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Heroism in Literature: A Semiotic Model

Ibrahim Taha. The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 2002. Vol. 18, Iss. 1-4; pg. 107, 21 pgs
Abstract (Summary)

The semiotic model that disregards the normative context represented by the protagonist examines how we can
distinguish the three conceptions of heroism, namely hero, semi-hero, and anti-hero. What are the methodological criteria
whereby we can follow the protagonist in the text from beginning to end? To answer them, this article tries to present a
model made up of five stages/criteria which constitute a semiotic model by means of which the connection to heroism
can be determined. These are: (1) motivation, (2) will, (3) ability, (4) execution, and (5) outcome. These stages can be
logically classified into three categories: 1) Pre-action (the first three stages), 2) Action (the fourth stage), 3) Post-action
(the fifth stage). The model proposed here suits all types of narrative and drama and all performance and film production
Full Text (9275 words)

Copyright Semiotic Society of America 2002

The semiotic model that disregards the normative context represented by the protagonist examines how we can distinguish the
three conceptions of heroism, namely hero, semi-hero, and anti-hero. What are the methodological criteria whereby we can
follow the protagonist in the text from beginning to end? To answer them, this article tries to present a model made up of five
stages/criteria which constitute a semiotic model by means of which the connection to heroism can be determined. These are:
(1) motivation, (2) will, (3) ability, (4) execution, and (5) outcome. These stages can be logically classified into three categories:
1) Pre-action (the first three stages), 2) Action (the fourth stage), 3) Post-action (the fifth stage). The model proposed here suits
all types of narrative and drama and all performance and film production arts.

I. Introduction: Realistic, Semiotic, and Actant Models

The accumulating studies on the central (main/major) character in literature can be categorized by three different
approaches, the realistic, the semiotic, and the actant. According to the first, the character acquires an independent
position in the text detached from the events in which it is involved, and therefore it should be viewed at a certain distance
from the context in which it appears. This approach, represented by Bradley, treats the character as an imitation of human
beings and it can replace a real character ( 1965). In such an atmosphere it may have been convenient for Ferrara to refer
to the character as the center of the text, and all events exist because of it (1974: 252). According to the semiotic
approach the characters exist only as part of the images in which they are inserted and the events which set them in
motion. Any attempt to draw them out of their context and analyze them as if they were real people is inherently mistaken.
Weinsheimer nicely referred to the character "as segments of a closed text" and as "patterns of recurrence, motifs which
are continually recontextualized in other motifs" ( 1979:195). The formalist-structural conception of the character can
generally fit in well in this approach. The basis of that conception of the character is that the character in literature is an
actant or a participant, not a flesh and blood creature. The character should be discussed according to what it does in the
text, not according to what it is (Chatman 1972: 57). French structuralism, dealing with the character in terms of an actant
model, attributes to it a secondary status in the text, it being an outcome of the plot (59). The actant model based on
Propp's model does not precisely suit modern literature. Therefore, Chatman believes that regarding the character it is
vital to combine the question "What happens?" with the question "Whom does it happen to?" (78).
It is commonly thought that the central character in the text exists in"its own right and for its own sake" while the secondary
character serves as a means and its existence in the text is contingent on a more principal textual component (Ewen
1993: 196). This centrality of the character is perhaps a function of several textual criteria, such as the following.
1. Numerous secondary characters exist-as is usually the case in novels, whose secondary character or marginality
highlights the existence of the protagonist on the principle of ranking from the most marginal to the least marginal and the
central. This ranking process is based on a pair of aesthetic opposites, not evaluative opposites such as superiority and
inferiority. The object acquires particular emphasis when presented in parallel with its opposite. The superiority of the main
character should not be interpreted as textual priority. Textual priority is a neutral concept in the evaluative sense, which
may be both positive and negative. Likewise, the marginality or the inferiority of the marginal character does not constitute
a statement of evaluative judgment. In aesthetic, evaluative terms this marginality does not lower the need for the marginal
character in the text. This is especially true for the central character. In the case of a single character in the text-as

