-you-not-seen-ftrBy Bennett L. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Heroes in the real world are in short supply and usually ambiguous.  Consider the three brave men who took down the terrorist on a train in Belgium.  I certainly think of them as heroes, and they did likely save many lives, but, in reality, they waited until it was apparent that the terrorist’s gun had jammed before they rushed him.  In the movies, such heroes would bring down the villain amidst a hail of bullets.

In the original “Star Wars,” a lone orphaned “farm boy” with only some folk wisdom to guide him single-handedly attacks and eliminates the Death Star, the most lethal weapon ever invented.   For forty years now, many of us have waited with much anticipation for the next installment of “Star Wars,” expecting to escape from our own ambiguous and complex world to “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” in which good and evil are easily distinguished.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Green, a social psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, contemplating acts of heroism inspires us to find meaning and virtue in our own lives.  Green invokes the concept of “terror-management,” which refers to the manner in which we deal with the dread of our own mortality.  We know we are going to die –but what of our lives will survive our death?  Heroes – from real ones like Martin Luther King, Jr. to fictional ones like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter – achieve an immortality through their heroism.

In Green’s view, by identifying with the hero, we perhaps find a bit of immortality for ourselves.    For this reason, we identify more with heroes who SausageServlet-4-379489are like us in some fundamental way. Luke Skywalker, from his humble beginnings, must find the courage to do the right thing.  In this way, Luke is an American hero, self-taught, self-made, accomplishing great things because of his will, his inner belief in himself, and just a bit of manifest destiny.   Thus, his triumphs are also ours.

But “Stars Wars” provides other archetypes – so, if Luke is not the hero we identify with, there are other we can.  Hans Solo acts not to right the wrongs of the world, but embodies heroism through loyalty – he won’t leave behind a friend in trouble.  Princess Leia, is already a hero at movie’s start – we admire and aspire to her intelligence, courage, and determination. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a hero past who sacrifices himself so Luke can do what’s right.   Regardless of who we identify with, through that identification, it brings meaning and comfort to our own struggle to make sense of the world.

According to Green, the true hero sees his or his archenemy as redeemable.  This is a fundamentally Christian notion, that even the worst of us can repent and find salvation.  The true hero recognizes this and offers this change to the enemy. In “Star Wars,” this Christian notion of forgiveness emerges many times over, including in the final scene of Episode 6, in which Luke’s faith in the goodness of Darth Vader allows Darth Vader himself to conquer both the evil in himself and the evil that controls him.  At first, this ending may make us uncomfortable – for years, “Darth Vader” was a synonym for evil.  But we also see the complexity of our own lives reflected in the epic struggle of hero and villain, leaving us uplifted by this concept of redemption, so central to our belief system

Thus, deliberately, George Lucas has created an enduring epic myth that appeals to some of our most fundamental beliefs, which spares us – at least for two hours at a time – of the buzzing confusion and ambiguity that is our normal lives.

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Carl Fredricksen: Old Man on a Mission

By Robby Schranze and Brian Guay

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, though not usually in the form of a short old man with a cane.

In Disney Pixar’s 2009 animated film, Up, Carl Fredricksen becomes a hero after he begrudgingly discovers an unwanted passenger aboard his escape to paradise, and gradually sacrifices his life’s goal for this young boy’s happiness.  

After the loss of his wife, Carl lives his life as a recluse.  He sits beside his late wife’s empty chair in their house surrounded by objects and memories as a city grows around him.  Rather than move to a retirement home or give up his house, Carl releases thousands of balloons that lift the house away into the sky.  Though Carl escapes a changing outside world, he brings his inner world (i.e., his house and belongings) with him, not willing to part with this connection to his wife.

Carl crosses a threshold from a journey to his unexpected journey when, floating at 10 thousand feet, a terrified boy knocks on his door and asks to come inside to safety.  In an instant, Carl’s solitude is disrupted and his life is flipped upside down. Yes, grumpy old Carl initially refuses to let Russell inside!

With the 8-year old now at his side, Carl encounters a long dirt road of trials and tribulations that weaves through the deep South American wilderness.  The pair get caught between a rare exotic bird named Kevin, who is trying to find her children, and an evil explorer seeking to capture the bird.  Carl’s selfish nature surfaces one last time when he abandons the bird, alienates Russell, and returns to his beloved house.

