By Melanie Anne Phillips

creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

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Heroes and villains are not true archetypes.  A true archetype is a structural function in a narrative, such as a protagonist and an antagonist.  But heroes and villains also include other attributes beyond the structural ones - storytelling conventions and personality traits as well.  This makes these two well-known characters stereotypes, rather than archetypes.


In a previous article on heroes I presented four attributes that defined that stereotype.  Let’s review them and then see how they differ from the core attributes of a villain.


First, a hero is the protagonist of a story, meaning that it is his or her job to try and achieve the overall story goal.


Second, a hero is the main character, meaning that the reader or audience identifies with that character above all others - standing in his or her shoes or at the very least just behind them, looking over their should as the most personal view of the story - the view from the inside.


It should also be noted that the main character is the one who grapples with the decision to stick with their moral view or outlook or to change and become a different person as with Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.


Those first two attributes are structural as they fulfill parts of the overall message or argument made by the story.  But the next two are what make the hero a stereotype.


The third attribute of a hero is that he or she is the central character.  Essentially this means the hero is the one the storytelling seems to revolve around - he or she is at the eye of the hurricane.


While this often happens naturally in the writing process because the hero is both the protagonist and the main character, it really comes down to how much “media real estate” you give your protagonist and main character - how much dialog, how much action, how many pages of description of his or her part of the story in your novel or how much screen time in you script.  To be a hero, this stereotypical character must be the star of the show.


The fourth and final key aspect of a hero is that he or she is the “good guy.”  Sure, there are all kinds of variations of anti-heroes and reluctant heroes, and I’ll address those later, but the point here is that the primary hero stereotype requires that this character is a good guy.  Simply put, this means he hopes and works toward what is best for others.


So - what about the villain?  What is a villain? A villain is the dramatic antithesis of a hero, and therefore has the following four attributes:


He is the Antagonist


(Tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal)


He is the Influence Character


(Tries to convince the main character to change)


He is second in prominence to the Central Character


(Gets more attention than anyone other than the hero)


He is a Bad Guy


(Works against what is best for others - usually enjoys it)


Putting it all together then, a villain tries to prevent the goal from being achieved, represents the counterpoint to the audience position in the story, it the second most prominent character, and seeks to do the wrong thing.


Now this most stereotypical line-up creates melodramatic stick figure heroes and villains.  As I did in my earlier article on heroes, what if we swap around these traits a bit to create more believable characters who have some real depth and humanity.


Suppose we keep all the traits of a villain except the bad guy and create a character with the following mix:


Antagonist


Influence Character


Second Most Prominent


Good Guy


Such a character is no longer a villain even though he or she has three of the four villain attributes.  As antagonist, he or she is trying to stop or prevent a goal, but because they are trying to do what’s best for everyone, they might be trying to stop a protagonist who has the goal of developing a wilderness area that would bring in money and jobs, but ruin the environment and lifestyle of the locals.


As influence character, we don’t see the story through his eyes, but through the eyes of the developer (main character), just as we see A Christmas Carol through the lens of Scrooge’s experiences in the first person.


This villain is still second most prominent, as more time is spent with the developer, but as a good guy, we hope he can prevent the goal and/or convince the main character developer to change so all will work out well for the local folks.


As you can see, just swapping one single trait between the stereotypical hero and villain can create far more compelling characters.


Another variation on the typical villain might be:


Protagonist


Influence Character


Second Most Prominent


Bad Guy


Here, everything is the same as a stereotypical villain except we have replaced the structural role of antagonist with protagonist.


In fact, it is this combination that is used most often in action/adventure stories. This character gets the ball rolling by instigating an evil scheme (protagonist/bad guy), tries to lure the "hero" to the evil side (influence character), but is second to the "hero" only in prominence.


This is often the case in James Bond stories where it is the bad guy who sets the story in motion, making him the protagonist, while James Bond is the antagonist, trying to prevent the bad guy’s plans.


As we can see, swapping attributes between the hero and villain opens up a world of opportunities for creating more interesting and less typical characters. But, these are not the only ways to swap attributes. For example, just because the hero is a Good Guy doesn't mean the villain has to be a Bad Guy.


Suppose we have the following two characters:


Typical Hero:


Protagonist


Main Character


Central Character


Good Guy



Atypical Villain:


Antagonist


Impact Character


Second Most Prominent


Good Guy


Here we have a story about two people, one trying to accomplish something, the other trying to prevent it. (Protagonist / Antagonist)


One representing the audience position in the story, the other being the most influential with an opposing message argument. (Main Character / Influence Character)


One is the most prominent; the other second in audience interest (Central / Second Most Prominent)


But both believe they are doing the right thing and are both doing it for the good of others.


The story is about which one is deluded about the benefit of his efforts for his or her fellow characters.


Indeed, the author's message would center on convincing the audience that one of these characters was misguided and the other properly grounded. Such a story would provide an excellent opportunity to explore a moral issue that doesn't easily fall into black and white clarity. It would stand a good chance to come across as deep, thoughtful, and provocative - and all by simply having two Good Guys duke it out.


At this point, it should be pretty clear that if you've only been writing with heroes and villains, you haven't been doing anything wrong, but you have been limiting your creative opportunities.


So, next time you are designing the two most important characters in your novel or screenplay, take a little time to consider their four most important traits and whether they might be made more human, interesting, and compelling by swapping those qualities around.


This article is drawn from our
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