What if someone had done a scientific study on real-world heroes and tried to define what their essential characteristics are? Would it be useful to you as an author to know how heroes actually act–real heroes? That’s what this post is about, a study that found two distinct personality types among soldiers who performed heroic actions during wartime (note this post is significantly edited and adapted from a something I wrote for my personal blog over a year ago, travissbigidea.blogspot.com).
The study I read was based on surveys of World War II veterans, including both “ordinary” vets and those who had been highly decorated for valor. The purpose was specifically to determine what the relationship was between leadership traits and heroism, with the presumption that the WWII survey results would be broadly applicable to heroes in all wars. It may not in fact be true that a study based on WWII would apply to all wars–but I don’t see why it wouldn’t. (Note also this study was based on interviews with United States WWII vets only). The study did find, as I imagined the people who created it expected, that veterans who described themselves as “strong leaders” were more likely to have received a reward for valor than those who did not describe themselves that way. This could be explained in a number of ways, but perhaps the simplest way would be to observe that a certain measure of risk-taking is required to be awarded a medal for valor and that military leaders probably engage in risk-taking more often than people who feel now particular inclination to lead. So this result of the study didn’t really surprise me at all or catch my interest.
What did catch my eye is the fact that among those who won awards for valor, while they in general shared in common a self-description as being good leaders, they otherwise were of two distinct personality types.
Note again that both eager enlistees and reluctant enlistees were better leaders than average according to this study. Yet one was eager to fight and kill and the other was not.
These types of heroes appear again and again in fiction in various ways. Achilles was the eager enlistee as a warrior, even though his enthusiasm for war with Troy wasn’t high–while Hector better matches the reluctant warrior, who is forced to fight because of actions of others. While Tony Stark went through various hardships and does in fact show some empathy and self-sacrifice, Iron Man is much more the risk-taking eager enlistee than the other way around. Steve Rodgers was eager to enlist, but he was motivated by self-sacrifice primarily, therefore Captain America is not really a risk-taking personality.
So when looking at this study, don’t get hung up so much on the labels of “eager enlistee” and “reluctant enlistee.” I suggest the more important difference is concerning inner motivations. The “eager” hero isn’t any more empathetic than average–but is much more risk-taking. The “reluctant” hero isn’t more risk-taking than average–but is much more empathetic and self-sacrificing. It’s in fact possible to be a reluctant risk-taker (though that isn’t normal) and an eager self-sacrificer (again, not normal, but happens).
For the readers of this post, have you seen any similar studies? Do you know of other motivations for heroes other than the two I’ve mentioned in this article? Have other examples you’d like to add? If so, please mention them in the comments below.