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sometimes occurs in the short story or the very short story-the character derives its centrality from its being the only one in
the text.
2. The more detailed, varied, and focused the characterization of the protagonist, the closer this character comes to the
core of the text and the farther from the margins. The ample verbosity that accompanies this character throughout the text,
its rich spiritual life, its detailed external description, the highlighting of the close and distant circles around it, its varied
exposure, its deeds, its speech, its complex relationship with other characters, its behavior in various situations, and its
handling by the narrator and the hidden author, no matter what kind of handling this is-all these emphasize the presence of
the character in the text and contribute to its central position.
3. This detailed characterization positions the central character to gain the reader's special attention. The special interest
the reader shows in a specific character of the text is an indication of the central and high status attained by this character.
The interest of the reader in the central character can turn in various directions.
4. For this centrality to acquire a more practical character the author provides it with all the data required for it to act "in
itself and for its own sake". These data allow the development of the fabula in some direction towards the climax or the
anti-climax and towards some kind of ending.
If we accept this definition according to which the central character exists in its own right and for its own sake, this
character will naturally develop a will and ambitions of its own and will set some kind of aims to be accomplished. The
activity involved in the accomplishing process makes it a dynamic character-as stated by Tomashevsky-and its
characteristics can go through various transformations of refinement, updating, and some sort of change throughout the
text (1965: 89).
2. Hero, Anti-hero, and Semi-hero
Even with these conditions, we are still far from determining the central character's position in the realm of heroism. This
statement establishes a definite correlation between the centrality of the character and heroism. Namely, a character that
needs to be in a certain position in the realm of heroism must first and foremost be a central character, or more exactly,
must be the central character of the text.
The heroism presented in a text is commonly divided into two opposites: that of the hero and that of the anti-hero. Almost
all researchers define the hero as the central character with a set of lofty characteristics and endowed with will and
stamina, sometimes superhuman, which allow it to represent successfully the accepted values of society. As a result it
wins the support and sympathy of the addressee. One of the noble missions of the classical hero is to destroy evil, to
pursue peace and justice (Prince 1987: 40). He serves the best interests of society devotedly, and even in his death he
serves the purpose of renewal and reincarnation (Horst and Daemmrich 1987: 136-137). The hero's commitment to the
values of society is even higher than the value he places on his own life (Welsh 1992: 147). In addition to the classical
definition of the hero as a leader or as a potential leader, a gentleman, and a social ideal who behaves according to the
acceptable norms of society (O'Faolain 1971: 3-44), there is also the definition of the hero as a collective creature, which
exists for the sake of the collective, develops individual wishes and aspirations, and determines his own fate, such as
winning the heart of the woman he loves (Welsh 1992: 27). The classical definition of the hero includes three central
features: the positive dimension including the conceptions and values that the hero represents, either collective or
individual; his ability to succeed in the mission which was either imposed on him or undertaken by himself; and the
identification he is able to inspire in the reader. This has long been the prevailing approach to the definition of the hero in
literature, in movies, and in other performance arts. However, this classical approach has undergone various
transformations, to the point of the hero's losing his "super-human" status and becoming a banal and ordinary character.
The classical hero has experienced a major transformation in modern literature, particularly that of the twentieth century.
Some of the well known symptoms of the disintegration of classical heroism include introversion of the main character,
individualization, alienation, hopelessness (i.e., anti-heroism), curtailment of the identifying marks of the major character, to
the point of preventing it from having "a name" or changing names into signs, adjectives, and letters; and the apportioning
of heroism among various characters (the division of heroism among four characters in Milan Kundera's novel The
Unbearable Lightness of Being evinces the disintegration of the one and only, the omnipotent classical hero.1
All these transitions or transformations were made from the top down (Jauss 1974: 283). In other words, we are dealing
with a profound and significant deterioration in the status of the classical hero. Modern literature relinquishes the hero for
the sake of the simple and ordinary man. Docherty speaks about "a breach" in the position of the classical hero and a
transition to an anonymous character without even a first name.2
This breach led to a new conception of the hero. Here is a hero who differs in almost every respect from the classical
conception. This is what Prince calls "the unheroic hero" ( 1987:6), the so-called anti-hero. The prefix "and" should be
understood as"non" or "the opposite of", not as antagonism. The antagonist in the text, who is meant to frustrate the hero
or to place obstacles in his path, is not called anti-hero as this might mislead people. This is the "antagonist" or'opposite
character". The anti-hero is not the antagonist in our discussion but the protagonist, just like the earlier hero. Regarding the
aesthetic status in the text the anti-hero's status equals the hero's status. However, the anti-hero differs from the hero on
one significant and principal point. This is his failure to accomplish the mission he undertakes, quite regardless of the type
and essence of the mission. Perhaps on account of this failure the anti-hero disappoints the reader, as stated by H. R.
Jauss (1974: 314). Still, some kind of emotional involvement with him is entirely possible. The anti-hero is deemed a

