(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 5 . I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).
The podcasters loosely define 3 types of character: the hero (the person whose action moves the story forward), the main character (the person whose eyes we see it moving through) and the protagonist (the person who develops as a character). All 3 of these roles can be found in one person, but it is not necessarily the case. They make the point that the protagonist does not have to be heroic. This is only one definition – write a great story, not one that conforms to definitions.
There are two types of hero: the superman hero (e.g. with special powers, and all they do is save the world regularly on a box-office schedule) or the every man hero (e.g. normal person thrust out of their daily life and comfort zone who has to overcome some huge obstacle).
For a character who re-occurs like Dirk Pitt or Jack Reacher the more often they are heroic I think they move down the scale from every man to superman. There are only so many times you can save people from death and the world from evil plans when it’s time to hang up the “I’m an ordinary guy” tag.
I also think Hollywood has conditioned us to a very distorted view of the term hero. Ditto that the media, who can call sports stars “hero”. But I’ll refrain from standing on my soapbox.
Readers like the superman hero because of the escapism involved, but there should be something that the reader can identify in the superman. Usually the superman will have a personal flaw that they need to overcome, because their powers would make solving a normal problem too easy.
An everyman hero needs to be competent (at something) but should have an ordinary background (not special forces, or Chuck Norris as an uncle). They should be out of their comfort zone. In Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee is consistently a crowd-favourite but he is especially normal. The character attribute about him that attracts people is his normality and loyalty. (See also the movie Hotel Rwanda).
A very flawed character must be good at something or the reader won’t like them. Don’t make it easy for the hero.