The Hero’s Journey refers to a structure of story. According to Christopher Vogler (see The Writers Journey), the Hero’s Journey is peopled with a small set of character archetypes. One of these character archetypes is that of the Hero.
The word “hero” comes to us from the Greek via Latin. The Greek word literally means “protector” or “defender”. The Latin term also includes the meanings “to preserve whole, save, deliver, protect” and possibly from an older word meaning “to keep vigil over.”
In Greek mythology, the “hero” referred to a type of being: someone semi-divine or a demi-god. A hero was often the offspring of the joining of a deity (such as Zeus) with a mortal. These demi-gods had super human powers and often were significant to combat scenes (e.g. Achilles in the movie Troy or the book The Iliad).
In dramatic writing, the term “hero” is often used synonymously with “protagonist.” A protagonist is the primary character. She or he is the lynch pin of the story. The protagonist is the doorway through which the audience typically enters the story, around whom the action is centered, and through whom the goal of the story must be accomplished.
One of the most well known of the Greek heroes was Herakles (Hercules in Latin). We often think of him as the epitomy of the heroic because of the superhuman feats he accomplishment through the famous Twelve Labours of Herakles. We tend to forget that these assignments were to redeem his heinous crime of murdering his own children.
Dara Marks (Inside Story) reminds us that “If hero were to be defined the old-fashioned way, by characters who earned it through the service of redeeming their self-worth, then not just astronauts and superheroes would get the accoleades. Little old ladies who struggle to raise themselves from the ashes of a failed marriage could be considered heroic as well. If fact, any human being–young or old, weak or strong, timid or brave–would be a contender for this honor because the potential to be heroic lies within everyone.”
The archetype of the Hero is not necessarily equivalent to the hero of dramatic writing. Frequently in modern stories the protagonist is not even heroic in the mythological sense.
Today’s writer has myriad heroes from which to choose: from the Savior Hero of Neo in the Matrix
to the antihero of Wyatt (“Captain America”) in Easy Rider who went in search of America and couldn’t find it . . . anywhere.
If you familiarize yourself with mythology, you will be rewarded with an deeper understanding of the character archetype, Hero, and you will be able to differentiate between the dramatic function of a protagonist and an archetype.