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character that cannot adapt to society and its values, which are presented negatively in the text. The anti-hero tries to
combat these values in his own way, using the resources available to him-evidently without success. The comparison of
the anti-hero with the hero regarding the attitude toward society and its values is apparently inaccurate and needs a
significant explanation. If the hero represents society, where does the friction between him and society (which is
represented in the text by various textual factors such as a character, conceptions, habits and values, historical
phenomena, etc.) eventually occur, a friction which ultimately leads to the complexity of the plot? The hero represents
positive values, as these are perceived by society, and fights negative values. In the same vein, we may claim that the
anti-hero also represents positive values, as he perceives them, and attacks what he considers negative values. This
distinction between the hero and the anti-hero is made in terms of extra-textual evaluative judgement and not by aesthetic
literary means. Accordingly, in both cases, of the hero and the anti-hero, the protagonists struggle is against some kind of
flawed values according to his own view, whether he represents society or himself. A second point to be considered is the
emotional or perceptual involvement of the addressee with the protagonist. If, as stated, such involvement is possible with
the anti-hero as well as the hero this criterion is irrelevant for showing up the main aesthetic differences between them. In
addition, is this involvement stable, measured, and certain? Can we speak about uniform and unique identification of all
addressees with a certain character in the text? The only criterion separating the hero from the anti-hero is success or
failure in attaining the objectives set by the text.
However, the concepts of success and failure are not objective, fixed, or absolute. They are inherently endowed with the
potential of being discussed in subjective and relative terms. What may be considered by one of the addresses an
achievement or a success in a mission may be considered by others a partial or a relative success. These two conceptssuccess and failure-thus seem to constitute two extremes connected by a sequence of various possibilities. If success
and failure are the only aesthetic criterion to distinguish the hero and the anti-hero, the statement that these two concepts
are subjective and relative opens the way to a third conception, between the hero and the anti-hero. I call it the"semi-hero".
The prefix "semi", in our case, need not have the meaning of a "half"-even if such an option exists-but of "partiality", since
the semi-hero may approach either of the two extremes of hero and anti-hero. The semi-hero can be closer to the hero
than to the anti-hero, or vice-versa, depending on his success or failure. A protagonist whose success in attaining the goal
of the text is doubtful or partial, or whose success is not final, that is, it allows for further complexity, is closer to the
definition of semi-hero than of hero or anti-hero. While the anti-hero is a new concept-as against the concept of the
classical hero, which appeared following the industrial revolution and gained further impetus after World War I and World
War II, the conception of the semi-hero was reinforced under the influence of the new realism, namely in the era of
awakening from the immediate effect of World War II. The conception of the semi-hero is a realistic reaction to two
extreme conceptions of hero and anti-hero, which depict human beings in two contrasting colors, black and white.
Literature in the post-modern era portrays characters in various and complex hues. The character in current literature is
less intense and rebellious and less extremist. It is much more complex and realistic.3 The concept of the semi-hero
confirms the phenomenon of the reinforcement of the individual versus the collective (society), and the literature of the
twentieth century has abundant examples of this kind.
A conclusive view of the three concepts of heroism-the hero, the anti-hero, and the semi-hero-brings up two points they
have in common: their centrality in the text (the equal aesthetic status of all of them), and their ability to stimulate emotional
and conceptual involvement by the reader. They are separated by their respective success or failure in attaining the
objective in the text. The discussion above, set in diachronic and synchronie terms, does not provide a detailed response
to a highly important question: how can we distinguish these three conceptions of heroism? What are the methodological
criteria whereby we can follow the protagonist in the text from beginning to end? The index of success or failure according
to which the place of the protagonist in various conceptions of heroism can be determined is very general, and demands a
profound understanding of other questions. To answer them, this article tries to present a semiotic model made up of five
3.The Five-stage Model
The five-stage model refers to the character of the text both as an individual or a collective being and as an actant. On the
one hand, the model deals with the activity of the protagonist from its first stages to the end, and on the other this activity is
a function of personality characteristics. That is, the model does not deal with the activity itself, its type and significance,
but with its performance and its consequences for the protagonist himself. The model reinforces the conception of
Chatman and Rimmon-Kenan who try to reach a compromise between the two extremist conceptions of the character
theory. The proposed model aspires to be methodical, institutionalized, and practical in order to contribute to those
reconciliation attempts. Our intention is to propose a semiotic model that disregards the normative context represented by
the protagonist, so that the protagonist who represents negative norms can definitely be a hero based on this model. By
contrast, the protagonist who represents positive norms can definitely be an anti-hero. Based on the five-stage model the
hero has no priority over the anti-hero or the semi-hero. The three of them are aesthetically equal. This equality is granted
to them through disregard of the normative component of heroism.
The main character of the text-by being "person-like" or a construct "partially modeled on the reader's conception of
people" (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 33)-develops individual and collective aspirations and wishes in the linguistic network of
the text, and tries to base them by means of some kind of description of the motives which justify their existence and of
their vitality and necessity on the individual and the collective level. By means of the five-stage model we must examine
numerous questions related to the essence of the main character, its wishes and aspirations, and its ability to act towards
the fulfillment of its objectives and aspirations in the text, the obstacles occurring in its way, the needs arising in the

