Heroes, Villains and Fools: Mixes and Archetypes

Are any of the iconic figures in the slide show to the left a mixture of heroic, villainous and foolish? (Pause the show with your cursor or finger. If you can’t figure out who’s who, go to the PROMOTIONS page for the answers.

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Movie World ’09 WikiCmns Urbaer

In my opinion some of the icons in the slide show–and many who are not included in the show–are a mix. Why would this be? Well, many icons have been ‘debunked’ in modern life by journalists, biographers, and people “in  the know.” For example, former hero and baseball legend Babe Ruth has lost esteem because insiders know he was a drunk and a wife beater. Ditto for John F. Kennedy who turned out to be a womanizer and an under-achieving president according to many historians.

Also, mixes result because some icons have spent portions of their lives being heroic, villainous and foolish , often ending up “fixed” at the stage they were in when they died. For instance, Malcolm Little started as The Child.* became The Villain as  “Detroit Red” during his criminal days, and then segued into The Hero as Malcolm X.   The names that some iconic figures choose for themselves along their personal journey are often telling: Malcolm chose X, entertainer M. L. Ciccone chose Madonna, and sex symbol Jayne Palmer/Hargitay/Cimber chose Mansfield.

Experts like Carl Jung consider heroes, villains and fools “archetypes.” According to Wikipedia, archetypes are  “supposed to have been present in folklore and literature for thousands of years, including prehistoric artwork. The use of archetypes to illuminate personality and literature was advanced by Carl Jung early in the 20th century, who suggested the existence of universal content-less forms that channel experiences and emotions, resulting in recognizable and typical patterns of behavior with certain probable outcomes. Archetypes are [believed] to be important to both ancient mythology and modern narratives.”


*Iconic figures share a lot with archetypes. As pointed out in Wikipedia, “an archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. In this sense ‘mother figure’ may be considered an archetype and may be identified in various characters with otherwise distinct (non-generic) personalities.”

Common archetypes include The Child (a bit like a Fool), The Hero, The Great Mother or Goddess, The Wise old man, and The Trickster or Fox.







To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.


  1. Dennis W. Mack says:

    Heroes do not have to be celebrities or the leaders of our institutions. There is a distinction between leaders and heroes. A leader may rise to the position through political skills or be dragged up by a mentor. Some people in youth look like born leaders. Heroes are more likely to be shaped into the people they are or rather their story is shaped to create their heroic image. Heroes are the result of narrative. The narrative may be from what we see with our own eyes, it may come from the stories that the person, himself, tells us, or, most likely, arise from the stories of others. Heroes that we think we know may differ greatly from an objective appraisal of them and their actions if all the facts could be seen objectively.

    For boys, our first heroes tend to be our fathers and older brothers, when we see them doing things that we cannot imagine ourselves doing. Our awareness of their actions becomes more detailed and focused by their own stories to us of their significant deeds. Later in childhood, our views may be shaped by the stories told by others, such as when mother explains that father quit his job because he could not in good conscience take the actions that were being asked him. Does father’s leaving his job mark him a hero or a failure? Stories will help determine our answer. Time will weave the answer into our appreciation of father. Later stories retelling the facts as organized by others may rend the fabric of our heroic father or create a greater myth of the father that will pass through the generations.

    Heroes can be the creature of propaganda. The former Soviet Union focused on the exploits and sacrificial actions of citizens, workers, and soldiers to achieve goals of the factory, a community or the nation. Even without such a centrally planned effort, we use stories that emphasize the characteristics of individuals that support the cultural values that we seek to spread in our society or in our workplace.

    • Dennis,
      Thanks for pointing out a critical distinction between leaders and heroes. I’m glad you also noted the important role narrative plays in creating heroes. I like, too, your two cogent examples: a) how we learn to create and evaluate heroes from an early age, and b) how the former Soviets created heroes.
      As I recall, you once gave a talk about corporate heroes based on your experience as a lawyer embedded in a corporation. Do you remember what you said?

      • Dennis W. Mack says:

        In the late 80’s, I was invited to speak before an assembly of top students from eight business schools. The host introduced me to the students as a very unusual general counsel. I was interested in why mergers that were supposed to work on paper as determined by smart people with MBAs often fail. I believed that the organization needed a shared set of corporate values, but in seeking to harmonize the values of the different units, it was important that units not shed values that had been essential to their success.

        Talking about creating a new culture to be spread throughout the enterprise, I emphasized the need to identify the individuals or groups that were most effective and had developed a business culture most like the one that management wanted to become generalized. After identifying the individuals or groups that operated under a set of values that the senior management would want to encourage, it was necessary to spread their stories throughout the larger enterprise, i.e., to make them corporate heroes. If others emulated the heroic experiences, then specific rules of conduct would become less important than the shared culture in which everyone would eventually operate. My illustration featured some individuals who did not fit into any organization chart and were often at risk of termination because they did not fit into a budget but who seemed to be the go to people for many throughout the enterprise. They had been unsung heroes who had enhanced the effectiveness of their unit or, in one case, the entire enterprise.

        Heroes often are created for a purpose. The narrative of their heroism can change over time with different story tellers or when the leaders of a group decide that they need to tweak the culture of the group to make it more effective under new conditions.

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