However, Carl undergoes a transformation and is called to action once more, though this time not by the selfish, reclusive motives that originally sent he and his house into the sky.  In order to lift the house back into the air to save Russell and Kevin, Carl destroys his precious belongings.  This pure sacrifice of his inner-life for others is a significant turning point in his life and establishes him as a hero.  He later risks his life and nearly falls to his death to save Russell, cementing his new role as Russell’s and the audience’s hero.

After Carl and Russell save Kevin, they return home on a magical flight, crossing the threshold back from their adventure and bringing with them new identities.  Carl fills in as Russell’s father figure at his boy scout ceremony and gives Russell a gift that once belonged to his wife.  This gift marks Carl’s immense transformation from a grumpy, secluded old man to a caregiver, friend, and father figure.  With this change, Carl is able to prove that he is a master of two worlds; he followed his childhood dream to explore the world, and he is able to love and care for someone after the loss of his wife.

Just as not all heroes carry a cane, not all heroes are without challenges and faults.  Faced with immense grief and a selfish attitude, Carl demonstrates the timeless act of transformation, self-sacrifice, and renewal that inspires us all.

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Robby Schranze and Brian Guay are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Will Kane: The Unconventional Hero of High Noon

By Jesse Schultz

In many ways the hero of the western genre has it easy. They’re often tough as nails, a sure and expert shot with a six-shooter or two, and can meet any threat with a steely-eyed resolve. While their opponents can be formidable, in the end these adversaries will be not quite as brave, tough, or good with a gun.

That was what made the portrayal of the character of Will Kane so jarring in the 1952 film High Noon. America was familiar with the western, ranging from well-made dramas to B-grade outings with comedy and song. The plot is a familiar enough one: the lawman of a small frontier town receives word that a bad man and sworn enemy has been released from jail and is en route to meet up with his gang. Revenge is promised and a showdown inevitable.

But already Kane is reluctant to face his old nemesis. Newly married to a Quaker wife (played by Grace Kelly), Kane only wants to retire from his position as Marshal and ride off with his bride — which he actually does at first at the behest of his friends. But he can’t.

Instinctively, Kane knows that he will have to face his enemy, Frank Miller, eventually and he decides that he’d rather do it at his home with a badge and a gun. Here the plot deviates from formula as Kane receives no help from his old friends and even his new wife is urging him to flee. His attempts to recruit deputies is an abject failure and his current deputy will only help if he’s promised the job of Marshal — a position Kane does not believe he’s fit for.

The town is unanimous: despite the crimes Frank Miller has committed or the fact that collectively they outnumber his gang several times over they want Will Kane to take the fight elsewhere. They want no part of it.

Alone and betrayed, Kane is understandably terrified. He has lost his long-time friends, his wife, and soon he is likely to loose his life as Miller is due to arrive by train at high noon. Gary Cooper does an excellent job of portraying Kane’s fear without seeming cowardly. But despite having lost everything he refuses to run. He will face Frank Miller no matter how terrified he is.

In movies we’re accustomed to seeing the hero face down and defeat armies of opponents as if it were merely a day at the office. That is what made High Noon special for its time. Will Kane is understandably fearful in facing a gang single-handedly and knows he would likely face defeat, but he stays anyway.

Still not all appreciated the film and it is said that the later film western, 1959’s Rio Bravo starring John Wayne, is a counter-point to High Noon. Both films have their merits and both have their own depiction of heroism. But High Noon has, I think, the most telling portrayal of a hero. The story of a man, who while completely terrified, opts to stay and do the right thing regardless of the cost.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, really does live in the West and frequently becomes nervous when the clock strikes twelve.  Two of his previous blog posts on Merlin and The Makers of Fire will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.


The Allure of Fictional Non-Human Heroes

By Zack Cerny, Megan McArdle, and Taylyn Hulse

Heroes in fiction are almost always human beings who perform great actions.  Often overlooked are the sizeable number of fictional characters who, despite their non-human status, show many of the most cherished qualities of our very best heroes.  Here are three such heroes:

Yoda from Star Wars

Heroes come in many shapes and sizes.  Sometimes the most unexpected hero becomes the most valiant.  The Star Wars movie franchise is filled with large and powerful heroes and villains.  It is a small, green, elfish character, though, who was the most influential of them all.

