It seems that a lot of authors want their heroes to be marked in a special way.

It is not enough that these protagonists are going to be heroes, no; they seem to require having a mark that makes them special be it golden eyes, a red streak of hair, a lightning shaped scar...

I mean it is quite silly and one would expect it only from mediocre or lazy writters, but some major authors do it regularly.

I don't really understand why, is there realy a need for the heroes to be pre-ordained to their destiny as manifested by the mark that identifies them as unique?

For instance Frodo is one of the most heroic heroes, yet he is a common sort of chap, he doesn't have a bunion shaped glowing birthmark shouting "I am the one!"

What need is there to mark them as special?

Is it simply there for foreshadowing? Since the character is “marked” for great things, he is not only the main character but the protagonist?

Is the mark planted early on to make the reader doubly aware of the character’s importance?

8 Answers 8


You're right that it's a cliche and they don't "need to".

it is quite silly and one would expect it only from mediocre or lazy writters

I agree. See TV Tropes: Birthmark of Destiny

See also scars, beards and hairstyles.

Legend of Zelda: Triangle birthmark

Villains also sometimes come with convenient labels, e.g. The Omen's Damien:

666 birthmark
See TV Tropes: Mark of the Beast.

Frodo is one of the most heroic heroes, yet he is a common sort of chap

Yes. Frodo is Everyman.

The everyman character is constructed so that the audience can imagine itself in the same situation without having to possess knowledge, skills, or abilities that transcend human potential.


Writers love their heroes. Look, my first male hero in my first story was actually me, myself. And I obviously wanted my hero to be my better self, more muscles, more manly, more outgoing... So, I obviously gave such treats to my hero

Lots of people like to pimp their ride You already bought the best phone on the market. And after few days you realized, that some people around you have the same phone, same car, same whatever. How do you make your phone even better? You buy case! You paint your car, you stick a funny stick on your notebook.

Lots of writers do the same with the heroes. If my hero is solider, he has to have scars so I can hint, that such person went through a loads of battles. If I am having shy girl on the other hand, she will definitely wear big ugly glasses. And so on and so on...

You can easier become a hero if you are marked I have little homework for you: Next morning, draw big black dot on your forehead. And wear it the whole day. That day will be one of the craziest days of your life so far. Now imagine you are wearing it the whole life. If there is car accident you will be the one expected to help, because you are already different. The marks are material of heroes. And marked people become heroes.

Try it out yourselves


The idea of the anointed one is as old as recorded history and recorded literature. But we should remember that this idea exists in the context of societies in which everyone has a specific role to play.

The rejection of this notion that everyone has a place and a role and a responsibility in the community is very recent. Its demise has greatly favored the smart and the strong and has forced many of the less capable to the margins and into despair. We tend to forget just how anomalous the highly individualistic society we have built in the the annals of human history.

Within a society in which everyone has a role, some roles are determined by birth and by sex. Some roles must be chosen or people must be chosen for them. Such people -- kings and priests, for example -- must be formally inducted into their roles, which often takes the form of literal anointing. In Christian baptism, the child is not only washed, but also anointed. Anointing is the ceremony of initiation of membership and all the rights and responsibilities that go with it.

But sometimes in life, and often in stories, the supreme task falls outside of the normal roles into which the community anoints its members. The hero, after all, must leave the normal world and cross the threshold into the other world. Who decides who is the one to take on this role? Who anoints them to this task?

Often the answer is, the gods, or some secular substitute for the gods (gods in disguise). But as anointing is the sign of one's membership and one's assumptions of a role and its responsibilities, there must be evidence of anointing for this role also. And if the gods anoint, then the person they anoint must bear some sign of this anointing; some mark where the finger of the god has touched the mortal flesh.

Our lack of assigned roles today is taken and celebrated as a sign of freedom. But actually, it is a source of grief, confusion, and pain to many. So many people struggle to find a place to fit in. Loneliness is epidemic. This creates a particular hunger, I think, for stories of the old ways, the old customs, in which everyone had a role to which they were anointed, for which they could be valued, and the requirements of which they could confidently fulfill.

We love the anointed hero because, secretly, at least, we long to be one.


Heroes are different because readers are different.

Some readers are lonely people that feel excluded from the social life of their peers. They feel ugly, abominable, as if they carry a stigma that repulses everyone. They feel marked by a cruel god.

These readers can identify with a hero who is an outsider in his society because of a mark he carries. And they are satisfied when the mark, that was seen as something pitiful and laughable by their peers, turns out to be a mark of special and wonderful talents and powers.


Marks can indicate that the hero is "special" - chosen, if you will - and because the reader identifies with the hero, they too can feel like they're special.

Is it a necessary device? That depends on the discretion of the author. Sure, there are "everyman" heroes who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and are brought along for the ride by pure circumstance (Frodo and Bilbo definitely fit within this category). But different strokes, and all.

Yes, the device has the potential to be cliche, but then so do many others. As most folks have noted, it's all in the execution and the intent. American novelist Toni Morrison (who won both a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize) had a character named Sula who had a birthmark over one eye.

The mark was described by other characters as a snake, a tadpole and a stemmed rose (which was a clever technique on Morrison's part, because it showed how other characters viewed Sula). The intent of the mark was to symbolize Sula's flaws, ambition and self-destructiveness. The fact that the mark was over one eye also illustrated that Sula's perception of herself and others was twisted and warped.


