You know what a Designated Hero is, even if you’ve never heard the term before.
A Designated Hero is someone whose actions aren’t heroic, but who we are supposed to consider the hero of the piece anyway.
This is not the same as an anti-hero, where the narrative acknowledges that our protagonist is not a nice person and that their heroism amounts to being on the right side. Nor is it the same as a flawed hero – a hero can make terrible mistakes (with the story driven by them trying to make amends) or even fail and still count as a hero.
No, the key element of the Designated Hero is that their flaws are ignored by the narrative. They may be callous, careless, selfish and petty. They may cause more harm than good…or harm instead of good. They may even cause the problem that drives the narrative or fail to do anything useful to stop it. But we’re still supposed to regard them as Bright, Shining Heroes.
Characters who oppose the Designated Hero are villains, not because they do anything bad, but because they oppose The Designated Hero. But I’ll save discussion of Designated Villains for another post.
Sometimes, this is the result of simple laziness. The writer puts a character in a role that traditionally goes to the hero, and simply forgets to have them do anything heroic, counting on inertia and custom to get the audience to accept the character. It may even work on the first viewing or reading, but once the audience has time to think about it, they usually realize that they’ve been cheated.
More often, it’s a case of Values Dissonance: the character behaves as the author thinks they should behave, and doesn’t understand why the audience doesn’t agree.
To put it bluntly: you do not want your protagonist to be a Designated Hero.
To demonstrate, I refer you to Fred Clark as he discusses the most severe cases of Designated Hero in English-language literature: the characters of the Left Behind series. Now, the characters’ behavior has been atrocious and non-heroic since the very first page (though the authors wouldn’t think so, an example of type 2), but here we’ve come to the crux: the examples that prove beyond a doubt that Our Heroes are nothing of the sort.
Here’s the setup: the world – except for Israel – has been brought under the domination of the One World Government, ruled by the Antichrist in his role as the Global Potentate. He hasn’t done anything all that terrible yet; the world voluntarily surrendered their weapons and their sovereignty to join the Global Community. His conquest was bloodless and he seems to be running the world well. The worst thing he’s done so far is kill two b-list villains and, well, be the Antichrist.
Still, he’s the Antichrist, so defying him is the right thing to do. And now, one of Our Heroes has been summoned into his presence! It’s a moment of great danger and opportunity: the villain has demonstrated mind-reading and mind control powers. A few minutes in his presence could reveal every secret the heroes have. And yet, a few minutes in arm’s reach could end the whole conflict. What will Our Hero do?
Well, he does do one thing: accepts a job as the Antichrist’s press secretary. I think we’re supposed to take this as part of a long-term stratagem, but they never do anything with it.
Fast forward a little. The Antichrist has finally done something properly horrific. Our Other Hero has also taken a job with the Antichrist, as his personal pilot. You can see the possibilities, yes? What would you do if you were at the controls of a plane containing the man at whose command dozens of cities had been destroyed, and dozens more would soon follow?
Didn’t think so.
This looks like another Type 1, like the first example, but I would guess that it’s actually a type 2. As I argue in the comments, both authors are hardcore authoritarians; they have definite ideas as to how proper Authority Figures should behave, and how they should be treated. Over the course of the books, we see many examples of Our Heroes’ behavior toward those over whom they have power: even the slightest perceived insubordination is ruthlessly bullied into submission. The Heroes and the authors would both consider such a prank a serious affront, and would punish the prankster to the fullest extent of their power.
Meanwhile, the Antichrist simply admits his clumsiness and sits back down. To the authors, that makes him look like a weak sissy who doesn’t deserve his power. To them, responding to Our Hero with threats or punishment wouldn’t make him look like a tyrant, it would make him look like a badass, because to them there’s no difference.But then we’re back into the territory of Designated Villains.