The urge to explore is as old as Mankind, and in every generation, there are those who feel compelled to seek out new worlds; to see what lies beyond the horizon. It's easy to dream, but unknown lands can be dangerous, so only the boldest are willing to live that dream. Tales of these bold explorers are a favorite topic for fiction.
Before history even began, bold explorers (and the settlers who follow them) had reached almost every habitable land on the planet. Our oldest surviving tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh features the bold explorations of Gilgamesh the King, making this Older than Dirt. In the Age of Exploration, starting in the early Renaissance, Marco Polo (re-)discovered China, Columbus (re-)discovered America, and Magellan found a way to circumnavigate the globe.
Though most of the world is considered explored today, the rest of the universe still beckons, and this is a common trope in both Historical Fiction and Science Fiction. This trope was extremely common in early Interplanetary Voyage stories—some of which actually date back to the above-mentioned Age of Exploration.
Only the bold need apply. Those who, through no fault of their own, are kidnapped to or ship-wrecked on new lands, or who are merely bad navigators, do not qualify, though their subsequent actions may prove them to be examples.
Note that this is such an ancient trope and so very much a case of Truth in Television that there is little to be gained from mentioning Real Life examples, as most people can probably think of dozens. A Historical Domain Character can go under the proper medium.
May overlap with other tropes such as The Pioneer, who is specifically looking for a new home, though it's more usual for pioneers to follow the explorers. Intrepid Merchant is another one that frequently goes hand-in-hand with this one, as new locations often mean exotic goods and new, untapped markets for old products. Sometimes a state-sponsored version of this would be either an Ambadassador or engaged in Cloak and Dagger, likely both. Compare Gentleman Adventurer and Adventure Archaeologist.
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In Vinland Saga, Leif the Lucky is the man who found Vinland, though he's now old and retired.
Mendoza in The Mysterious Cities of Gold is a charismatic explorer who claims to be the one who brought Esteban to Spain as a child, and now wants him to return and use the power of the locket to help find the titular cities.
In Pocahontas, John Smith's explorations of the new Virginia Territory are how he met Pocahontas in the first place. During the song "Mine, Mine, Mine", he sings of how he's never seen a wilder, more challenging land than Virginia and how he doesn't plan to miss any of its dangers.
Film - Live Action
Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes this trope to the point of insanity, as Lope de Aguirre explores South America in search of a City of Gold, ignoring death and deprivation among his men along the way.
Parodied in Almost Heroes, where Hunt and Edwards want to beat Lewis and Clark, and be the first to chart a way across America to the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, neither one is particularly bold.
The final film in the Carry On franchise, Carry On Columbus turned the bold exploits of explorer Christopher Columbus into a silly sex farce.
La Vallée (a film mainly remembered because Pink Floyd provided the soundtrack) features a bunch of hippies, joined by the wife of the French consul, exploring uncharted regions of New Guinea—one of the very last unexplored places on the planet—seeking the truth about a mysterious valley marked on maps as "obscured by clouds".
In Fritz Lang's 1929 silent film Woman in the Moon, Helius and Professor Mannfeldt plan and lead an expedition to the moon.
The enthusiastic General Thayer and, to a lesser extent, Dr. Cargraves and Jim Barnes, in the classic SF film Destination Moon.
Dave Bowman, Frank Poole, and the deceased crew of the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who are on an expedition to explore strange findings near Jupiter.
The aptly-named Explorers features a trio of kids who manage to build a spaceship, and then boldly set off to hunt for aliens.
The recon team sent through to explore the worlds on the other side of the Stargate in Stargate.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh explored many new lands, defeating monsters and bringing home their treasures. Any actual Trope Maker is probably lost to history, so this is likely as close as we'll ever get.
The Vinland Sagas tell how Leif Ericson's explorations led him to become the first European known to have set foot on North America. (The popular theory that Leif's father, Erik the Red, discovered Greenland, however, is not supported by the sagas, nor by any other historical evidence.)
The Travels of Marco Polo is a biographical (and somewhat confused) recounting of the Italian explorer's 13th-century expedition to the Middle-East and China. It was a block-buster hit in its time.
Voyage dans la Lune (1657) by the Real LifeCyrano De Bergerac, casts Cyrano himself as the first explorer to the moon. Although there were earlier stories of people visiting the moon, the use of a non-magical method of transportation (fireworks) has led some to classify this as one of the very first works of true Science Fiction.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, Professor Challenger is a man of science who has no hesitation to set off and explore a mysterious plateau in the Amazon.
In the Red Mars Trilogy, John Boone becomes a world-wide hero after leading the first expedition to Mars.
In the Priscilla Hutchins series, Hutch herself is a borderline case, but a more clear-cut example is George Hockleman, a rich entrepreneur in Chindi who hires an Academy ship, and the use of Hutch, to go chasing alien interstellar radio signals in the hope of making First Contact.
In Allen Steele's Coyote, Carlos Montero sets off to explore the new world of Coyote while the rest of the colonists are still settling in and trying to learn the local dangers.
Most of the inhabitants of Gateway Asteroid, in Gateway, were this, although some were there out of pure desperation. Still, it takes more than a little hutzpah to climb into an ancient alien craft, set the controls at random, and push go. Especially when you have no idea how long the voyage will take, and thus how much food and water you should bring.
Subverted in Robert Sheckley's short-story, "The Minimum Man". The Planetary Expedition and Settlement Board has tried using the classic bold explorer type to discover new worlds, but these bold types aren't timid enough, and tend to overlook obvious dangers that make newly discovered worlds unsuitable for colonization, so now they're going the opposite way, and choose the accident-prone hapless nebbish Anton Perceveral to be the first of a new breed of explorers.