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fulfillment process, and the consequence of this process. All these questions, which refer to the essence of the
protagonist of the text, may be classified into five stages, which constitute a semiotic model by means of which the
connection to heroism can be determined. These are (1) motivation, (2) will, (3) ability, (4) execution, and (5) outcome.
These stages can be logically classified into three categories:
1. Pre-action (the first three stages)
2. Action (the fourth stage)
3. Post-action (the fifth stage).4
The division into categories is based on the principle of causality. This principle assures the transition of the protagonist
from the first category to the two other categories. The five-stage model, with its three categories, is based on the
assumption that any narrative or dramatic text there is a condition of absence. Such a condition means a flaw or a lack of
perfection that the protagonist cannot accept, and therefore he perceives himself compelled to complete it and amend it.
This absence can be manifested in the inner conflict taking place within the person, a clash of norms and perceptions
within the protagonist himself, a clash between him and society and its different values, and so on. The condition of
absence and the attempt to alter it-these have always been the basics of literature. However, the difference between
various genres lies in the design of reality and in the ways of coping with it.
3.1. Motivation
This stage deals with various personal and collective data, which make the protagonist vulnerable to conflict when faced
with a condition of absence. Motivation, according to Docherty, is a function of a certain type of desire which may be either
positive or negative (Docherty 1983: 224). Leo Bersani believes that "Desire is an activity within a lack; it is an appetite
stimulated by an absence" (1976: 10). The connection between desire, which expresses a condition of absence, and the
need to act is strong and apparently inevitable, at least in literature. The inner drive of a person to act in such a situation is
a strong need for self-fulfillment. This need does not let someone comply with a situation of imperfection, as claimed by
the Gestalt philosophy. "Self actualization is the creative trend of human nature", Hall and Lindzey claim (1967: 304). The
feeling of absence, void, and the need to fill that void, as those two researchers believe, motivates self-actualization. Each
person experiences this feeling, and therefore he tries, each in his own way, to fulfil his wish and thus put an end to desire,
or as phrased by Docherty, "Every person desires the end of desiring" (1983: 228). The motivation stage, which indicates
a condition of pre-action, does not demand to obtain a direct representation, which is inclusive and detailed in the text. The
motivation of the protagonist to act can on the one hand be represented in an indirect way of transparent and vague hints
and signs provided by the protagonist himself or any other character in the text or by the narrator. They may appear in the
right context or be delivered by the way in some other context of the text. On the other hand, motivation can be manifested
in the text by means of straightforward statements from any character of the text. Moreover the location of this stagemotivation-does not have to be in the opening of the text. Situations occur in which the reader/addressee becomes aware
of the protagonist's motivation only in retrospect, before the act or after it. In short, motivation may be scattered all over
the text from beginning to end. However, this stage helps the reader better to understand the actions of the protagonist
and helps her evaluate more accurately the outcome of this action (Sternberg 1978: 246-248). In many cases it is
extremely difficult to examine the final outcome of the action and evaluate it without understanding the'Veal" motives
underlying this action. Those motives can definitely differ from the stated intentions of the protagonist.5 Any "mistake" in
identifying the real intentions of the protagonist might lead to a terrible mistake in evaluating the final result, as we shall see
later, in the decisive stage of the five-stage model. The real intentions are those that design the final objective that the
protagonist strives to achieve.
The protagonists objective, which motivates him into action, may be lofty or banal; it may stem from the wish to make the
world a better place or the desire to have casual sex with his neighbor, without developing any normative evaluation of
those objectives. The objective may either be individual and private, or collective, representing some common wish. This
stage of the model calls for evaluation of that aspect of the protagonist which drives him toward his goal and destination.
This aspect may be the world, history, the society in which he lives, or his family, or it may represent only the protagonist
himself. The goal may change in accordance with the nature of this particular aspect. It may be easy to reach, simple,
acceptable, vital, convincing, and justified-or the opposite. Anyway, the reader finds it difficult to define the goal of the
protagonist without knowing his concealed intentions and impulses.
3.2. Will
This stage acts as an index for examining the principal readiness of the protagonist to shift from the motivation stage to
later stages. The will is a vital factor in following the protagonist on his way to one of three variations of heroism. Motivation
can make the protagonist wish to move to the action stage. However, cases exist in which motivation cannot stir the
protagonist and prepare him for later stages-due to its not being sufficient, convincing, well-based, and the like. The
connection between the first and the second stage is not self-evident or as simple as it appears. In other cases the
motivation is sufficiently convincing and established, yet the protagonist is not ripe, for various reasons, to translate this
motivation into action. The delay in the transition from the motivation stage to the will stage can depend on external factors
unrelated to the personality of the protagonist. On the one hand, they may be a consequence of a rational consideration by
the protagonist, namely an interesting and serious review from which he concludes that it is worth delaying this transition.
Yet motivation, however justified and convincing it may be, is not sufficient for advancing to the next stage. The extra-

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personal factors may be greater and stronger than the protagonist. In such a case an external struggle between him and
other factors may take place which may arouse certain expectations in the reader. This struggle contributes to the
dramatic dimension of the complication. The clash between the protagonist and other characters or other views in the text
which constitute a real threat can delay or benumb the protagonist's will, and then a condition of silent struggle or a blind
alley ensues. The continuation of this struggle and its intensification must lead to a change or to some kind of
breakthrough, whether for the benefit of the protagonist or of his rival. Such a complication increases the need for
additional characters in the text. On the other hand, the delay in the transition from the first to the second stage may be the
result of a weak personal character and of indifference, as will be specified in the next stage. A protagonist with a basic
tendency to be in a state of permanent action often does not need any motives or pretexts to act. Motivation in such a
case can be minimal or concealed. True, in both cases there is a tendency towards a psychoanalytical analysis of the
protagonist, which does not always help in the analysis of the character in the text.
While at the first stage we saw that a condition of absence led the character to develop aspirations and wishes, at this
stage of will the attempt of the protagonist to reach the execution stage, also a later one, is a function of personality
factors and of exogenous factors, as noted. In both stages the exogenous factors constitute a major part of all the data, or
at least a space that cannot be ignored. That is the condition of absence, discussed in the first stage, referring either to
the protagonist or to his exogenous environment, a datum which precedes the protagonist himself and which is even
imposed on him. This obviously differs from one text to the next. In the second stage the protagonist's wish is not always
under his own control. This distinction can help the reader better to understand the protagonist's dynamic, which will allow
her a glimpse into his inner and outer worlds. It can also help her to build up her expectations from the protagonist. A
powerful desire developed in the protagonist to contend with a certain condition of absence, regardless of the essence of
this situation and other exogenous factors, is indeed an indicator of his strength. Perhaps the protagonists will or the lack
of will is meant to mislead the reader and cause a breach in her system of expectations.
So far we have dealt with the connection between the protagonist's motivation and his wish for support and continuation. It
is as if the will must support motivation and carry it forward. Any delay in the transition to the second stage is merely
technical and results from various considerations. The question is whether an opposition between the two stages is
possible. Can the protagonist's will run counter to his inner motives and his real urge? The answer is positive.6 In this type
of situation the complication of the text lies within the protagonist himself; he becomes his own foe. The inner adversity
usually leads to a complication, which may be devoid of action but can still be tempestuous, reflecting a crisis of identity or
a deep mental crisis. In such a situation the need for additional characters decreases.
The discussion of the second stage reveals the confusion between it and the first stage. I have frequently referred to will
as if it were some kind of motivation. If so, we may ask what is the point of devoting a separate stage to will. The
difference between motivation and will-according to their purpose in the five-stage model-is that between what the self
needs, or feels it needs, and what the self wants, or what it is compelled to want. As noted, the character may need a
certain thing but want something else.7 This distinction may help the reader to learn the protagonist's personality much
better. The potential difference between what is wanted and what is needed makes a significant statement about the
protagonists character and about his conditions and different circumstances.
3.3. Ability
The protagonist must be able to make the transition from the first two stages to the fourth stage-the execution. If at an
earlier stage we dealt with the willingness to shift to later stages, at this stage we are concerned with the actual ability to
perform this shift. Motivation and will are not sufficient for performing a certain action. Docherty indicates the importance of
motivation as a certain type of desire in order to move to a certain condition of mobility (1983: 217-243). However, if the
protagonist is not equipped with the ability to reach a state of motivation to reach the destination he has set himself, he
may encounter tremendous difficulties which might lead to total failure. This ability may involve physical power and fitness,
the ability to withstand pressure, mental strength, the proper age, authority, knowledge, connections with the right people,
the ability to survive, creative thinking, persuasiveness, planning skills, and so on, in accordance with his purpose in the
text. These characteristics are not required just for lofty purposes; they may also be vital for various purposes such as a
bank robbery. Not only the type of ability has to match the purpose but also the level of such ability. These two
indicators-the type of ability and its level-are the factors that determine, to a great extent, the final result of the
protagonist's actions in the text.
Ability does not have to be something fixed, clear, and predetermined. It is a function of the necessity and urgency of the
objective as well as the conditions and difficulties in the way of the protagonist. If the aim is very urgent the protagonist is
compelled to concentrate his all in order to accelerate the process of performance and fulfillment. If the opposite is the
case, he can scatter the means which are operated for the purpose of fulfillment throughout the text in smaller doses.
Moreover, external conditions also have an important role regarding the type and level of ability required for achieving the
purpose. These are conditions over which the protagonist has no control, or more exactly, conditions existing in their own
right, independent of the protagonist himself. They may be various types of difficulties the antagonist places on the
protagonist's way, as described in the following stage. According to the antagonist's type of activity, the protagonist should
use his common sense and increase or decrease efforts accordingly. I purposely employ here concepts from the field of
warfare to stress that objectives are not easily attained, so we need the present stage to examine the measure of heroism
attained by the protagonist at the end of the fulfillment process. True, help from some external factors is needed to
promote and accelerate the process of fulfillment, but still the protagonist must take part in it. The measure of heroism is a

