Category Archives: Fictional Heroes

Atticus Finch and the Life Lessons of Moral Courage

UntitledBy Sophia Grillo

One of the most admirable actions that a human being can perform is an act of moral courage. Moral courage is aimed at stopping the unfair treatment or degradation of individuals by reinforcing moral standards and values. The key to a morally courageous act is having the ability and willingness to overcome barriers and to withstand pushback from others.

One fictional character who demonstrates a great act of moral courage is Atticus Finch. Not only did he defy the majority and put his family in danger, he stood by his beliefs in honor of racial equality.

To Kill A Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, takes place in a racist white community of Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus Finch, the father of Jem and Scout Finch, is a prominent lawyer and financially prosperous compared to the rest of his community. Putting the community’s racist beliefs aside, Atticus agrees to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell.

When the trial begins, Tom Robinson is placed in the local jail and an angry mob of white men tries to lynch him.  Atticus confronts the mob the night before the trial. Jem and Scout, who have sneaked out of the house, soon join him. Jem and Scout are exposed to the horrors of the racist community that they live in and face verbal abuse from other Maycomb citizens.

At the trial itself, the children sit in the “colored balcony” with the town’s black citizens. Atticus provides clear evidence that the accusers, Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob, are lying. Despite overwhelming evidence pointing toUntitled Tom’s innocence, the all-white jury convicts him. Tom later tries to escape from prison and is shot to death.

Atticus’ decision to defend Tom Robinson is an act of moral courage for multiple reasons. Atticus was one of the few people of Maycomb who believed in racial equality. It took great courage to challenge the racist climate of that time. It would have been much easier for him to align with the majority than to fight for the rights of one black man.

Another reason Atticus’ actions can be seen as morally courageous is because his decision to defend Tom put his family in danger. The exposure of the Finch family during the trial caused Scout and Jem to face constant harassment from other children and adults in Maycomb. Although Atticus knew that his family would face this horrific kind of treatment, he decided that the life lessons of this experience far outweighed any negatives.

Atticus showed his children firsthand a hard lesson about right and wrong, and that sometimes the unpopular road is the right road. Witnessing their father’s actions, Jem and Scout are able to learn for themselves to stand up for truth and justice no matter what the consequences. Atticus spreads moral courage without even realizing it.

Atticus also stuck to his beliefs. One of the most important characteristics of morally courageous people is that they remain committed to their ideas despite all consequences. In this case, Atticus knew what he was getting into when he decided to defend a black man. Instead of letting the ignorance of others discourage him, he continued to put on a fair trail and taught his children valuable lessons along the way.

Psychologist Anna Halmburger has recently proposed an Integrative Model of Moral Courage and Relevant Determinants. She outlines five steps leading to morally courageous behavior. First, one must notice the situation; second, they have to interpret the situation as a “norm violation”; third, they must accept responsibility to act; fourth, they must possess intervention skills; finally, they must decide to take the intervening action.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Courtroom drama film in which Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge. Stars: Gregory Peck. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Courtroom drama film in which Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge. Stars: Gregory Peck. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

Atticus Finch goes through each of these decision stages leading up to the trial. He acknowledges the accusation of Tom Robinson and the fact that racism is a huge problem in Maycomb. He then accepts responsibility as a lawyer that everyone deserves a fair chance no matter what his or her skin color. He ignores personal constraints like what consequences he and his family would face. And finally, he intervenes with strong evidence that Tom Robinson is innocent.

The difference between moral courage and heroism is that moral courage is much more personal than heroism. For example, Atticus personally believes that racial inequality is wrong. Halmburger writes, “moral courage is aimed to protect moral values and standards.” In other words, the main purpose of morally courageous acts is to spread and enforce positive and personal morals. Atticus not only spread his morals but he also protected the rights of another citizen even if the town did not agree.

At the end of her article, Halmburger writes, “The more everyone contributes to the protection of moral values in their daily lives, the fewer heroes will be needed to show morally courageous behavior.” The world needs more people like Atticus Finch. The more people who try to spread and protect positive morals, the fewer societal problems there will be. The whole purpose of Atticus defending Tom Robinson was his hope that his moral stand would become contagious and lead to the defeat of racial inequality.

Personally, I believe that moral courage is more admirable than heroism because anyone can be a hero. It takes real strength to stick to your beliefs in the face of tremendous adversity and discomfort while ignoring all possible consequences. Atticus states “if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again. […] Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.” (9.16-21) This quote shows that this trial was more than just defending an innocent victim. It was about doing the most good and letting nothing stand in the way of personal values and beliefs.

Overall, Atticus Finch was definitely not viewed as a hero to anyone in Maycomb. However, his bold actions of moral courage showed that it didn’t matter if people viewed him as a hero. What mattered was the lesson and example he set for his own children and his bravery in going against an entire town for the sake of one man’s rights. His action reflects the qualities of a truly moral lawyer and remarkable human being. It makes Atticus Finch as admirable, if not more so, than any hero.


Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Kramer, R. M. (Eds.) (2017). Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

Halmburger, A., Baumert, A., & Schmitt, M. (2017). Everyday heroes: Determinants of moral courage. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.


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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