We Need a Hero:
A Look at the Eight Hero Archetypes

(May 14, 1999)

By Tami Cowden

I have never agreed with the old saw that all romances are alike. However, I do agree there are certain similarities. Besides the happy ending, you can count on a romance having a terrific hero – the kind of guy everyone loves to love.

Or can you? The truth is, just as in real life every woman has her own taste in men, every romance reader has her own taste in heroes. One woman’s dream date is another’s nightmarish evening. The hero I sigh for may make your eyes roll.

There was a time when the so-called “Alpha” hero reigned supreme among romances, but even if we could all agrees on what an “alpha” male is, we wouldn’t all like the fellow. Adding beta, gamma and delta to the list gave us a little more insight, but it still seemed a bit limited to my critique group, composed of Caro LaFever, Sue Viders, and little ole me. ]]>

It was, in fact, in an attempt to determine just which heroes of literature were the fabled “alpha” males that my two partners and I came across an interesting discovery. There are eight heroic archetypes.

Yep. That’s right, count ‘em. Eight And, somewhat to our surprise, these archetypes are not reserved for romance, but found in all genres, and in all media – stage, film, and literature. And, we also discovered there are eight heroine archetypes – something you don’t hear about too frequently.

We came to this conclusion after a great deal of research, during which, in addition to our usual fiction reading, we reviewed the characters found in movies and plays. In all, we considered about 500 productions, and in the process, wrote a book: Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes. Sue, Caro and I presented two two programs at the RWA Conference in Chicago on Friday evening – Beyond Alpha and Beyond Cinderella, in which we presented the archetypes we have discovered.

Meanwhile, here is a peek at the heroes and how each reacts in a similar situation.

The Eight Male Archetypes

The Chief

This hero is the quintessential alpha hero. He might have been born to lead, or perhaps he conquered his way to the top, but either way, he’s tough, decisive, goal-oriented. That means he is also a bit overbearing and inflexible.

This man tends to be at the top of his career field – maybe the CEO of a major corporation, or a prince. If he’s not already number one, it’s only a matter of time

Some examples of Chiefs:

  • John Wayne in most of his movies
  • Captain Kirk of Star Trek
  • Marlon Brando in The Godfather

In romance novels, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ hero in The Flame & the Flower was a Chief, and many of the Harlequin Presents books have Chief heroes.

If this man were trapped in a basement with an unconscious heroine and a bomb ticking, his first reaction would be anger, which he would, of course want to take out on someone else. He can never admit he’s made a mistake, and since he’s been trapped, well…he knows he’s made a mistake. So he’s pretty darned mad.

He’s used to being in charge, so he’s going to make a command decision about what to do. He’ll make it quickly and the act. Not long planning time for him. He might find a way out by just charging through the locked door or windows. Or maybe he’ll get on his cell phone – trust me, he has one – and demand that someone come get him out.

The Bad Boy

This is the rebel, or the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s bitter and volatile, a crushed idealist, but he’s also charismatic and street smart. He hates authority and doesn’t buckle under to anyone, which is why he often chooses jobs where he’s his own boss. In western historicals, he’s the perfect outlaw.

Some examples of Bad Boys:

  • James Dean in just about every movie he made
  • Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing
  • Jack Nicholson often plays Bad Boys
  • Fonzie from Happy Days was a great example of the lighter side of the Bad Boy

In romance, he’s the hero in Teresa Medeiros’ Nobody’s Darling, C.L. in Jennifer Crusie’s Tell Me Lies, the regency hero of plenty of Joan Smith’s romps, and you can often find him in Silhouette Intimate Moments books, or in Harlequin Temptations.

If this man were trapped in the basement with an unconscious heroine and a bomb ticking, he’d be very physical. He’s going to be resentful and have a bad attitude, but he’s used to being in tight spots. He’s a Bad Boy, after all. He’ll enjoy beating the stuffing out of those walls. Maybe he’ll just pick the lock, he’s done that sort of thing before! Or does he go way back with one of the villain’s henchmen, who’ll look the other way while he makes his escape?

The Best Friend

This is the beta hero. He’s kind, responsible, decent, a regular Mr. Nice Guy.

This man doesn’t enjoy confrontation and can sometimes be unassertive because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But he’ll always be there.

We all knew this guy in high school and didn’t appreciate him. If we were smart, though, he’s the guy we married. He’s a people person and he’ll always put the needs of others first.

Who are Best Friends? Well, Tom Hanks almost always plays a Best Friend in his movies. Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping is a fine example, and Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life pretty much defines the type.

In romance, you can often find Best Friends in some of the light comedy lines like Harlequin Duets. Many of LaVyrle Spencer’s heroes are Best Friends.

Trapped in the basement, this man would be incredulous. Things like that just don’t happen to him! But his first act would be to care for the heroine. He, alone of all the archetypes, would actually seek her help, because he knows the value of teamwork.

He’s practical, down to earth, so he’d assess what could be done and get to work. He’ll be very determined because he’s responsible for the heroine. Getting his lady and himself out of this situation will be a real confidence booster for him, too.

Rescue is a real possibility, because he’s made friends and done favors for everyone. Everyone likes him. Even the villain thinks it’s a shame to have to get rid of such a nice guy.

The Charmer

We’ve all known these types. Fun, irresistible, a smooth operator, yet not too responsible or dependable. He might be a playboy or a rogue, but he’s doesn ’t commit to a woman easily He’s not crazy about hard work, and he might be in sales, or a gambler in the wild west.

