Hero is a Four-Letter Word

Posted by Melanie Ann Phillips on

Part Three: Hero and Villian Mix It Up

We've seen how both Hero and Villain are actually composed of several different qualities. And, we've seen that for every quality the Hero possesses, the Villain has a counterpart. When these qualities are combined in this classic manner, Hero and Villain become stereotypes. When these traits are expressed to the extreme, they become melodramatic.

We have also indicated that the elements of Hero and Villain might be distributed among other characters to break out of the stereotypical mold. One of the most powerful examples of this is to simply swap traits between the Hero and Villain themselves.

In this article, we're going to have the Hero and Villain "Mix it up," to show how relatively minor alterations in the stereotypical arrangement can open up a huge new realm of creative opportunities.

Hero vs. Villain

To begin, let's list the qualities of the Hero and Villain for comparison:

Hero: Protagonist, Main Character, Central Character, Good Guy

Villian: Antagonist, Influence Character, Second-Most Central, Bad Guy.

To recap, by the definitions we have been using: Protagonist is the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the story's goal. Antagonist is the chief force opposed to the Protagonist achieving the goal.

Main Character represents the audience position in the story and carries the moral attitude being explored in the story. In contrast, the Influence Character represents the opposing moral viewpoint.

The Central Character is the one most prominent in the story, either by pages, screen time, or the intensity with which it is drawn. The 2nd Most Central character is right behind it in prominence.

Finally, the Good Guy character seeks to help others even at its own expense, while the Bad Guy character seeks to help itself, even at the expense of others. As we can see, these two classic character types are well balanced against each other in their stereotypical arrangement.

Protagonist / Antagonist Swap

But what happens if we maintain that balance yet swap some qualities between the two? Lets begin by swapping the first qualities - Protagonist and Antagonist - to create an arrangement like this:

Hero: Antagonist, Main Character, Central Character, Good Guy

Villian: Protagonist, Influence Character, Second-Most Central, Bad Guy

In the case shown above, we have created a modified Hero character who represents the audience or reader in the story, is the most important character, and is a Good Guy, but is trying to stop or prevent something rather than make something happen.

We also now have a modified Villain character who tries to change the Main Character's point of view, is second most important, and is a Bad Guy, but is trying to achieve something, rather than prevent something.

In fact, this is the arrangement of character traits in almost all of the James Bond films! It is the "Villain" who has a dastardly plan and puts it into action, making him the de facto Protagonist. The Villain is the one with initiative in 007 movies, and it is Bond who is the reactionary, trying to stop the Villain before he can successfully complete his evil scheme.

This is the primary character reason that the Bond films feel so uniquely Bond. Our Hero is actually the Antagonist! Now, some might argue that once the Villain begins his efforts, then Bond is the one with the goal - to stop him. But it really boils down to what is called "Point of Attack." That phrase describes the moment at which the story begins.

If the story began after the Villain's scheme was already a known problem, then perhaps we could say that was the status quo, and Bond is taking the initiative to change it, thereby making him the Protagonist. But most Bond films set the status quo as a peaceful world scene into which the Villain interjects an element of threat. Only then does Bond spring into action, to stop what the Villain is trying to do.

So, Bond remains a Good Guy, is still the Central Character, continues to carry the story's moral position, but is an Antagonist, rather than a Protagonist.
In a story, the Protagonist represents our own initiative - the motivation to shake things up, change the order, alter the course.

In contrast, the Antagonist represents our reluctance to change - the motivation is cto maintain the status quo or to return things to the state in which they had been. The battle between them illustrates the inner conflict we all experience when trying to decide if it is better to try something new or to let sleeping dogs lie.

So, simply swapping the qualities of being Protagonist and Antagonist will have a tremendous effect on a Hero and Villain, even though all the other qualities remain the same. If you have only been creating the standard Hero and Villain, this one technique alone will open many new creative avenues.

Main / Influence Swap

Now how much would you pay? But wait! There's more.... Suppose we put the Protagonist and Antagonist qualities back in their usual places and try another kind of swap:

Hero: Protagonist, Influence Character, Central Character, Good Guy

Villian: Antagonist, Main Character, Second-Most Central, Bad Guy

Here we have set the Villain up as the Main Character, which basically means that the reader or audience experiences the story through the Villain's eyes, and, that the Villain is the one grappling with the moral dilemma and the Hero is the one trying to change his world view.

Now that's interesting, isn't it? A good example of this arrangement is A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is the Bad Guy, suffering the Moral Dilemma, we see things from his position, and he is the Antagonist, trying to put a stop to the meddling of the ghosts and get the status quo back to normal.

The Ghosts, collectively, form the Hero of the story, taking the initiative to change Scrooge's life-course, tying to change his attitude, and trying to do the right thing for someone else, even though they can't help themselves (classic Good-Guy mentality).