It's often struck me that there are two very different kinds of heroes in fiction in this sense. Some are heroes because they trained and practiced and studied or did some sort of hard work to get where they are. Others are heroes because they were born with some special status or destiny. Superman is a hero because he was born with "powers and abilities far beyond those of normal men". But the Green Hornet is a hero because he worked and trained. And yes he's rich, which helps, but he worked for his money, he didn't just inherit it. In many stories a character is a hero because she was born a princess or he was born a prince. But Frodo is a hero because, when faced with an extraordinary challenge, he rose to the occasion. Etc.

(This really struck me once when, at the time, I had just finished reading several books by women authors, in all of which the hero or heroine was born with some special ability, like a magical ability to talk to dragons telepathically. And a theory formed in my mind which some day I would like to investigate: Female writers tend to create characters who are heroes because of a natural ability or destiny, while male writers tend to create characters who are heroes because they worked hard. I'm not saying it's 100%, I'm sure there are exceptions, but I wonder if there's a bias each way. Anyway, detour ...)

In a different direction ... Writers often try to make a character distinctive in some easy way. "She had a streak of blue through her hair", "The man with the scar on his neck", etc. Done poorly, this can indeed just be lame. When done well, it can help the reader to distinguish the characters in his mind. I often find that when I read a book with many characters, I can get confused about who is who. Was Sally the airplane pilot or the doctor? Flip back a few pages ... oh no, the doctor was Shelley. If the characters have vague physical descriptions and similar or undistinctive names, it can be easy to mix them up. But if you say that Sally has blue hair and Monica always wears a formal business suit, now the reader has a handle on the characters to keep them separate. If you can then reference these distinctive characteristics casually throughout the story, it can help the reader keep them straight. Like if early in the story you say, "He always felt a tingling in the scar on his neck when danger was near", and then every now and then, "His scar was tingling again ..." Done poorly, it would be a lame gimmick. Done well, it can help make a distinctive character.

  • 2
    "If the characters have vague physical descriptions and similar or undistinctive names, it can be easy to mix them up." Yes. This is the "one blonde, one brunette and one redhead" method of characterisation. My general feeling is that if the reader can't really tell the characters apart by personality, and has to be reminded with physical attributes (go crazy, give the villain a limp AND a scar!), then it isn't terribly good writing.
    – A E
    Nov 7, 2014 at 19:41
  • 1
    @AE Sure, each character should have a distinctive personality. But I think it would be quite a stretch to suppose that each character's distinctive personality would show through with every word they say or every single action they perform. Stories where the author tries to push that idea -- e.g. EVERYONE has a distinctive accent or way of speaking -- get hackneyed real fast. Giving the reader some convenient tags to distinguish characters seems like a good idea to me.
    – Jay
    Nov 7, 2014 at 20:54
  • 1/3, sorry-- RE: "Female writers: heroes because of a natural ability or destiny, male writers: heroes who worked hard." I think you're on to something, and I'm guessing this falls hard on the "nurture" side. Men and women in western societies are raised consciously or unconsciously for different roles; men are most often rewarded for what they can do (lead, vanquish, build, make money), women for what they are (beautiful, pedigreed, intelligent, elegant). You usually don't become good at DOING without hard work, but even hard work usually can't improve innate qualities-- and when it can, ...
    – wordsworth
    Sep 8, 2019 at 6:46
  • 2/3 you must maintain the illusion of effortlessness (finishing school, dieting, e.g.). Even in the US today, with improved gender equality, these messages are subtle and ubiquitous. (Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline!) There are studies about how to raise and praise girls to avoid trapping them into these ways of thinking, because even offering praise like "you're so smart" in conjunction with all those other messages conveys that academic ability is innate-- you have it or you don't-- and not something you can and should work toward. I would bet female authors ...
    – wordsworth
    Sep 8, 2019 at 6:46
  • 3/3 with "special" characters are channeling that worldview because it's what they know, were raised to esteem and wish for. "Is a musical prodigy" gets sublimated into "can talk telepathically with dragons." I think that's also why a lot of characters by (IMO immature) female authors end up as alluring but useless ingenues-- because the DOING isn't as important as the BEING. With self-awareness about this I imagine many would make a conscious effort to create characters with more agency, but it's hard to break out of that kind of cultural indoctrination to challenge ideas of desirable traits.
    – wordsworth
    Sep 8, 2019 at 6:48

One reason to give a hero a mark is simply for writing efficiency, between characters in the book. Everybody (in the book) recognizes them, except perhaps children (and often even children).

In Harry Potter, the lightning bolt scar means everybody on the train, though they have never seen him before, knows his name and who he is and his legend. It saves exposition, introductions, and endless "Oh, that Harry," dialogue.

It makes the writing tighter. A person can look for Bill without ever having met or being able to describe Bill; "he's got a diagonal sword scar across his forehead, have you seen him?" "He's got one blue eye and one brown, have you seen him?"

The audience accepts it, and it reduces the word count and increases the fame of the hero, both good things in a story.


Stories, even realistic ones, don't take place in reality, but in a simulation of reality --realism is "just another style." And even stories without any overt fantastic elements exist at least partially in a more mythical and iconic realm, because that, psychologically, is how we experience narrative.

Some writers embrace this, and some don't. It's a stylistic choice, not a marker of quality or the lack thereof. For authors that consciously or subconsciously resonate with it, things like unusual physical characteristics can be part of an overlay of symbols that give the story more of a three-dimensional presence at the mythopoeic level.

This can, of course, be applied poorly, crudely, inappropriately, offensively, thoughtlessly, or in a painfully clichéd fashion. But the same can be said for any tool in the writer's toolbox.

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