Heroes I: The Hero Complex

I’m starting off broad spectrum, with one of my personal favorite “afflictions” that a protagonist can possess. I like the strange places that this complex takes characters, and the internal moral debate usually following a compromise is oddly exciting. Sometimes the profound need to be good and righteous can become drawn out and overplayed. And the self-righteous characters usually have a fall into the role of the villain. Who was it that said “We are all the heroes of our own life story”? Either way, I like the complex and shifting character arc that this “affliction” produces, both in the protagonist and in the surrounding characters.

Mostly, the Hero complex is used and viewed as a dramatic instrument, but it is also a real and studied condition. Perhaps not technically a disease or entirely diagnosable, yet it is like many social and personality disorders. Movies and books take the Hero complex outside of the strict psychological definition, but I’m sure we all know that there is a separation from reality in most books and movies about saving the world. Actual psychoanalysis on people who have single handedly (or with a team) saved the world don’t exist. I wonder how accurate our built perceptions would be if a study could be done?

From Analytical Psychology, the Hero complex comes bearing these symptoms:

– The perception of one`s self as a hero whereas certain actions are considered to be weird from the point of view of the social norms;

– The acceptance of one`s ‘heroic’ burden to carry;

– The constant complaints about one`s uneasy destiny and miscomprehension from the part of the society;

– The noble impulse to come to rescue of the sufferers even when there is no necessity;

– The possible temporary auto-reclusion or the rejection from the part of the society.

In a quick reading, it seems like the real-life hero complex is a response to heroes within media, possibly a delusion. Although it is not a technically diagnosable illness or condition. Ed Helmig, a student who posted an essay on academia.edu wrote that a Hero complex–also called a hero syndrome– is “an inherent desire to help others” (Helmig 1). The idea of complexes according to Helmig’s research comes from Carl Jung. (I’d look some of them, they sound fascinating).

As with with many “typical” superheroes, a person with a Hero complex is idealistic, which comes with high expectations and a increasing likelyhood of depression as expectations they have of themselves simply cannot be met. A person with a Hero Complex is brought down by the weight of all the “evil” in the world, and may even feel mental and physical exhaustion from trying to combat the evils of the world on a constant basis. The “loner” behavior displayed and romanticized by film is also common, as is the perceived hero’s susceptibility to manipulation because of their heroic characteristics. Of course, social isolation is not pleasant, nor entirely a functional mentality, unlike your favorite characters that feel like they are protecting the ones they love. Real life people who are likely to have a Hero complex include civil servants such as firefighters and policemen. Helmig concludes by saying that although heroism can inspire greatness, “misguided heroism, or heroism for the wrong reasons, can turn that positive motivation into a negative entity” (Helmig 5). 

Related complexes that are more common include the Messiah complex and Chronic Hero Syndrome. The idea of Hero complex can even be extended to Munchhausen syndrome by proxy, in which someone pretends that a person in their care is sick, even though they are not. A person with Munchhausen syndrome by proxy may force someone to be sick in order to gain attention for themselves, or to gain a positive self-image from their “sacrifice” of time and energy. People resort to many unorthodox things in order to be the hero. As Helmig says, a hero is fine, until their “mission” is over. When that happens they feel great personal loss and anxiety.

(Disclaimer: I am no licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist or mental health expert. I am human, and it is likely that I make errors. Please correct me if you think that I have represented a condition wrong, or if I have simply followed the wrong facts. I will not take it personally, but please be polite about it.)

So now that we have a good foundation for reality, how do we see the Hero complex acted out in movies and literature?

I would say that in a majority of Action/Adventure movies and TV shows, the protagonist has a deeply developed Hero complex. Who doesn’t like to cheer for the MC as they sacrifice everything for a goal that overshadows everything we can imagine? The example that springs to mind is the movie Olympus Has Fallen. In it, the President of the United States, America, and implicitly the entire world are at risk. And one man can save them all. As wildly entertaining (and graphic) as this film gets, it’s classic Hero complex. Mike Banning–ex special forces, ex secret service–gets the bloody hell beaten out of him. Bones are broken, the White House is not longer strictly white, and yet his perseverance and almost suicidal determination to do good win him the day and the adoration of many.

The other clear winner is Batman. NOTE! I have only seen the recent live-action films and none of the animated series or comic books. Nerds you can curse me quietly if you wish, just know my knowledge is limited. Basically, Batman is the epitome of the Hero complex. He takes the burden of bringing Gotham City into the light entirely onto his own shoulders, gets beaten to a pulp time and time again, faces despair at the enormity of his task, and a large degree of delusion about his capabilities of achieving his “mission.” From what I’ve seen, the Dark Knight trilogy shows the positive and negative side of Batman’s Hero complex.

As for others, look at the team leader of a superhero found family. It’s likely they are the driving force, the moral compass and the one carrying the others with the undying energy of their conviction. In lone superhero movies, it’s fairly easy to spot, the protagonist usually wears the bright red “X” within the first few scenes. Overall, the Hero complex could be a powerful force in society–if people would relinquish their “It’s a bird, it’s plane’ positions and assume the role of protector. As a realist by day and a dreamer by night, I aspire to the kind of exhaustive courage it takes to truly help people. I’m afraid that I have extremely high expectations already, and feeding them with the notion that I, a humble student, could actually save people, would be chaotic in my mind. I like the quieter kind of service; I’ll weed old ladies’ gardens and listen to people who never feel heard, make a pledge to make every person I meet smile, and contribute to general conversation by being and extreme goof. I think small things like that define me well enough. Food for thought though: I want to write more about the modern ideal of a hero verses the traditional mold. Who are your heroes, and are they “mild-mannered citizens” or are they Nobel Peace Prize-winning superhumans?

Obviously I am a constant work in progess as a writer. Please forgive grammatical errors, but point them out to me. I will be editing anything I write sporadically, but your feedback will be greeted with great adulation and possibly grovelling. Any insight y’all have on heroes, heroism, and the Hero complex (or its relative) especially would be welcome. I always appreciate knew knowledge. Leave a Comment to make requests, correct my grammar or express your awe and amazement, if you please.

–VeniceWriter

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About venicewriter

I write...well, words mostly, but sometimes they become poems and sometimes full-fledged stories. I also have a book addiction problem and I am extremely procrastination inclined. So, yay for me.
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