Upbringing Makes the Hero

Good Parenting: is there any Angst it can't cure?

"Heroes are made, not born" is a common and unstated theme in a lot of works. Though a good many heroic origins proudly trot out heroes who have been raised in The Spartan Way and can look Death in the eye-sockets without blinking before leaving their Tibetan monastery home, quite a few grew up Farm Boys who never picked up anything sharper than a hoe, though those can be quite a handful.

In fact, heroes with a down to earth upbringing tend to have a unique advantage over the more Badass and epic ones: they're more centered. While they won't be saints, they'll have a strong enough moral compass to navigate most moral dilemmas, resist The Dark Side, and even refute Hannibal Lectures that more emotionally fragile heroes struggle with. If they gain super powers they won't forget "the little people" and turn into a Smug Super with delusions of grandeur. Though they didn't gain the crime fighting prowess of a lifetime of Charles Atlas training, or the street savvy of an orphan with a Dark and Troubled Past, they also didn't sacrifice basic skills or their social life.

These differences are often contrasted by pairing these characters together as an Action Hero and an Action Survivor in an Action Duo or pitting them against each other as Technician vs. Performer. The contrast can even be made an integral plot point by pitting the homey hero against a Tyke Bomb Raised by Orcs, and exploring just how much upbringing can damn or redeem. Frequently, this is played with by revealing the hero has Secret Legacy for evil In the Blood. In these cases, it's usually left implicit (or explicitly stated) that without their upbringing they'd have gone evil. The Anti Anti Christ in particular usually has this for a background.

Even handed authors will acknowledge that the "classical" hero is more able at their job because of their sacrifices, while the more "normal" one is a hero because that which was not sacrificed is what makes them heroic. More biased tellings can make one or the other out as the better hero, usually slanting towards the meek, though Never Be a Hero does crop up.

One reason why Turn Out Like His Father can often keep the child from being Evil.

Also see Misery Builds Character, Nature Versus Nurture (and especially Nurture Over Nature), Muggle Foster Parents. Not to be confused with A Hero Is Born or A Minor Kidroduction.


Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball
    • Goku was supposed to destroy the Earth, but was raised by a kind old man (and got a bit of brain damage hitting his head as a baby), becoming a hero.
    • A lesser version occurs with Trunks. His Bad Future incarnation was raised by the pure-hearted Gohan and is kind and humble, while the version in the main timeline was raised by his birth parents (an heiress and an egotist respectively) and is more of a Spoiled Brat. Though if one counts GT, Trunks grow up to be like alternate timeline counterpart.
  • Rin from Blue Exorcist was born as the child of Satan himself. While resident Badass Preacher Shiro could've killed the defenseless newborn, he instead took the child in and raised him as a human after sealing his demonic powers into a sword. Rin was a typical problem child: skipping school, very easy to anger, and if angered prone to excessive beatdowns (as seen when he put several fellow kindergarteners into the hospital for calling him a monster). Still, Shiro's upbringing turned Rin into a slightly feral-looking but otherwise normal and easy-going teenager. When Shiro was killed by Satan who tried to reclaim his son, however... Rin voluntarily unlocked his demonic form by unsheathing the sword that locked it away then became an Exorcist to, in his own words, KICK SATAN'S ASS.
    • Even if he stays in his form for too long and goes Ax-Crazy, a single Cooldown Hug from a certain Plucky Girl is enough to return him to his senses. He's positively ashamed of his heritage and absolutely refuses to take a human life, possessed or not. Even if the possessor is Satan himself.
  • Panzer World Galient: Asbeth looked after and raised Jordy after his parents' death, teaching him to be kind, honorable, selfless and generous. When Jordy grew up he became The Hero that freed planet Arst from tyrant Volder and ruled the planet fairly.

