Every story has a main character, even ensemble cast
stories. There is always a pivotal character whom the story is really about. For the sake
of simplicity, we’ll call them:
Also known as the Protagonist. The hero is the center of good in the story. He is the
person you root for. The Hero doesn’t need to be good in the purest sense. In fact,
people nowadays relate better to characters like themselves, flawed individuals trying to
do the right thing. People who try to do good.
The key word here is try. Most people have an idea what "good" is, but not
everyone agrees on what that is. Most people think of themselves as basically good. Even
the most sordid criminals don’t see themselves as bad. Defining who the hero is in a
story is based on one or more of the following factors:
1. The consensus of positive characters in the story ultimately take
the side of your hero.
2. The hero is a constructive force in the story, whereas the villain is destructive.
3. The hero, as champion of the premise, is vindicated when the premise is proven.
A good example of how a hero can be a villain or visa-versa, depending on the premise,
can be demonstrated in Romanian Folk Tales about Vlad the Impaler, also known as Count
In Romania, Vlad is a folk hero, despite the fact he butchered thousands of people. In
neighboring countries, he is a monster. Even though both Romanians and their neighbors
tell the same stories, Vlad changes from hero to villain depending on where the tale is
One story relates how some visiting dignitaries from Turkey came to visit Vlad at his
castle. They didn’t take off their hats in his presence. When he asked them why, they
said it was a custom in their country never to remove their fez except when sleeping. Vlad
then ordered his soldiers to nail the men’s hats to their heads so they would never
be tempted to disobey their custom.
In the Romanian version the story’s premise is "Foreigners should respect the
customs of the land they visit." The tale is used to show how Vlad taught those damn
Turks a thing or two about manners. How dare they be so rude to a Romanian lord! Whereas
in neighboring countries, the premise is: "Romanian lords are a bunch of psychotic
Or take the O.J. Simpson trial as an example. One section of the country felt he was an
innocent black man unfairly persecuted for marrying a white woman. While another section
thought he was a murderer who was treated with kid gloves because he was a rich,
famous black man and the city of L.A. was afraid of another riot.
The people who thought he was innocent considered all the evidence against Simpson to
be planted and made up. The people who felt he’s guilty thought the system was
stacked in his favor because the defense could say whatever they wanted and didn’t
have to prove it. Whereas the prosecution had to go through strenuous evidence hearings
before they could present their data.
This is why the story of Simpson dominated the media so strongly during the time of the
trial. The conflict between the premise and counter-premise was extremely hot. You could
also choose your heroes and villains easily. The players looked bad or good depending on
your side. Johnny Cochran was either a smart, honest lawyer out to save his friend from
the cruel jaws of society, or he was a sleazy con man out to free a rich pal he knew, in
his heart-of-hearts, was guilty. Marcia Clark was either a sharp, determined, underpaid
civil servant battling corrupt attorneys out to free their wealthy client, or she was a
vicious, cold bitch of a prosecutor, out to put away Simpson at any cost, just to advance
In reality, it’s no so cut and dry. Cochran could have been sincere and still be
wrong. Clark could been a bitch and still be right. In a good court room drama, these
characters would be fleshed out so you’re never completely sure about them until the
conclusion of the story. This way the counter premise is able to give the premise a tough
battle, making the story strong.
Unfortunately, the end of the trial did not answer anything for either side. No
one’s opinions were changed. Life and fiction are not the same. As we said before,
fiction is our way of making sense of the senseless.
In fiction, you need to decide who the hero is and work from there. The hero must be
the underdog in every story. If the hero isn’t battling insurmountable odds, they
don’t have a real conflict. No conflict, no story.
When the hero has too easy a time winning the Grail, the story has no punch. It’s
flat and anti-climactic. Nobody is interested in reading a story where there are no
stakes. And nobody is interested in a hero who doesn’t do anything special. The
conflict is what makes the hero interesting. The way the hero deals with it, and their
ability to overcome the conflict, is critical. So you have to make the stakes high or the
story and your hero are going to be awfully boring.