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function of the type and the level of ability operated by the protagonist on his way to achieving heroism. A hero who
operates a limited, temporary, and local type of ability on his way to heroism is completely different from one who
activates great, holistic, and varied abilities. I lead the discussion in this direction to stress again that on the principal level
in both cases the heroes are based on the five-stage model. If they attain the goal the heroism of both is complete and
equal in aesthetic terms. He who has attained his goal easily and he who has invested tremendous efforts, he who has
received all possible help from outside and he who has struggled alone-both are awarded the title of hero equally.
The type and the level of ability used by the protagonist in the process of fulfillment of the objective constitute an
important test of personality used by the reader in her final evaluation of the protagonist. Certain abilities are known to be
born in the course of time, while others are acquired due to various subjective and objective reasons. Both types of
abilities have serious significance for the character of the protagonist, but at this stage we shall focus those resulting from
a given exogenous condition. At issue here is the protagonist's talent for developing immediate abilities to manage a
certain type of situation in which he is involved. If the protagonist is endowed with this quality, it indicates the final outcome
of the process of doing. Such an indication can affect the readers system of expectations. Among the reader's
considerations for her final evaluation of the protagonist and his deeds we may mention the protagonist's talent for
retrieving abilities or for improvising them in the given situation and place. In addition to his talent for operating abilities we
must also inquire into the protagonist's decision to apply certain abilities but not others, and particularly into to the nature of
these abilities (readiness and expectations or improvisation and creativity). The protagonists talent for creativity in using
his abilities is considered one of the signs of heroism that is finally determined only in the last stage of the five-stage
3.4. Execution
We now come to the stage of action itself. It concerns the process of fulfillment, the methods which translate the abilities
discussed at the previous stage into the language of action, the changes and the transformations occurring in this
process, the concomitant difficulties, and the means of coping with them. Chatman stresses the importance of action for
the characterization of the character:"it is ONLY the actions of the character, what he does, that serves to characterize
him" (1972: 59).
The action of the protagonist can appear in the text in two main forms: inner activity and outer activity. Inner activity is
mental, including thoughts, introspection, dreams, planning, observation, memories, confessions, and the like. All can be
manifested in various types of monologues (Cohn 1978). The inner activity of the protagonist is a function of a large
number of subjective and objective data. This activity fully depends on the objective that the protagonist tries to achieve.
Certain aims are known to require such activity, while others demand outer/extrinsic activities. Continuous and profound
intrinsic activity requires suitable extrinsic conditions. Outer activity-involving the activation of various body systems-calls
for suitable external conditions. However, in practice it is difficult to distinguish these two types of activity. Outer activity
demands some sort of previous inner activity, and presumably a concentrated inner activity finally leads to some kind of
outer activity. This causation is first and foremost a function of the type of objective, and any flaw in it might impair the
protagonist's ability to achieve his goal at the end of the text.
Whether this activity is mostly inner, outer, or some combination, six main indices for the success of the protagonist's
activity can be listed, and they may be classified into two categories. The first contains the type, level, and sequence of
the acts, while the second contains the place, time, and external conditions. A protagonist able to choose the right type
and level of acts that are meant to lead him to the end of this process and to the achievement of his aim, and also able to
persevere in them, can successfully move half way to his goal. To continue on to the final destination, he must be able
choose the right time and place for acting. But this is scarcely enough. To complete the way to his goal he must overcome
all external obstacles. These may be represented by a certain antagonist, by society, habits and perceptions, natural
disaster, destiny, misfortune, a sudden illness, loss of ability to execute the mission, the aim itself becoming hidden, and
so on. All these types may conveniently be combined in one phrase, "antagonist activity". This antagonist activity is vital for
the continuation of the protagonists activity. Yet it is difficult to argue that the antagonist is the first and most important
factor in the creation of the first spark of protagonist activity. Only after the protagonist decides to act does the antagonist
come in, and this intensifies the protagonist's activity, as described at in the previous stage. In certain genres, many of the
obstacles in the literary text or in action movies are meant to enhance the impression of the hero's heroism in the
reader's/spectator's eyes. The bigger the obstacles, the more the protagonist becomes a super-human hero, a kind of
superman. Generally, this kind of classical divine heroism conceals a different type of reality. It is as if the role of literature
and art is to embellish ugly reality. I doubt if this is the real and true purpose of art in general, and of literature in particular.
The assignment of the protagonist in the text depends on two factors: the objective and the type of obstacles. The type,
size, and placement of obstacles in the text require the right kind of preparation by the protagonist. Only after he
overcomes these obstacles can he reach to final objective. I mention these six indices to stress that the good intention,
proper abilities, and perseverance of the protagonist, and his choosing the right time and place for the activity, are not
enough for him to attain the status of hero. This point is detailed below.
3.5.The Outcome
The fifth stage in the five-stage model proposed here is the most decisive in establishing the status of the protagonist in
different variations of heroism. The outcome constitutes the third category, the post-action, as noted earlier. Only at the
end do we see the outcome of the action, with everything involved in it. A serious investment in choosing the objective, in