    Comic Books 
  • Hellboy was raised as a son by Professor Bruttenholm and fed pancakes, and thus was the Apocalypse Maiden turned to the side of humanity. The poster boy for Anti Anti Christ.
  • Uncle Ben is a reason Spider-Man's motto is "with great power comes great responsibility". Although this could also count as a subversion, despite being raised by loving and supportive parents Peter Parker had no interest in being a hero. It was seeing the consequences of dismissing his great responsibility that made the hero.
  • Deconstructed with Mark Milton aka Hyperion in Supreme Power, who is basically a Superman Expy... who was raised by military officers ordered to pretend they were a Happily Married couple. He told his "father" that the only reason he didn't simply fly away and do whatever he wanted was because his "parents" loved him, and they didn't want him to. Then they were retired in a faked fishing accident. He's not doing so good since.
  • Superman is a classic example. Whenever tempted to use his powers for either personal gain, or revenge, he's usually shown as remembering the values he was taught by the Kents.
    • In Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, Superman draws a distinction between "fighting" (i.e. against enemies) and "fighting for something" (meaning the Earth, and the kind people on it) while in a cornfield in Smallville.
    • 90s villain Conduit hated Clark due to an extreme case of Why Are You Not My Son?; so extreme that his dad continued comparing him to Clark while standing over his grave... and right next to Superman, who snapped that he became the man he was because of his parents, and Kenny / Conduit might have turned out better with a halfway-decent father.
    • More than one Elseworlds story has been devoted to exploring what Superman would be like if he hadn't been raised in Kansas. Tellingly, Red Son, in which he is raised in Russia, has him becoming a totalitarian dictator, while JLA: The Nail, where he is raised by Amish, has him develop a similar personality to the Big Blue Boy Scout we all know and love. And Superman: True Brit, which more or less led to Superman becoming a ditzier version of Lord Bravery from Freakazoid!.
    • Played with in the year-long Black Ring storyline in Action Comics. Therein, Luthor, imbued with godlike powers, discovers Clark Kent's wholesome upbringing and completely loses his shit at the revelation: he's so given in to rage and pride and his own Freudian Excuse for a crappy childhood that he's literally incapable of comprehending goodness, even (especially?) in his archenemy.
  • Other heroes follow in a similar vein. Aquaman, for example, can (sometimes) attribute his heroic nature to being raised by down-to-Earth lighthouse-keeper Tom Curry, as opposed to the Royal Courts of Atlantis.
  • Invoked in X-Force, where Fantomex creates a virtual simulation childhood for a superhuman he's growing in a lab that is uncannily similar to Superman's (set in Kansas, kindly old-fashioned parents etc.), hoping that it'll raise him as a hero. It's for a child clone of Apocalypse.
  • Jaime Reyes, the third Blue Beetle, has his parents supporting and advising him on his (admittedly unexpected) superhero career.
  • Virgil Hawkings, aka Static. Despite being raised around gang violence, Virgil was actually raised in a stable home by both of his parents. This plays a role into why Static is one of the few non-Anti Heroes in Milestone's line.
  • Eddie Bloomberg/Kid Devil/Red Devil is a mixed bag. He has issues with his parents' neglect, but his Aunt Marla raised him well until her death and his hero Blue Devil served as a fairly good role model for a time. While Eddie often makes bad choices due to his lack of guidance, he does try to be a good hero.
  • It's heavily implied that the reason why Steve Rogers is the man that he is, it's because of the love and care given to him by his parents, especially from his mother, Sarah Rogers.
  • Captain Marvel both averts this and plays it straight. It's clear that Billy Batson was raised by a good, loving couple that instilled good morals in him, which explains where the foundations for his personality come from. But at the same time, once they were brutally murdered, Billy was thrown out onto the street by the person who was entrusted to be his guardian, leaving him homeless and penniless. But instead of becoming bitter about this, Billy not only held on to the beliefs of his parents, but gained a sense of empathy and compassion for people who suffer any kind of tragedy. This idealism in the face of a such situation was what convinced the wizard Shazam that young Billy was the first person in 5,000 years to be worthy to wield his power.

     Fan Fiction 

    Film 
  • In A New Hope, naďve Farm Boy Luke goes from cleaning up droids to destroying the Death Star. While it helps that The Force was strong with him, his aunt Beru and uncle Owen gave him the kind of stable family life that helped him resist The Dark Side.
    • Subverted in the case of his father Anakin Skywalker, who had as good an upbringing as a slave could have thanks to his mother. However because he still grew up in a harsh environment as a slave, there were potential problems (as Yoda sensed in him.) Furthermore, his mentors (acting as parental subttitues of sorts) were caring, but also aloof. When she died, horribly and just after Anakin rescued her, he took it very badly and the fear of losing his wife and unborn children as well were key factors in his fall to The Dark Side, (though Palpatine easily capitalized on this to convert him).
      • The Star Wars Expanded Universe actually gives many justifications for Anakin Skywalker's eventual fall. After being adopted by the Jedi, the other Jedi didn't exactly welcome him lovingly. Instead, Anakin spent his adolescent years being mostly alienated by his masters and peers; he also would rather clutter the Temple's halls with droids he built and join illegal street races than meditate, and the few genuine friends he did make ended up dead. By the time he made the choice to fall, Mace Windu was fully aware that Skywalker was a tangled emotional wreck who had been bounced around between conflicting allies and didn't know where to turn, but unfortunately Mace didn't know how he could help Anakin with his troubles without making them worse. Prequel-era Jedi in general are often portrayed as not being very competent regarding psychological stability despite all their preaching about peace and calmness, which is why many Jedi had rebelled during the Clone Wars.

