For years I have worked (sporadically) on a book that unlocks the secret doors of story telling. I have never gotten very far, but I have collected some good ideas that I think have a lot of value and have guided my own work. I think I got jammed up mostly because there aren’t a lot of secrets. In fact, once you begin to discover the mechanics of a good story, it’s a lot like engineering and a lot less like magic.
Writers everywhere have railed against these constraints forever, but most of them come back to the basics eventually. The fact is, we consistently find certain traits heroic and certain traits evil. We always have.
If you want your characters to be relatable and find a wide audience, they’ll end up following patterns that pretty much every hero before them followed. Of course, a great writer realizes that there is a lot of room in these boundaries. Creativity doesn’t require absolute freedom. Absolute freedom is an illusion. The truly great writers find a way to make something fresh and exciting, even while working within the walls. So let’s talk about some of the things that make villains and heroes.
Common Hero and Villain Elements
While there is no ideal formula for creating dynamic characters, there are some simple tricks that work very well. Let’s start with heroes and work our way up to villains. Creating heroes almost always starts with picking heroic, desirable and admirable traits. Here are a few:
– an understanding of the natural order
– reluctant to take up arms
– they lead only by necessity, not desire
– no desire for power over others
– unafraid to die or willing to die for something greater than themselves
– street smarts
– survived a powerful psychological wound but maintains desire to serve/do good
– willing to take all the steps necessary
– grace under pressure
– the ability to stay focused for longer than regular people in the face of fear
– an attention to detail
– a sense of right or wrong, even if his/her morals are unconventional
– lives by a code of conduct
– an adherence to truth
– a sense of fairness
– a desire to set the world right
– interventionism/not sitting on the sidelines
– a strong fighter, both mentally and/or physically
– a sense of humor
– playfulness in times of trouble
– optimistic or realistic
– a sense of justice
– protection of the week and less fortunate
– a willingness to stand up to unjust authority
– leader by example
– adeptness and strategic thinking
– keeps their word
Now characters don’t need to have all of these traits. In fact, they would be annoying if they did. But think of Harry Potter or Frodo in Lord of the Rings for a moment. How many of these traits apply to them? Not all of them, but many. Harry Potter is a natural leader, a great fighter in times of trouble and thinks of his friends before himself. Frodo is no fighter, but he is brave, a survivor. His is also humble. He tries desperately to have others carry the ring. Only when it becomes obvious that he is the only one who can carry it, does he take the burden on himself. Because of that, the audience will resonate with him whenever he falls. They will see it as the power of cruel fate, not retribution for his own hubris in feeling he is the only one who can do it. Harry Potter has greatness thrust upon him. Most heroes do.
Heroes believe in something greater than themselves. This is true whether he is religious or not. A hit man hero can believe in the code of the assassins. A samurai can believe in Bushido. A warrior can believe in country or kingdom. These are forces greater than us. They are rules to live by, personifications of society and the divine. They are ways of understanding our tiny existence. The hero realizes he is a spec of dust floating in an ocean of space, but does great things anyway.
A good technique is to give a hero many of these traits and then have him/her lack one of them. Han Solo is good looking, great under pressure and fearless. He is also an arrogant prick. That makes him all the more memorable.
Most importantly, what they lack serves as the foundation of their character arc. For instance Han Solo needs to learn the value of teamwork, so he starts as selfish and sheds much of that selfishness as the movie arc develops. A common hurdle for me is letting go of anger and it’s often reflected in my characters. The villains cave to their anger and the heroes try to channel it into something good.
It’s important to make our heroes human. If we simply give him traits from the above list, then they will seem superhuman and unreal. We don’t want to feel like a hero is just better than us. We want to believe there is at least a chance we could achieve greatness, if only we had the chance. The easiest and most effective trick to overcome this is to give the hero what I like to call the “straw man” weakness. This is a weakness that is acceptable, understandable and relatable. In essence, they are not really weaknesses, or weaknesses that we all have, so we find them acceptable. We weld this mix of these heroic traits to traits we don’t necessarily associate with heroes. We create an incongruous mix that gives the character much needed depth. When we give a character flaws, that makes them human and your audiences will love them all the more. It’s important to pick weaknesses that we can emphasize with. We won’t empathize with sadists or people who hurt children or people who continually break their word and cheat. So we mix those heroic traits with any of the following traits, which are by no means exhaustive:
– language that may be coarse or blunt
– a drug/alcohol habit
– a physical limitation
– anti-social behavior
– a weakness for women/men
– a problem with human authority
– anger management
– inability to maintain relationships
– obsessive, overly dedicated
– bad teacher
– addictive personality
– bull headedness
– sloppy dresser
– lack of focus in day to day matters
Notice how many of these traits could be spun as things that aren’t even weaknesses at all? Many of these traits are even heroic in our society, like skepticism of human authority or a person who dresses in common clothes and ignores the strictures of a rigid corporate code. We just need to temper the above traits. We can’t have them be the whole story. The majority of their actions must be heroic and they must try to overcome their flaws, or have a self-awareness of their weaknesses. Some of the flaws above can even be relished and embraced, like a corporate mogul who always wears ripped jeans and a tee-shirt to board meetings.
Don’t be afraid to pick incongruous traits to make your character interesting as well. For instance, if they’re blue collar characters like steel workers or cops or firefighters, then add something that is typically associated with white collar characters, like an appreciation of wine, or the ability to play the piano.
Creation of villains takes the inverse approach. You start with a series of negative characteristics and then add sympathetic and desirable characteristics to that person.
Villains generally have these common personality and character traits:
– a desire to avoid death/cheat death
– a desire for rigid order/dominance
– a desire to rule over others/set rules for others
– inability to love or connect to others in a true way
– rule by fear
– lack of empathy
– desire for wealth
– see sex as a purely physical thing
– enjoys the suffering of others
– ruled by anger
– prone to lashing out
– looks for shortcuts
– lack of empathy
– power hungry
The most critical character trait of all villains is a desire to beat death. He wants to subvert the natural order of things. He can’t accept that there is anything greater than him, something higher. Isn’t this the story of Milton’s Devil and Satan in the Christian bible? The villain does not believe in common wisdom and/or a greater plan. He does not believe that simplicity and surrender are the divine order of all things. While Yoda can live humbly in a swamp, Darth Vadar could never see himself in anything but castles in the sky.
Take a few great villains as examples. All of them have a desire to cheat death. You can easily fill in your own.
– Voldemort = literally means, “to flee Death”
– Darth Vadar = attempts to achieve mechanical immortality
– Rapunzel’s mother in Tangled = seeks to keep the Elixir of life to herself
In order to round out your villains, add traits that contrast their negative energy, such as:
– a love of classic music and the ability to play an instrument
– a sense of shame
– artistic passion
– conflicted feelings when they manage to make a connection with a certain person
– a sense of family
– caring for children
– a sense of charity
– a sympathetic childhood
– abuse suffered at an early age by friends, family or children at school
– a great sense of humor
– a sense of justice by any means necessary, justice that we can all relate to, even if we don’t agree with it
Think of the killer in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. He is a sadistic and paranoid killer, but when we see his childhood and his love for a young woman that he fights his inner demons for, he becomes relatable and understandable. It’s important to not add too many ingredients to the stew. Pick a few contrasting traits in your heroes and villains and you will create the illusion of a well-rounded person that reaches up from the page and connects with your audience.