Yoda was the highest Jedi Master and was the leader of the Force.  He dedicated himself to the Force and to instructing new Jedi knights for his entire 900-year lifespan.  As he got older, his body weakened but the power of his mind increased.  In teaching new Jedi knights, he could be as comforting as a grandfather but as strict as a drill sergeant.  He adapted his style to be the teacher any Jedi knight needed.

Edward from Twilight

As can be read in Allison and Goethals’s book, Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them, there is a very fine line that separates a hero from a villain.  There are eight traits that describe heroes (called The Great Eight) and eight traits that describe villains (called The Evil Eight).  Interestingly, several traits can be found on both these lists — e.g., smart, strong, resilient, and charismatic.  Heroes only have two traits that villains don’t have – selfless and inspiring.  These two traits make all the difference.

It is precisely these traits of selflessness and inspiration that describe Edward, the heroic vampire of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series.  Edward thus represents a great departure from the evil reputation of the vampire species. In Twilight, Edward comes from a conscientious clan of vampires who have chosen not to prey on human flesh. This is not normal.  Feeding off humans is a natural instinct and even a pleasure for vampires. They are creatures who are designed to hunt humans.  But Edward chose something different.  His selflessness allowed him to find another way another way to live.  This rare restraint is what makes Edward so inspirational.

Selene from Underworld

What does it take to be a hero?  It takes courage, and above all it takes devotion to a noble cause.  Heroes are diverted from their heroic paths but by the end of their story they accomplish that which they set out to achieve.  Heroes defy the odds and make selfless decisions.  Their journey is never easy and is truly the road less traveled.

Selene from Underworld, the movie series, fits the description of a hero who takes the rarely traveled path.  Selene is dedicated to protecting a race of vampires that shuns her.  In doing so she shows true compassion for the lives of beings who are not of her same race.   Moreover, Selene inspires others with her utter fearlessness.  She remains true to her own race even when they mistreat her.  In Underworld, Selene always finds a way to emerge victorious.  Selene shows wisdom far superior to her elders, but never brags.  Ultimately, Selene inspires hope in the darkest of hours, never fears death, and does the right thing in the face of adversity.

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Zack Cerny, Megan McArdle, and Taylyn Hulse are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond.  They are enrolled in Scott Allison’s Social Psychology course and composed this essay as part of their course requirement.

Katniss Everdeen: The Underdog Hero of the Hunger Games

By Ashley Swanson, Kelsey McKenna, & Rodney Barnes

Katniss Everdeen epitomizes an underdog hero in one of the highest grossing movies of all time, The Hunger Games, released in 2012 and directed by Gary Ross.  Katniss represents the classic underdog hero from the first minutes of the film.  She is only 16 years of age and living in one of the poorest districts in the nation of Panem, District 12.  From a young age, she had to provide for her sister and mother by hunting and trading illegally.  As the viewer can see from the beginning, nothing has ever been given to her and she has had to work that much harder than everyone else to survive a difficult life.  Despite the threat of the games, Katniss dreams of making a new life for herself and her family outside the electric fences of the District. One can’t help but be mesmerized and inspired by Katniss as she assumes the classic characteristics of a hero.

At the Reaping, Katniss’s sister, Primrose, is chosen to participate in the Games. Katniss is horrified as she realizes that her 12-year-old sister’s brutal execution will be broadcast to all the Districts as a form of twisted entertainment.  Katniss selflessly volunteers to replace Primrose, marking the first ever volunteer in the history of the Hunger Games. Katniss along with the male tribute, Peeta, are whisked to the capital where they must undergo rigorous training before they can enter the arena to fight.  When the games begin, the audience is shown the ethics and intelligence that Katniss embodies as she does everything in her power to survive the brutality of the games.  She even eludes the Capitol’s efforts to kill her, and at the same time she never harms any of the other competitors.

In selflessly volunteering, Katniss establishes the foundation of her heroic persona.  She will eventually become the voice and face of a rebellion movement against the Capitol.  The Mockingjay pin that is given to her by Prim before she leaves is seen as the symbol of strength and hope.  Later, when Katniss is being crowned victor, President Snow references the pin and Katniss looks him dead in the eye and says sweetly “Thank you. It’s from my District.” With this statement, Katniss is subtly threatening the stability of the Capitol and President Snow as a leader. It is known that the mockingjay represents a failure on the part of the Capitol.  Katniss uses this bird as her symbol of hope and perseverance as she plants the seeds of future heroic actions.