    Literature 
  • Carrot Ironfounderson of the Ankh-Morpork Watch is like this, except instead of being raised on a farm he was raised in a mine, by dwarfs. The results are largely the same, however.
  • Moses in The Bible is trained by both his biological mother and by the Egyptians, and later spent forty years as a shepherd in the Wilderness before he got The Call from God to be a Messianic Archetype when he was eighty years old.
    • David spent his childhood working as a Shepherd for his father. Similarly to Moses, David also got The Call from God.
  • Invoked in The Belgariad with respect to The Hero, Garion. Being raised as a farmboy and kept in ignorance of his heritage was Polgara's ploy to ensure that the future heir to the throne of Riva and ultimate savior of the world would have a solid head on his shoulders when he got there. It's even more important as the Orb of Aldur would not respond to his touch if he weren't "without evil in the fastness of his soul".
  • Invoked in Harry Potter. Dumbledore wanted Harry to be raised by his Muggle aunt and uncle so that he wouldn't buy into his own publicity and become an entitled Smug Snake. This wound up backfiring in a lot of ways, because the Dursleys were horribly abusive towards Harry because they hated magic, but it also wound up working better than Dumbledore could've hoped: Harry's mistreatment because of his "difference" made him one of the most empathetic characters in the series when it came to the plights of people in trouble or individuals, groups or races being mistreated, and therefore one of the first to dive head-long into danger to help others.
    • However, Voldemort was raised in similar conditions -if anything he might honestly have been better off than Harry in some ways- and ended up a mass-murdering sociopath. The implication is that there's something fundamental in the soul that determines whether one is good or evil, and upbringing is just a Freudian Excuse.
    • It's actually made explicit in the second book that Harry Potter and Tom Riddle are very similar in all ways except one: despite the similarities of their backgrounds and conditions, they made different choices. Dumbledore explains that this difference is the most important difference two people can have - upbringing and nature may both have some influence on heroism, yes, but it is our choices that make us who we really are.
      • However, this all becomes much more complicated due to J.K. Rowling's statements that being a product of a loveless interaction as a result of a love potion is the reason Voldemort is a sociopath and is incapable of feeling love, and at the same time had his mother survived to raise him herself, Voldemort wouldn't have become the mass-murderer that he became.
  • In the Sword of Truth series, this is explicitly Zedd's reason for bringing up Richard, the Seeker, in the Westlands, where magic and high society are unknown.
  • In The Wheel of Time, Rand al'Thor is a shepherd from a backwater village who gains all of the memories and abilities of the previous Age's Chosen One, Lews Therin, who was a high-born global celebrity with centuries of experience in public service and leadership. This situation invites the question of whether any of Rand's own attributes as Rand matter at all to his being the world's future savior, or whether he's just an irrelevant vessel for all of Lews Therin's knowledge. Rand ultimately concludes that him being Rand rather than Lews is actually crucial, because Rand's salt-of-the-earth upbringing was what allowed him to survive the Dark One's attempts to push him past the Moral Event Horizon and the Despair Event Horizon. Lews Therin, despite his many admirable qualities, would have broken under the same circumstances.
  • Zig-zagged in Belisarius Series. Rajiv, Shakuntala, and Eon are of royal or noble blood and are trained intensely by the best warriors in the world; all three of them also turn out to be great warriors themselves. Belisarius, by contrast is a petty Thracian country gentleman who learned on the job to be the best general in history. One way or another all of them turned out to be Badass.

    Live Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Discussed Trope with Buffy's comparisons to Dark Action Girl Faith. Losing any strong family figures (Joyce's death, Giles leaving) proves the trope correct.
  • In Smallville, Clark Kent, naturally. When he is raised by the Luthors instead? Not so much.
  • Lampshaded in Kyle XY in Season 2, when Kyle defends the actions of his Distaff Counterpart Jessi by pointing out that, had he not been found by the Trager family, he could have easily ended up the same way.
  • Invoked in Camelot. As part of his Batman Gambit to create the perfect king, Merlin gave baby Arthur to an ordinary rural family so that he'd be raised with a stronger moral compass and an appreciation of the plight of the common folk.