Empathy, not Sympathy
The Hero must be empathetic to the audience, not sympathetic. We must feel for
him as an equal, even if we disagree with him. Empathy makes you feel for someone in a way
you can relate to. Empathy is something you feel for an equal. For someone you see parts
of yourself in.
Sympathy is a more distant emotion. It’s what you feel for someone you feel sorry
for. You don’t really see him as an equal. You don’t see yourself in that
person, but you feel bad for them anyway. You may feel sympathy for a wino begging for
change, but you don’t feel empathy for him. Not unless you see him as a peer.
Empathy is created when we see the hero of a story as the center of good. We know that,
of the characters in the story, he is the one who is trying to make things right. He is
trying to create order out of chaos. If the story is constructed properly, the audience
will root for him as he journeys on his quest.
People, by nature, want to find the good in others. You create empathy by revealing a
character’s positive sides. Even when you’re dealing with anti-heroes.
Anti-hero stories work when we feel empathy for the main character, despite the fact
that he’s a rotten bastard. Your Hero doesn’t have to be Joe Perfect. He can be
a crook. But we must feel empathy for him or you’ve lost.
In GOODFELLAS, Henry Hill was an empathetic character because he was a decent family
man, wasn’t psychotic like his pals. Henry basically tried to do good as he saw it.
When he did bad things, it was often shown to be a logical action in his sordid milieu.
Even though we knew it wasn’t morally correct. You knew that he felt bad when he did
it. This made him human to us.
In BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Batman is an empathetic hero because we feel the
pain of his struggle to bring justice to a cruel world. Even though his methods are
questionable, and questioned by many of the stories characters, such as Superman.
REMEMBER: Empathy, not sympathy!
Choosing the hero
In some stories, we don’t know who the Hero is at first. Sometimes we’re
given multiple protagonists to root for. By the end, one of them is the survivor, or is
proven to be the winner of the Grail.
This technique is often used when you need to kill a protagonist to make the point of
the premise stronger. A good example is in the musical SOUTH PACIFIC. The story starts
when a young navy lieutenant, Joe Cable, arrives on a south seas island during World War
II. Cable’s reporting for a secret mission. He needs to convince an expatriate
Frenchman, named Emile De Becque, to help him sneak onto another island De Becque knows
well. The island is held by the Japanese and Lt. Cable’s mission is to spy on them.
De Becque doesn’t want to do help Cable. He’s middle-aged, successful, and in
love with a young American nurse named Nellie Forbush.
It seems clear right away that the Lt. Cable is the hero of the story. But we discover
later he really isn’t. The true hero is the Nellie Forbush. The Lieutenant only
serves as a device to validate the premise of the story. The Villain is preventing the
Nellie from marrying De Becque. The same villain prevents Lt. Cable from marrying an
island girl he falls in love with. Because both De Becque and Cable are losing to the
Villain, they decide to go off to do the mission against the Japanese. Cable gets killed.
This event helps Nellie defeat the Villain and marry De Becque in the end. Who is the
Villain? More on that later.
Every story can have multiple protagonists, but usually, there is only one character
who is the real hero of the story. They are the Grail winner. They will be the one to walk
away with the glory at the end. But that doesn’t mean they have to survive. As
we’ll discuss later, there are three possible endings to a story. And you decide
which one makes the point better. The hero can win the Grail in a whole lot of ways. Not
just by victory.
REMEMBER: The hero is the champion of the premise, whether they like it or not.
Also known as the Antagonist, the Villain is usually the champion of the counter
premise. The Villain is often the center of evil in the story. It is from him that the
conflict arises. He’s usually behind the dilemmas facing the hero and he’s in
direct opposition to the hero obtaining the Grail. Because he stands in the way, he is
usually a lot closer to the Grail than the Hero is.
Unlike the Hero, however, the villain doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a
force of nature, or merely something as abstract as life itself. The Villain can be the
Hero’s insecurities, it can be an addiction, it can be poverty, or an illness.