Katniss became the “girl of fire” due to her brilliant entrance during the Opening Ceremony in which she wore a special suit made of flames. This persona takes on another meaning later when the “girl of fire” is metaphorically seen as setting fire to the revolution that will eventually destroy the Capitol.  Heroes and leaders carry certain expectations that they will demonstrate charisma, energy, and magnetism. Katniss is not a charismatic person and it is very difficult for her to grasp the advice from Cinna and Haymitch to present herself as likeable and personable. Her foil, Peeta, helps her with creating her strong public identity. Katniss takes cues from Peeta and eventually is able to act accordingly with the “star-crossed lovers” script that has been created for them. She is also a very ethical and wise competitor in the Games. She refuses to kill except in self-defense. Her main focus is to stay alive and win for her sister because she knows that her distraught mother will not be able to take care of Prim.

Katniss also embodies the heroic idea that “actions speak louder than words.”  She pays tribute to Rue’s memory by decorating the young girl’s body in flowers and then giving the three fingered salute to District 11. This action in itself causes the revolt in District 11 and starts the fire of revolution that will eventually tear through Panem with a vengeance. Without a doubt, Katniss is the true embodiment of an underdog hero, a 16 year old girl who is willing to sacrifice her life for the survival of her family, a young woman who singlehandedly lights the flame that will take hold of an entire nation.

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Ashley Swanson, Kelsey McKenna, & Rodney Barnes are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond.  They are enrolled in Scott Allison’s Social Psychology course and composed this essay as part of their course requirement

Lisbeth Salander: The Underdog Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

One of the most powerful underdog stories in recent fiction is that of Lisbeth Salander, the main character in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Series trilogy.  In several ways, Salander defies the classic hero prototype.  She is a female hero in a world dominated by male heroes, and she is described as small, young, and anorexic looking – hardly the look of a hero.  And as with Harry Potter, another slightly built fictional hero, people underestimate Salander and pay the dearest of consequences for their misjudgment.

The author, Stieg Larsson, was himself an underdog.  Larsson worked as a little-known journalist and photographer in Stockholm, Sweden.  A political activist, Larsson spent years writing the Millennium Series at home at night after work, with no one knowing about his pet project until 2004 when he finally sought a publisher.  Tragically, just before the novels were published, Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50.  He never lived to witness the remarkable success of his trilogy, which has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide and has spawned a highly successful movie franchise.

The lead character of Lisbeth Salander is Larsson’s crowning achievement as an author.  Few fictional characters carry more gripping emotional power.  As a child, Salander witnesses her father, named Zala, brutalize and cripple her mother.  Because Zala is important to Sweden’s central intelligence agency (SAPO), he is shielded from prosecution.  One day, after witnessing Zala savagely attack her mother once again, Salander dowses him in gasoline and sets him afire, causing massive lifetime scarring over most of his body.

To protect Zala, unscrupulous elements within SAPO arrange for Salander to be judged incompetent, institutionalized, and abused by an evil psychiatrist named Teleborian.  Upon reaching adulthood, Salander is released from the hospital but is required to report to a guardian of the state, who is a friend of Zala’s.  The guardian eventually rapes Salander in a most brutal manner.  He is yet another man who has underestimated her.   Recognizing that police officials will not bring her rapist to justice, she exacts revenge by raping him herself and carving a full-body tattoo on him that reads, “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST”.

For some fans of the Millennium Series, Salander’s violent vengeance on Zala and on her guardian precludes her from attaining the status of hero.  For others, Salander’s actions are heroic responses to a society that repeatedly abuses her (and other women) with impunity.  We’ll leave it to you to make the call.

Later in the trilogy there are other formidable men who also make the mistake of harming Salander and then underestimating her ability to inflict far greater harm on them.  These individuals include Zala, Teleborian, and others.  Salander’s aggression toward men is always in self-defense and arises from the fact that SAPO has doctors and law-enforcement in their back pocket.  In the end, Salander finds a way to out-wit SAPO and bring the responsible parties to justice.  And this is another key to Salander’s heroism:  She is extraordinarily intelligent and uses her cunning and her computer skills to stay one move ahead of her adversaries.

Lisbeth Salander is the ultimate underdog.  Her penchant for prevailing over men who have power over her, and who abuse that power, makes for a riveting story.  Although author Stieg Larsson is no longer with us, he has left a rich legacy in his writings of an unforgettable character whom you don’t ever want to cross in Lisbeth Salander.

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