There's one other change in that story that doesn't match the line-up listed above, however. Scrooge is also the Central Character and the Ghosts are the Second Most Central. So, the proper arrangement of qualities in A Christmas Carol would look like this:

Hero: Protagonist, Influence Character, Second-Most Central, Good Guy

Villian: Antagonist, Main Character, Central Character, Bad Guy

This example has served to illustrate that you don't have to limit yourself to swapping just one quality, but in fact, can mix and match them in any combination you want! Imagine the possibilities!

Good Guy / Bad Guy Swap

Still, there's one more kind of alteration in the classic Hero and Villain we have not yet addressed at all: Good Guy and Bad Guy. Based on what we have done so far, you might assume we would simply want to swap those two traits and, to be sure, we could do that:

Hero: Protagonist, Influence Character, Central Character, Bad Guy

Villian: Antagonist, Main Character, Second-Most Central , Good Guy

Now you have a Hero that is, perhaps, more of the classic Anti-Hero, something like the Main Character in Taxi Driver. Here's a disturbed individual who is under such personal pressure that he snaps into a fantasy world and acts to the harm of others. But, he is definitely the Central Character, and he is the Main Character because we see the story through his eyes and he grapples with the moral dilemma, He is also the Protagonist, because he is the one who take the initiative.

Now, while we could do that simply Good Guy/Bad Guy swap, there's something a little different that really opens up the game...

What if we make both characters Good Guys? You know, just because two people disagree doesn't mean one of them has to be operating from ill intent. They might both have the best interests of others paramount in their minds, yet differ in their views of how to accomplish that.

So, if one wants to build a dam on the river that runs through the small town in which he grew up in order to end the poverty under which his people are suffering, another of the town's citizens might be dead-set against it because he believes it would ruin the small-town atmosphere, and even if the people have more money, it wouldn't be worth living there anymore.

Clearly both are Good Guys, yet in the effort to achieve the goal, they are diametrically opposed. The man trying to build the dam is the Protagonist. The man trying to stop it is the Antagonist.

Putting it All Together

Okay, let's take the example above and use the freedom of all that we have learned to fashion two completely non-stereotypical characters.

First, we already have the Protagonist trying to build the dam and the Antagonist trying to stop it. Next, you pick one as Central Character and make him the more important and memorable of the two. You make this choice by picking the one you find most interesting to be Central, because your own interest in the character will almost automatically cause you to give him more media real estate and to draw him with the greatest passion.

Choosing which one you want as your Main Character may be trickier, since it doesn't necessarily have to be the Central Character nor the Protagonist. Often, a charismatic Antagonist makes a good Main Character, but so does a dull bystander who simply provides a good perspective on the story for the reader or audience to adopt.

Finally, you determine if both are Good Guys, Bad Guys, or if one is Good and the other Bad. This choice will depend on whether you want your audience or reader to stand in the shoes of a Good perspective, as with Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, or in the shoes of the Bad perspective as with Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

In the Good scenario, you make your reader or audience feel self-righteous, and teach by example. In the Bad scenario, you accuse your reader or audience and teach by encouraging them to deny it in their own lives and prove you wrong. Then, you use your plot to explore both characters' points of view, ultimately passing your judgment upon them as your story's message.

Well, you get the idea. All this might seem pretty obvious by now, but recall back to the beginning in Part One one of this trilogy of articles when we were only talking about the classic Hero and Villain. At the time, they might have seemed the best way to go for any story, but now... Well, Hero is a four-letter word, and by breaking him and his Villainous counterpart into their various components, you can now create far more interesting, unpredictable and believable characters than you could before.

Study Exercises for Part Three: Mixed up Heroes and Villains

1. List three pairs of Heroes and Villains, such as Chief Brody and The Shark from Jaws.

2. Break down each pair to show how the four basic qualities of each are either in the classic arrangement, or have been redistributed between the two.

3. For each pair, list examples from the story in which they appear that illustrate each quality as belonging to the character you have determined possesses it.

Writing Exercises for Part Three: Building Non-Stereotypical Heroes and Villains

1. Devise a goal for a hypothetical story. Create a Hero/Villain pair with Protagonist and Antagonist swapped. Write an example of what might happen in the hypothetical story that would illustrate their positions in regard to the goal.

2. Devise a moral dilemma (such as working weekends to support one's family vs. spending time with your children). Create a Hero/Villain pair with Main and Influence Character qualities swapped. Use a story example to illustrate how the reader/audience sees the story through the Main Character's eyes, or from his or her position. Illustrate how the Hero, as Influence Character, will pressure the Villain to change his or her point of view in regard to the moral dilemma.

3. Create a story scenario that fits each of the following:
- Hero is a Good Guy and Villain is a Bad Guy.
- Both Hero and Villain are Good Guys.
- Both Hero and Villain are Bad Guys.
- Hero is a Bad Guy and Villain is a Good Guy.

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