Remember our discussion of SOUTH PACIFIC? In that story the villain was bigotry. Nellie
Forbush didn’t want to marry Emile De Becque because he’d been married to a
South Seas Islander and has two children of a mixed race. Nellie was from Arkansas and was
raised by a bigoted mother, so it was hard for her to shake her upbringing. Lt. Cable
didn’t want to marry the island girl for similar reasons. He loved her, but he knew
society back home would ostracize him and he didn’t feel good about that. Later, when
on his mission, Cable decides to stay on the island after the war and marry her anyway.
But he gets killed before that can happen. His death shows Nellie how pointless bigotry is
and how it stands in the way of love between all people. She overcomes the Villain of the
story and marries De Becque.
SOUTH PACIFIC broke all Broadway records in its day. It was Rogers and
Hammerstein’s best and most successful work. But generally speaking, the audience
prefers human villains in their stories. Or humanoid, if you will, since a lot of the
villains in comic books can’t really be called human.
Villains don’t have to be evil, or even bad. They can be well meaning individuals.
After all, some of the worse crimes in history were caused by well meaning individuals.
The Inquisition was supposed to weed out the sinners, the Missionaries tried to save
people around the world by destroying their culture, the U.S. Government interned Japanese
Americans during World War II to make our country safe. We know now that all these people
were wrong, but at the time, they had "good" intentions.
Most "Villains" in real life think of themselves as the good guy. They think
they are doing the right thing. If you’re a liberal, you might see Rush Limbaugh as a
villain. If you’re a conservative, you might see Jesse Jackson as a villain. And if
you’re a centrist, you might see them both as villains. A Villain is anyone who is
not on "our" side. When you decide who the Hero of the story is, you’re
telling the audience which side to take. You then have to make the audience root for the
Hero and boo the Villain. But the Villain does not have to be evil. He can even be
Most of the evil in our world is caused by stupidity or greed, not by willful
destruction. When you create a Villain, it’s more instructive to the Audience to see
one that represents problems they can relate to. People generally don’t relate to an
alien who wants to rule the planet because they’re BAAAD. But give them a Villain who
wants to steal or make life miserable because it serves his own personal gain, and
the Audience can see truth in that. Most of us have been victimized at some point or
another by such people.
You also make a Villain more believable when you reveal their inner pain. Most
criminals are doing ill because that’s what they’ve been taught all their lives.
Or they’re trying to get some pay back for perceived injustices. Or they’re
trying to get ahead the fast way because their lives are terrible and they can’t take
the pain. They’re addicted to the rush of trying to win through danger.
Your villain must have a strong reason for what he does. He can’t just be doing it
because he’s evil. There must be something in it for him. The stakes for the villain
should be just as high as they are for the hero. That way, the story becomes more exciting
as it builds toward the climax. Failing that, you should at least create some reasons why
the villain must succeed. As the champion of the counter premise, his side demands equal
The Villain should be as believable as your hero. Maybe more so. After all, the hero in
a story is only as good as the Villain. The Villain creates the conflict. If you have a
weak Villain, you have a weak conflict. Then your hero doesn’t look heroic.
Villains are Superior!
The Villain should always have the upper hand until the climax of the story. If the
Villain isn’t winning, you lose the conflict. Say good-bye to the audience at that
point. Ever notice how people start walking out of the theater before the credits roll,
because they know the movie’s ended? They don’t call it the climax for nothing.
Once people have their fun, they’re outta there!
The Villain is the pull, the driving force behind the conflict. You need the Villain to
be powerful. The Villain has to put the hero on the ropes. The Villain can never show
weakness in the story until the climax. Otherwise, people will lose interest. Guaranteed.
The Villain must be superior to the hero in some way. In SOUTH PACIFIC, the Villain was
a powerful psychological force that prevented the heroine from truly opening her heart to
the one she loved. The Villain was winning up until the end. In TERMINATOR 2, the T-1000
was an unstoppable force right up to the last scene. In Jaws, the shark was relentlessly
kicking Roy Schieder’s scrawny butt until he got lucky.
Nobody cares if your hero can beat up a weakling. That isn’t heroic. The Villain
has to be superior in a way that matters. If not brawn, then brains. If not brains, then
skill. But the Villain must be superior.
REMEMBER: Weak Villain, weak story.