I have, for a long time, been fascinated by the concept of the hero. Many years ago I bought an book of fantasy artwork (no, I'm not going to tell you more). Despite the prevalence of an effectively soft porn-esque idealised concept of the woman there was an intriguing set of prose addressing the nature of the hero. A lot of it was flowery bunkum but several interesting themes could be extrapolated. The first of these is that the hero is static in relation to his or her tribe. Unlike the tribe, which transitions, the hero/heroine is caught of a moment within the chronological, social and cultural timeline of the tribe. They are, in effect, fixed in time and are unable to change their fundamental nature, even should circumstance and context change.
The second of these was that the hero often represents both the best and the worst of the tribe, reflecting cultural extremes and attitudes and social mores. It is this extremism that is both a driver and an inhibitor.
The third was that the hero enables the tribe to transition or change. The hero's very immobility of nature is integral to the tribe advancing, he or she is the medium by which this is achieved, often at great cost to the hero.
The fourth was that the hero is of the tribe but apart from it. This separation allows the hero to act, to be break the bounds of social and cultural constraints to act for the greater good of the tribe. This disassociation from the tribe is another form of sacrifice, the hero subsequently revered or reviled, never to be part of the whole again.
These themes are particular to a certain narrow view of heroism, but, to a greater or lesser degree they can be applied to any form of classic heroism. The hero is about a pivotal moment of change, and stories are about transition and transformation. Whatever happens to the heroine subsequently, however they may appear to change, their fundamental nature remains extant. It is on this bedrock of immutability that the world changes, where the hero's nature is fully and finally revealed and upon which the tribe transforms.
And that is the interesting thing, that the hero is merely a protagonist until the moment arrives and the revelation is made, and their nature asserts itself, no matter how briefly. Anti-heroes, villains, broken or dark or flawed,they are subject to the compulsion of their inner being; a critical convergence of situation and context and character lead to this exposure, and the hero acts.
David Gemmell was possibly the finest exponent of the classic hero paradigm, his characters where often flawed, driven by circumstance and nature to act in the only way they could. Time and again his books play with this archetypes, playing with the themes of survival, impossible odds and sacrifice, the hero revealed when needed.
Tanith Lee's heroes are subtler; encapsulating a complex weave of motivations and characterisation, ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious. CJ Cherryh's, China Mieville's and Steven Erikson's heroes are of a similar ilk, fascinating in their various natures and guises.
These are writers and heroes upon whom the fate of the world or worlds depend. Contemporary fiction often requires less of its heroes, and reality less so again. The idea of heroism is mutable by expectation, limited and constrained by experience and situation. The protagonist hero is forced to act, to face themselves and to change or enable transition of the reality in which they exist, no matter how mundane and trivial that may be. In a sense the scale itself almost does not matter, it is the moment and the act that is important.
For me the idea of heroism, no matter the themes above, is dependent upon the above; that the immutable innate nature of the hero is only every reached or revealed, no matter how well hidden or denied it is, and that situation and circumstance force that revelation, changing the world in ways from the subtle to the catastrophic.
Ultimately what intrigues is the journey to that moment, culminating in decisions and actions that contrive to bring about transformation. What happens to the hero afterwards is almost irrelevant, they fade into memory and legend and myth, or are forced to act and act again.