Examples of Charmers:

  • Ferris Bueller shows what this guy was like in high school.
  • Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I
  • Cary Grant made his name playing charmers

In romance you can find him in some of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s books – Heaven Texas or Lady Be Good. Light comedy also works well with this hero, so he might appear in Duets, or in Harlequin Americans.

If this guy’s trapped in the basement, he’ll be smooth. In fact, this fellow might try to talk his way out with the bad guys. Only as a last resort would he do something physical, like break out. Of course, he just might be rescued by an old girlfriend who happens along. After all, he’s a playboy and knows everyone!

The Lost Soul

Tortured, secretive, brooding, and unforgiving. That’s this man. But he’s also vulnerable. He might be a wanderer or an outcast. In work he’s creative, but probably also a loner, so he might be an undercover cop, or do something artistic.

Examples of Lost Souls:

  • Heathcliffe, of course, defines the type
  • Hamlet
  • Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck
  • Angel from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer

In romance, Laura Kinsale and Mary Jo Putney tend to write Lost Souls, and you can probably find him in some of the Silhouette Intimate Moments books. Any vampire or Beauty and the Beast type book probably has a Lost Soul as the hero.

If a Lost Soul is trapped in the basement, he’ll be fatalistic. This is just another example of the series of despairing events that have punctuated his life. It’s a good thing the heroine is there, because otherwise, he might just throw in the towel. But he won’t let the villains kill her, so he will save them both.

He’ll have a surge of adrenaline, bashing against doors and windows. He’s able to call up enormous physical strength in a situation like this. Think of Quasimodo, when he saves Esmerelda.

He’s the most likely to know of a hidden tunnel through which they can escape, since he’s lived most of his life in the shadows. Rescue? Well, no old friend will show up, that’s for sure, unless it is an old friend of the heroine’s. The Lost Soul has no friends.

The Professor

The first time you meet him, this logical, introverted, and inflexible guy might not be your idea of a hero, but take another look. He is genuine about his feelings. At work, he likes cold, hard facts, thank you very much, but he’s also honest and faithful, and won’t let you down.

Best examples of Professors?

  • Spock or Data from Star Trek
  • Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day
  • Kelsey Grammer on Frasier – in fact, Nils Crane is also a professor, it’s fun to see two version of the same type together

In romance, Jayne Ann Krentz writes Professors, which she also does under her Amanda Quick pseudonym. Pair him with a ditzy heroine, and you have a great hero for light comedy. Remember Jennifer Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal?

Put a Professor in a basement with an unconscious heroine and a ticking bomb and he’ll stay calm, cool, and collected. He’ll push his glasses back up his nose and get to work on defusing the bomb. This man will analyze all the facts of the situation, make calculations, and see all the small details around him. He’ll think his way out. And oh yes, he’ll remember the heroine, too.

The Swashbuckler

This guy is action, action, and more action. He’s physical and daring. Fearless, he’s a daredevil, or an explorer. He needs thrills and chills to keep him happy.

Examples: Indiana Jones, of course. Also, Jackie Chan in all of his movies, and Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone.

In romance, he’s the perfect pirate. Read Karen Robards and Fern Michaels – they like Swashbucklers. A bomb in the basement? Hoo boy, he’s happy now. What an adventure! The Swashbuckler might use the explosion of the bomb itself to blast a way out. That way, he’ll get to hear the bomb go off! However he gets out, it’ll be a show.

Rescue? Bite your tongue. He doesn’t need any help!

The Warrior

This man is the reluctant rescuer or the knight in shining armor. He’s noble, tenacious, relentless, and he always sticks up for the underdog. If you need a protector, he’s your guy. He doesn’t buckle under to rules, or and he doesn’t go along just to get along.

Examples of Warriors? Dirty Harry, and most any Steven Seagal character. Check the Die Hard movies too. For a lighter version, try TV’s Hercules. Most superheroes are Warriors .

In romance, Suzanne Brockmann and Linda Howard write Warriors. Rosemary Rogers favors this type, too. Trap this man in a basement and his reaction is going to be pure outrage.

He’s a protector, so his focus will be getting her out. But once they’re out, the villain better start running. The Warrior will hunt him to the ends of the earth.

Forget about rescue. This man is the cavalry.

Well, there you have them. The Eight Male Archetypes. The men we love. What writers do you know who use these archetypes? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us at Tamicowden@aol.com; Carlaf1@aol.com; viders@worldnet.att.net. We’ll add you to our mailing list.

And stay tuned for the Eight Female Archetypes. The Women We Want to Be.

Tami Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders will be speaking about these heroes at the RWA National conference in Chicago on July 30, where they’ll do workshops on both the eight heroes, and the eight heroine archetypes.

Tami Cowden was awarded the Golden Heart at the 2000 RWA Conference for unpublished authors

Read Tami’s article on heroine archetypesRead about heroes in this issue of Laurie’s News & ViewsRead author Eileen Charbonneau’s article on heroesRead Tami’s article on the 1999 RWA National ConferenceRead Tami’s article on the 1998 RWA National ConferenceRead an AAR Review of Love Triumphs, an anthology to which Tami contributed Search our reviews database by Title or Author by Titleby Author’s Last Nameby Author’s First Name Do a more in-depth review search via Power Search

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