In the prologue to Pandora's Star Earth sends a manned spaceship to Mars whose crew is extremely irritated to discover that, while they were hoofing it, a couple of garage tinkerers in Los Angeles discovered how to create stable wormholes and beat them there. Fast forward five hundred years or so, and the normally wormhole-dependent Commonwealth builds an FTL-capable exploration starship named the Another Chance, captained by the leader of the Mars expedition. (Immortality therapy was involved.)
The Outbound Flight duology by Timothy Zahn concerned an attempt by the Galactic Republic to mount an extragalactic expedition. Due in large part to the arrogance of the expedition's Jedi commander (though diplomatic sabotage by Darth Sidious was also involved), this expedition ran badly afoul of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force and was destroyed by Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo.
Jack Vance's Ports of Call features Myron Tany, a wannabe bold explorer who lucks out when his great-aunt, Dame Hester, receives a spaceship as part of a legal judgement, and reluctantly agrees to let him use it. Unfortunately for Myron, Dame Hester insists on coming along.
In Hal Clement's novel Mission of Gravity, the small centipede-like creature named Barlennan on the planet Mesklin is a bold explorer, which is what brings him to the one area of the planet where humans can visit even briefly.
In A. E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, most of the crew of the Space Beagle, especially Director Morton, the head of the expedition. (The protagonist, Elliot Grosvenor, is along as more of a trouble-shooter.
In the Star WarsExtended Universe, the planet Corellia was the first human civilization to get their hands on hyperdrive, which triggered a wave of bold explorers—the first humans to scout out much of the galaxy.
Tully the human from the Chanur Novels was a bold explorer who got lost in Compact space, captured by the Kif, and rescued by the Chanur clan.
In the Blackadder episode "Potato", the bold explorer Sir Walter Raleigh returns in triumph to England, which makes Blackadder jealous, so when Sir Walter says that even he wouldn't attempt to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, Blackadder tells the court that he's going to do just that. Of course, Blackadder isn't actually bold; his plan is to sail to France and hide out, then return and claim to have sailed around the Cape. Unfortunately, the ship captain he picked for his expedition isn't capable of making it even as far as France.
In Stargate SG-1, the whole purpose of the team was to go through the Stargate and see what they could find on the other side.
Spaceman Spiff, one of Calvin's alter-egos in Calvin And Hobbes, is a bold interstellar explorer, who constantly gets captured by bizarre alien life forms (usually Calvin's parents or his teacher).
Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Explorer" is basically an analysis of this trope.
In Traveller the Imperial Intersteller Scout Service is an agency of Bold Explorers. They have other duties as well due to mission creep. They do scientific-research, occasional police duties, intelligence work, Imperial courier service and special ops in wartime. They are kind of like a cross between Nasa, the Indian Political Service, and in some ways the Coast Guard. The exploration side of their job is dying down in the Gurps default time of Emperor Strephon's reign, simply because most of the unexplored territory is on the other side of rival empires. While expeditions still go out from time to time, most of their work is tidying up backwater planets.
Other governments, corporations, and private citizens have been exploring for thousands of years and continue to do so.
In the backstory of the X-Universe series, the crew of the twelve-man starship Winterblossom set forth in 2045 AD to explore the newly discovered jumpgate network and find habitable worlds for colonies.
Skies of Arcadia: Legends has VyseDyne. Much of the game centers on his quest to explore all the lands of Arcadia, which is recorded in his journal entries. There's even a massive sidequest to find all 88 hidden discoveries. Vyse even lampshades it, near the beginning of the game, while he Aika, and Fina are watching the sunset on Pirate Isle:
Vyse: (wistfully) "I want to see what's out there... to see what lies beyond the sunset."
The protagonists of the Uncharted Waters series can be played as such, particularly the playable characters of the Explorer background in the second game. Ernst is the best example, since his overarching quest is to explore and map the entire globe. Pietro and Joao also do a fair bit of exploring, but the former is mainly after hidden treasures, while the latter's storyline involves an equal amount of naval battles.
Brann Bronzebeard and later Harrison Jones are seen exploring newly opened lands.
One of the scrolls in Pandaria tells the legend of a Liu Lang, a young Pandaren who set out to explore the world beyond the mist riding on the back of a turtle.
Mass Effect is rife with these, though they seem to end badly a lot. The First Contact War came out of a group of human explorers running afoul of a turian patrol that didn't bother to explain why opening mass relays willy-nilly was a bad idea. In the games proper, two separate sidequests in Mass Effect 2 involve the discovery of a wrecked exploration vessel.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers has the famous explorer Dusknoir who provides some necessary exposition, and the ill-fated legendary explorer Scizor who you can rescue.
The Peabody's Improbable History segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle featured visits to see many bold explorers, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Marco Polo, Juan Ponce de Leon, Balboa, Columbus and Magellan. Many of them turned out to be not-so-bold in person, and needed a kick in the pants from Peabody and Sherman.
The Simpsons episode "Margical History Tour" features Lenny and Carl as Lewis and Clark, exploring the American Northwest, and Lisa as Sacagawea, the native woman who helped them—or, in this case, tried to help them, but gets frustrated by their stupidity.
Commander McBragg of The World of Commander McBragg, a regular segment of Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales, was a now-retired bold explorer who had visited some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the world—at least to hear him tell it.