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choosing the ability and conditions, and tenacious handling of various obstacles must lead to a happy end. Any other
outcome draws the protagonist farther from the status of hero. Only the full achievement of the objective, which the
protagonist has striven so hard to achieve, entitles him to the status of hero. Partial success entitles him only to the status
of semi-hero, and total failure leads to the status of anti-hero, with no connection whatsoever to the type of objective, to its
significance, and to the effort invested in the process of doing. The ending is the last station of the five-stage model, and
it includes all the data of the text in one form or another.
Francis Dunn notes the importance of the ending in establishing the status of the protagonist. He believes that heroism is
measured according to the ending of the text. The way in which the protagonist chooses to end his life in the text is vital
for the formation of his heroism (Roberts, Dunn, and Fowler 1997:99). Hence, a certain type of activity should be
assessed not according to intentions but to the final outcome, not only because the ending is the most emphasized part
that remains in memory (Booth 1993: 2) but primarily because of its concise character. In our context we can pinpoint four
types of endings which may affect the status of the protagonist in the text: a closed ending of success, a closed ending of
failure, a closed ending of partial success/partial failure, and an open ending. The first type provides positive answers, in
the aesthetic respect, to all the questions presented in the text. The second provides negative answers. This appears as a
total failure of the protagonist in performing his mission. The third type also provides clear and well defined answers,
some of which indicate success and others failure. The fourth type indicates a condition whose ending is ambiguous,
undefined, and not finalized. If there is a potential for interpretative activity at the end of the text, the decision concerning
the protagonist's status is in the reader's hands in accordance with the degree of clarity or unclarity of the ending. In such
a case two different possible ways of interpretation exist which are opposite and paradoxical. The protagonist may be
perceived by some readers as hero and by other as anti-hero or semi-hero. This is probably the nature of art in general-to
be evasive and wear various masks simultaneously. The question of openness of the ending and its effect on the status
of the protagonist, namely different variations of heroism, brings to mind an additional factor-the addressee. Docherty
believes that the readers status in the issue of literary characterization is stronger in modern literature than in classical
literature (1983:42) because often the ending remains open and does not satisfy everything the reader needs. A hero is
someone able to make some kind of identification with the addressee (Tomashevsky 1965: 89; Welsh 1992: 36). It
seems that the ending is the decisive point linking the protagonist to the addressee. At this point the addressee is
supposed to connect to the protagonist in accordance with the final outcome of this process.
The final outcome may be natural, predictable, and convincing, or it may be forced, surprising, and unconvincing. The
five-stage model has no difficulty with the first part of the assumption. As for the second, there is some problem that
requires explanation. If the final outcome is forced, whether for the sake of the protagonist or not, namely if the author has
changed the direction in which the events occurred, in such a case doubts arise as to the true status of the protagonist's
heroism. An instance is a case in which the protagonist must fail, if judged by our extra-textual experience and in light of
the odds and data presented by the text, yet the author decides otherwise. Can we still view such a protagonist as a hero?
The answer is simply yes. First, the text is the decisive factor, not our own experience in the extra-textual reality, since in
such reality nothing of this sort happens. A person whose actions and whose conditions lead him to failure must
undoubtedly fail. In literature and in art in general lies and deception are allowed. As noted, the five-stage model does not
view the character in literature and in art as a flesh-and-blood being. As a person-like or artistic creature, the character in
the text has its own conditions. Yet we might refer to the protagonist as fake, since the author has faked the ending of the
text in his favor. But even a fake hero is still a hero in the context of literature and art in general, comedy in particular. The
ending of comedy is some kind of agreement between the author and the reader/viewer and is not necessarily an
outcome of the events presented in the text (Jagendorf 1984:12). In such a case the faking of the text is the result of a
clear clash between the needs of the genre, the needs of the reader/beholder, and the conditions of the protagonist and
the text.
4. Conclusion
As semiotic interpreters, we cannot avoid referring to all textual data in terms of signs. We relate to the protagonist as a
whole system of various signs. In the long and complex process of following the protagonist, the reader employs various
textual data and disciplines. The aim is to help the reader/beholder reach a position in which she can better understand the
general textual meaning. Not by chance have I referred to the five stages in the model in terms of criteria and indices for
definition and evaluation. The semiotic character of the model does not refer to the text and to the protagonist as a closed
statement. On the contrary, the proposed model opens the text to the participation of two additional factors, namely the
reader/beholder and the historical context. Their participation is allowed by their being important partners in the search for
the maximum quantity of textual signs and turning them into the overall meaning.
The central importance of the five-stage model lies in its ability to focus the research on the protagonist. This focusing
acquires the qualities of institutionalization, and any such institutionalization acquires a methodological-scientific character.
The five stages of the model constitute criteria or indices which can be used based on the data of the text itself in order to
follow the protagonist from a condition of pre-action to a condition of action and finally to a condition of post-action. These
three states are exploited here to organize the logical array of the five stages of the model. The growing amount of
research on heroism in literature, in the cinema, and in performance arts stresses two criteria for establishing the status of
the protagonist as the hero in the text: his centrality and the lofty normative context which allows the addressee to identify
with him, as mentioned above. The proposed model confirms the first criterion, and at just the same time also fully
dislodges the second. Values and norms presented by the protagonist-whether he is a hero, an anti-hero, or a
semi-hero-are irrelevant to our discussion. A hero can be a robber or dreadful murderer who succeeds in his mission; an