    Video Games 
  • A definite source of constant debate among the Mass Effect fandom, where you can choose the background of the Player Character. One involves a sixteen year old escaping an EXTREMELY horrific massacre of his/her hometown, and another involves growing up in the overpopulated, gang-ridden slums of an Earth city. The third involves being raised aboard ships and space stations (with at least one surviving parent). Of course, it's the other major background choice and the choices of the player throughout the games that really explains what kind of person the Player Character truly is.
    • The upbringing does have a small effect on gameplay. Depending on the background you choose, you get a slight bonus to paragon and renegade points. Being Earthborn adds a renegade bonus, and being a Spacer does the same thing for paragons. Being a colonist results in a smaller bonus to both sides of the meter. At one point, each of them can admit to Ashley that their early life is what influenced them to join the military. The Colonist, for example, can admit that s/he wanted to make sure that what s/he went through at 16 wouldn't happen to others.
  • Played with in Blaze Union. Our hero Gulcasa grew up in the ghetto, oppressed by the rich and those who feared and despised his demon blood, and was abandoned by his mother and abused by his father. By some miracle, he managed to come out of all this as an unbelievably kind and empathetic person. "Some miracle" also goes by Siskier and Jenon, the two childhood friends who essentially raised Gulcasa and restored his faith in and ability to trust other people. It's strongly implied that without Gulcasa's traumatic childhood, he wouldn't have developed his ideals and sense of justice—but also that without Siskier and Jenon, he wouldn't have the gentle nature and morals that enable him to become a great and beloved leader, and wouldn't have been able to withstand the Trauma Conga Line he gets put through towards the end of Blaze Union and throughout Yggdra Union.
  • In Pokémon Black and White , N was raised by Pokémon his whole life, which influenced him to fight against Pokémon battling and capturing.
  • In Dragon Age, as the illegitimate son of King Maric, Alistair had a much harder upbringing than his half-brother, having been forcing into a monastery due to his Uncle and Foster-Father's new wife despising him. Despite all of this, he's an incredibly humble and upbeat individual and if chosen to become King during the Landsmeet, ultimately proves to be a better warrior and beloved ruler than even his brother was.
    • In Dragon Age II, Hawke grew up on a farm in Lothering before being forced to flee with their family from the Blight. Despite rising from a penniless refugee to a member of the nobility, they were never afraid to roll up their sleeves and get things done in Kirkwall, making them both incredibly popular and a hero to the people in their adopted hometown.
    • Hawke's modest upbringing is nicely contrasted with their Uncle Gamlen, who was born into nobility as part of the incredibly wealthy Amell family. Fast-forward twenty-five years and Gamlen is near-destitute and living in the slums in Lowtown, having gambled away or squandered the entire family fortune on wine, women, searching for a prized gem and some bad investments in Qunari cheeses.

    Webcomics 
  • Sidekick Girl technically plays this straight, but outright mocks the way superhero comics tend to approach it.
  • Girl Genius have Bill and Barry Heterodyne. They came from a very long line of bloodthirsty warlords and apparently their father wasn't much better. It was their mother who taught them to use their Sparky powers for good. Agatha too has a lot of baggage both from the old Heterodynes and her own mother, but she was raised first by Barry and then by Punch and Judy, who installed a strong moral compass in her.
  • The Order of the Stick's bard Elan was raised by a Chaotic Good barmaid in what was implied to be a peaceful village. His Evil Twin Nale, on the other hand, was raised by a Lawful Evil warlord in a continent full of constant fighting, with other warlords trying usurp each other's power. Though a flashback shows that Nale was always the more aggressive of the twins, even as babies, Elan wonders what might have been if their positions had been switched.

    Real Life 
  • The ancient Romans believed that the best way to guarantee the young became great leaders was to instil them with a good moral compass (by the standards of the time) and give them a good education: their mothers generally took this responsibility, reflecting the role Cornelia had in raising Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, two of the most celebrated plebian consuls.
    • Averted by Ostrogoths. Theodoric stated a boy who has once trembled at the sight of schoolmaster's rod, does not dare to bear a sword as adult.
  • The ancient Chinese were also big believers of this Trope. And not just for heroes, but in making good citizens and decent human beings, upbringing and education was key. Mencius, the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself was actually the product of this, as his mother supposedly moved three times just to ensure the right environment for her son. It paid off.