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Heroes and Villains

What makes a movie character into a movie hero, why that's different from a protagonist. How a villain differs from a hero and how to write an anti-hero.

The protagonist

Now, if you remember, the protagonist is the central focus of the plot, the character who undergoes the transformation and takes the lead in the third act. Some more detail on what makes a protagonist tick can be found in other parts of this site but here's the dark, dark secret about protagonists...

Just because you're the protagonist it doesn't mean you're the hero.

Before we move on to what a hero actually is we should briefly mention that this description works perfectly well for writers, but doesn't make any sense to other roles in the industry. Most of the crew think the hero is the lead actor, irrespective of what he does in the film. Most producers think the film's hero is whoever they had to pay the most, even if it's just for a cameo. Most directors think the film's hero is the director.

The hero

So if the protagonist isn't necessarily a hero then how do we determine the hero? Well, and I know you're going to want to slap me in a moment, the hero acts heroically.

OK, I admit it, even by my standards that was a pretty mean shot. What we really need to understand is what character traits, in a protagonist, identify that protaognist as the hero.

The hero is:

  • Compassionate
  • Inclusive
  • Courageous

So the hero, for example, shows compassion, where a villain doesn't. He is kind, not cold. This is demonstrated, remember, through his actions. He may be cynical, sarcastic, insulting, racist, homophobic, intolerant... verbally. His actions, whatever he says, are compassionate. He is inclusive. This is a trait that's often missing, by the way, from real-world heroes, and for good reason. The movie hero might risk your life but he'll give you an out. More importantly he'll give you the choice to become a hero yourself. This freedom of choice, this ability to decide for yourself what your role should be, this often isn't possible in real life, but in the movies it's a common theme.

Our hero is also courageous. This may be physical courage, charging the enemy line or running into a fire to rescue someone. It may also be intellectual, emotional, social courage. Whatever it is, it's the courage to risk loss that makes our person a hero, it is the willingness to accept risk that makes for the tension in the hero's journey.

The villain

It's really easy to say villains are simply the opposite of heroes. That's quite misleading. Let me explain. In order to be a hero you have to have all of the heroic characteristics. In order to be a villain you only need to lack one of them. A villain could be inclusive and compassionate, for example, it's his cowardice that makes him a villain because he is demanding courage from others. This demonstrates the key principle of villainy. Villains are, above all, hypocritical. They demand from others something they are unwilling to do themselves. They expect compassion and mercy from the hero but offer none in return.

So villains lack at least one of the heroic traits, but they do have traits of their own, they are:

  • Hypocritical
  • Arrogant
  • Dangerous

They don't have to lack all of the heroic traits but a really good screen villain does have all of the villainous ones. We've already said that hypocrisy is the centre of the villain, but the other two are important as well. Our main villain must be arrogant and dangerous.

Arrogance may lead him to believe he doesn't need allies or it may lead him to treat them with contempt, issuing summary orders. His danger to the hero is because he's the film's personification of the danger to the hero that drives the plot.

One more thing...

It isn't true of all heroes but, if the story is tragic, the hero must have a character flaw that drives the tragedy. This isn't necessary for all types of stories but for tragedy it's essential. This is because in a tragedy it is the journey, exemplified by the hero's story, that leads inevitably to the tragic conclusion. Making the tragic element part of anyone else's character divorces the tragedy from the hero's tale and, as we know, the story is the hero's tale.

An example

It's really easy to imagine a hero and a villain if they're wearing capes and battling over Lois Lane, but let's take a more mundane situation.

An emotional drama, not tragic, about a poor boy from a gritty urban background who wants to get into the best art school in the city, a place that usually takes the children of the rich and powerful. The school offers just one scholarship each year, can our hero get in?

Our hero is easily able to exhibit all of the key traits of the hero and, in this case we don't need him to have a tragic flaw because the ending's going to be a happy one. Sorry, spoilers. He volunteers at a local elderly centre, teaching art and painting cheerful murals on their walls; compassion. He has friends who support him and he gives them an opportunity to help him during the plot. More on that later; inclusive. Simply going out of his comfort zone, scaling the steps of the forbidding, elite, art school is an act of personal bravery; courage.

Our villain is going to be the Dean of Admissions. His only interest is making sure the children who come to the school are from the right background. They will have the kind of wealthy parents that can make donations to the school. He claims to want the best students, but actually chooses the privileged; hypocrisy. He asserts to be the arbiter of quality, over-ruling even other staff members when they offer opinions as to the merits of students; arrogance. He is the gatekeeper to the school and therefore the personification of the threat to our hero's ambition; dangerous.

Forming the journey

Our hero might, for example, make friends with a girl who's a fellow applicant, but she's from a wealthy family. Maybe she's better than him, giving him the chance to show inclusiveness as he cheers her on, maybe she's less skilled and he can show humility as he encourages her. Maybe she gets her rich father to put on a showing in the city to highlight his work, to force the Dean to confront the hero's quality. Maybe the event turns out to be the most amazing evening of food and presentation, leading to her event-planner mother finding jobs for the kids who volunteered to work the evening, the hero's friends.

How is the villain defeated? Perhaps our supportive girl switches the labels on some admission pieces and the villain selects the rich kids, later finding out the labels were wrong. Maybe they change the villain, making him accept the boy. Maybe he's too stubborn and vile, ending up fired by the administration.

What's our last scene? Maybe the entire school class, all brilliant and creative, are making the most amazing mural on the wall of an elderly centre or children's hospital. Or, if romance is in the air, we could end on a shot of the hero and his friend painting each other as they sit at two easles, romantic music playing us out.

The point is that we haven't limited our plot, we can still do almost anything with the story, but we are in a position to structure some of the tale simply by having picked a hero, a villain and a situation. This is the power of heroes. This is the role of structure.

"What's unique to cinema, unlike any other art form, is that you can show the audience and the character the same piece of information. They see what the character is seeing."

Brian de Palma