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anti-hero can be a perfect idealist who entirely fails in his mission; and a semi-hero, of course, can be both. Evaluative
judgement causes confusion and misunderstanding by use of a series of unexplained and unconvincing terms in heroism
such as "a failed hero", "a victim hero", "positive hero", "negative hero", and so on. There is a semantic, logical, and
substantial contradiction between the terms "hero" and "failed/victim". I wonder, how can a failed character be a hero?
Terms such as "positive" and "negative" are only adjectives, with nothing to do with the substantial and real sense of
heroism. One of the major advantages of the proposed five-stage model, for the definition of heroism, is to replace the
criterion of evaluative judgement by an aesthetic and a methodological criterion.
The five-stage model has two additional advantages: its ability to be inclusive and adequate for various art forms, and its
ability to bridge the gaps between extreme approaches in the study of character in literature and art. The model proposed
here suits all types of narrative and drama and all performance and film production arts. Accordingly, I have made
extensive use of the term text as an open concept to include all these types of arts, and for the same reason I have made
extensive use ofthejakobsonian term addressee to include all readers and beholders. The ability of the five-stage model
to bridge the gaps in the study of character is manifested in the extension of the stages of this model to various
categories and domains. Whether the character is a function of various events or otherwise, namely whether the character
is needed in the text only as the performer of action or whether the events exist in the text only thanks to the character-in
either case we are not dealing with the disconnection between the two components character-action. The five-stage
model demonstrates the conciliatory approach by attributing great importance to the unique and personal characteristics
of the protagonist, to the system of intentions and wills and their effect on the activity and its direction, as can be seen in
the first three stages of the model classified as pre-action. It attributes the same kind of importance to the actions of the
character and to various outcomes for the status of this character in the text, unrelated with personal data, with the
intentions and wills of the character, as can be seen in the two last stages, which were categorized as action and
post-action. Only a model that acquires a semiotic character allows reference to the protagonist as a large sign that acts
as the focus of an entire system of various omens. Finally, only such a model can serve for the synthesis of various
approaches to the study of characterization in literature particularly and in art in general.
The first three stages of the five-stage model, classified as pre-action, mainly deal with various personal conditions of the
protagonist which are required in order to perform a certain type of action, assuming that actions don't just happen by
themselves. They require three preconditions-motivation, will, and ability-related to one another logically. The will is a
function of motivation, namely the existence of a certain will depends on the existence of motivation. Likewise, no will can
translate motivation into action without the proper ability. The three preconditions demand dealing with the personal inner
facet of the protagonist, which is not easy and is sometimes even extremely difficult. The difficulty may be the outcome of
a lack of textual data which allow entry into the inner world of the protagonist. After all, we are not dealing with a real-life
character, but with an art product which is only person-like. Therefore it is not always possible to reconstruct with precision
the personality of the character based only on a linguistic or a visual work of art. If we refer to the first three stages as
preconditions of pre-action, then the fourth stage deals with action itself, in a process placed by certain researchers of
characterization theory at the center of their activity, disregarding other preconditions. The importance of this stage stems
from its being a continuous process that spreads over a large part of the text, and also from the possibility that the
preconditions are insufficient. The last stage, the outcome stage, indicates a state of a summative product whether
positive, negative, or open-one that does not extend over a large portion of the text. In the proposed model, the fifth stage
is the most decisive; it is the only one that shows the extent of success/failure of the protagonist in his mission. This is the
factor that determines the placement of the protagonist in different variations of heroism.
1. Frye speaks of five transformations of the hero in the history of literature based on the following scale: God----> demigod----->
leader-----> average man--------> ironic man (1957: 42-43). H. R. Jauss writes in detail about three central transformations,
stating: "The historiographic schema of idealistic aesthetics as also of archetypal criticism, was a kind of scale which determined
the range of the concept of character, from the incarnation of a god through the aristocratic hero down to the average man of
everyday reality" (1974: 283). Jauss further divides these three transformations into five types of heroes and discusses various
types of readers' identifications with those types: the ceremonial hero, the perfect hero, the imperfect hero, the suffering hero
(the hard-pressed hero), and the missing hero (the anti-hero) (296-317).
2. See Docherty 1983: 30-31. Numerous factors led to this significant change in the course of history. Various researchers
indicate the beginning of the twentieth century and the aftermath of World War I as the time when the hero underwent the most
significant transformation. However, Ralph Fox believes that the dying of the classical hero had already started in the
nineteenth-century novel owing to the weakening of the position of realism in literature and art (1937: Chapter 8, 'Death of the
3. In answer to the question: "Is the 'hero' or character, the captor of the imaginary dead?" Cixous answers unambiguously: "No,
he is just brought out of his blinding ignorance; he is unmasked: Which does not mean revealed! But rather denounced, returned
to his reality as simulacrum, brought back to the mask as mask. He is given up then to the complexity of his subjectivity, to his
multiplicity, to his off-center position, to his permanent escapade: like the author, he disappears only to be multiplied, attains the
self only to be in the same instant, differentiated into a trans-subjective effervescence (Cixous 1974: 387).
4. The logic behind the division of the five-stage model into three major categories is similar to the logic on which Claude
Bremond based his division of the story-fabula into three logical stages: possibility (or potential), process, and outcome. In the
first stage he defines the purpose; in the second stage (the process) two situations are possible (taking steps or not taking
steps). In the third stage (the outcome) two situations are possible: success or failure, namely attaining the objective or missing it
(Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 22-28).

