Anime Archetypes: The Unlikely Hero
Is Everyone Born for Greatness?
Not everyone believes that they were born for greatness like your classic shounen heroes. That’s why the “unlikely heroes” exist. They connect with the audiences that go through more internal than external struggles that tend to harbor the potential they have within them. These characters exist in order to reach out to those that feel the same and send the message that gradual strength can be just as valuable as granted strength. They appear trapped inside themselves, which, unfortunately, translates to wimpy, pathetic, or melodramatic, but these introspective characters remind us to reflect upon weakness in order to make our worst traits into our best.
Most Common Alignment: Lawful or Neutral Good
Strengths: Considerate, Sensitive, Self-Reflecting, Focused, Courageous
Weaknesses: Self-critical, Low self-esteem, Self-pitying, Fearful
Six "Must-Have" Qualities for the Unlikely Hero
- Starting Out Small, but Dreaming Big: The unlikely hero was probably quiet and timid when they were younger (classic Dandere traits). In fact, they were probably invisible to most since it seemed that life would just go on while the unlikely hero is trapped within their insecurities. However, living this way should bring out the desire to be acknowledged as something more than what they currently are. They probably know that there is something about their dream that can transform them into something great, but their fears hold them back. It’s important to make it clear that they want to be recognized as something more, but are held down by the belief that they are too insignificant to succeed. Keep in Mind: Who or what do they want to be acknowledged by? What happened in their past that led them to believe they couldn’t reach their dreams? As the author, do you want your hero to realize their dream immediately or later?
- A Traumatic Event Pours Salt into the Wounds: Usually, the unlikely hero experiences something that forms a permanent, negative experience in their psyche that causes them to blame it on themselves. They consider themselves “too weak” to prevent what happened in the past, but the fact that they uphold themselves to such a high standard reinforces a hidden strength they have. This event is usually the loss of a loved one, such as a parent, friend, or guardian. It could’ve been an accident that they couldn't forgive themselves for or they could've been framed for the accidental or purposeful event. Keep in mind: This scenario is supposed to be one of the most horrible or embarrassing things that has ever happened to them. It adds fuel to the fire of self-loathing.
- More Challenges than Friends: The people the hero interacts with exist to remind the hero that all the negative thoughts he has of himself are true, but they really aren't. These people don’t solely exist to bully the hero, but to challenge the hero to either embrace who they really are or give up completely. The unlikely heroes will stir up enough courage to stand up for themselves. The first couple of confrontations may be failures, but eventually those challengers will acknowledge the hero as either a rival or a friend. In addition, the hero may already have a companion beside them that does their best to fend off the challenges until the hero gets their strength, but that may lead the hero to resent their companion as a way of projecting the hatred they have for themselves. This companion may be a close friend or a teacher. Keep in mind: Every main or supporting character is meant to challenge the hero to rise up whether it’s through bullying or guidance. When the hero does rise, the other characters will either respect them or push harder.
- When Opportunity Knocks – Your unlikely hero will stumble into a world of opportunity in two ways:
- They stir up enough courage to seize the chance themselves.
- They are pulled into this world without a choice in the matter and have to go along with the ride whether they’re afraid or not.
- When the unlikely hero is thrown into a world or an event that is meant to challenge their strength, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb. The characters around them will not only taunt and challenge your hero, but also provide a chance for the hero to show their potential. Your hero may have smarts rather than brawn or have brawn they didn’t think they had. This is the moment to debut your hero’s specific skill or weapon that is specialized just for them. Keep in mind: This is the moment where your hero will start seeing themselves in a positive light. This is improvement for them, but it should also foreshadow that things will be more challenging for them from here.
- Motivation is the Best Muse – As trials continue for your hero, they may lose sight of their dream or be lead astray either by distraction or discouragement. That is why the unlikely hero will have a muse or a teacher beside them. The hero’s muse is most commonly a romantic interest, but it can also be a different type of companion or perhaps a role model the hero has never met. Approval or support from the teacher could also act as a muse for the hero, but the teacher will probably have a “tough love” mentality so the hero can grow stronger. Keep in mind: The muse(s) of a hero are their saving grace. Make sure it’s something or someone the hero naturally connects to.
- Zero to Hero – The Transformation – The transformation is the moment or a series of moments where the character starts to establish a sense of genuine strength and confidence. The unlikely hero’s transformation usually occurs in two ways:
- The gradual transformation is an increase in strength or self-esteem over time. Usually various trials will show your character “growing up”.
- The transformation occurs for the character instantly and is most likely the climax of the plot. The hero ends up having a revelation about themselves, those around them, or the life they’ve lived and this persuades the character to live and make choices differently from then on.
- When the transformation occurs, it must be impactful and memorable to the audience and the characters involved in the hero’s life. The hero may not even realize their new strength at first, but it must be apparent to everyone that assumed this character would amount to nothing. Keep in mind: This moment is meant to strike fear in those who doubted your hero and inspiration in those who believed in them.
Now to Brainstorm
We have an idea of what the "unlikely" or "wimpy" hero is usually like. Now, it's time to think outside the box and tackle some ideas that will make the hero stand out as an original character.
- What if the guilt of the hero’s past is more than they can bear? Depending on the past event, this could lead the hero to be more self-pitying or even darker. It could segue into your character becoming anti-hero or becoming hopelessly lost. This is a great opportunity to allow your character to experience something remarkable in their lives. Don’t be afraid to dig too deep. For example, Cloud was very quiet and timid before Zack came into his life. Zack's death led Cloud down a pretty dark path of guilt and despair before he could rise up and put those he loved before himself.
- What if...Gender Exchange: Fetch from Infamous was a character that was sort of on the “anti-hero” track, but had to live with the guilt of killing her brother. She was also self-sacrificing and a bit obsessive within her past. She was riddled with flaws and even had a body count, but she did her best to redeem herself by conquering the people that manipulated her. Strength and revenge was her desire more than anything. Once again, never be afraid with manipulating the physical aspects of your character. You want your audience to focus more on their complexities than their gender, but use your hero's physical traits to enhance their characteristics.
- What if this kind of hero had an honorable death? We've seen the classic hero die with honor, but the unlikely hero usually doesn't encounter death. Most stories end with this kind of hero living life peacefully and happily before more trouble comes their way. If this character were to die, it would be heartbreaking, but a hero is meant to live on past their deaths and this type of hero can certainly accomplish that.
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© 2014 Kris Colvin