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5. Psychologists and psychoanalysts usually differentiate "impulse" and "intentions", noting that a significant difference may exist
between the real impulses which operate behind some kind of activity and the stated intentions. Good intentions do not assure a
proper outcome and they may conceal inverse impulses. The final outcome of our deeds presumably suits the purpose for which
the action has been performed (Jung 1964: 15).
6. Psychologists and psychoanalysts discussed the existence of conflicts among various wishes within the person himself. One
of the clearest signs of this is the conflict between the id and the super-ego and defense mechanisms activated in such cases
(Freud 1961).
7. In psychoanalytical terms we could say that motivation (need) is closer to the id and will is closer to the ego and the
super-ego. The source of confusion seems to lie in that part of the discussion referred to as the three psychic institutions. For
more details on these institutions (Freud 1961: 5-41).
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1993. Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia).
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CHATMAN, Seymour.
1972. "On the Formalist-Structuralist Theory of Character,"Journal of Literary Semantics, 1, 57-79.
1974. "The Character of Character'," New Literary History, 5:2, 383-402.
COHN, Dorrit.
1978. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press).
1983. Reading (Absent) Character: Towards A Theory of Characterization in Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
EWEN, Josef.
1993. Character in Narrative (Tel Aviv: Sifri'at Po'alim), (Hebrew).
FERRARA, Fernando.
1974. "Theory and Model for the Structural Analysis of Fiction" New Literary History, 5, 245-268.
FOX, Ralph.
1937. The Novel and the People (London, 1937), chapter 8, "Death of the Hero".
FREUD, Anna.
1961. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (London: Hogarth Press).
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1957. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press).
HALL, Calvin S., and Gardner LINDZEY.
1967. Theories of Personality, 19 edition, (New York: J. Wiley & Sons, Inc.).
HORST, S., and Ingrid DAEMMRICH.
1987. Themes and Motifs-A Handbook (Tubingen: Francke).
1984. The Happy End of Comedy: Jonson, Molire, and Shakespeare (Newark: University of Delaware Press, London and
Toronto: Associated University Press).
JAUSS, Hans Robert.
1974. "Levels of Identification of Hero and Audience," New Literary History, V: 2, 283-317.
JUNG, Carl Gustav.
1964. The Development of Personality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
1971. The Vanishing Hero: Studies in Novelists of the Twenties (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press).
PRINCE, Gerald.
1987. A Dictionary of Narratology (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press).
1983. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London and New York: Routledge).
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1997. Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press).
1978. Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press)
1965. "Thematics," in Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. Paul A. Olson, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press).
1979. "Theory of Character: Emma," Poetics Today, 1:1-2, 185-211.
WELSH, Alexander.
1992. The Hero of the Waverley Novels: With New Essays on Scott (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press).
[Author Affiliation]
IbrahimTaha University of Haifa

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[Author Affiliation]
IBRAHIM TAHA (b. 1960 September 2). Academic Status: Senior lecturer in Arabic Language and Literature at Haifa University,
Israel. Mail Address: Dept. of Arabic Language and Literature, University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, Israel. E-mail: <itaha@>. Educational Background: Ph.D. in comparative literature from the Hebrew university of Jerusalem, 1994.
His principal research interests are modern Arabic literature, semiotics and theory of literature, and comparative literature.
Indexing (document details)

Semiotics, Novels, Short stories, Heroism & heroes, Literary criticism


Ibrahim Taha

Author Affiliation:

IbrahimTaha University of Haifa

IBRAHIM TAHA (b. 1960 September 2). Academic Status: Senior lecturer in Arabic Language and
Literature at Haifa University, Israel. Mail Address: Dept. of Arabic Language and Literature,
University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, Israel. E-mail: <itaha@>. Educational
Background: Ph.D. in comparative literature from the Hebrew university of Jerusalem, 1994. His
principal research interests are modern Arabic literature, semiotics and theory of literature, and
comparative literature.

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The American Journal of Semiotics. Kent: 2002. Vol. 18, Iss. 1-4; pg. 107, 21 pgs

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