There’s no story without a villain of some kind. Even if that villain is a force of nature, you need to find a way to personify that abstract villain. In the 1972 “The Poseidon Adventure,” the rising water is the real villain, but it’s hard to fight against rising sea water. That’s why the hero constantly faces various people who personify the forces working against the villain. When the ship initially flips upside down, the hero (the minister played by Gene Hackman) has to argue with the purser who tells everyone to stay and wait for help. Meanwhile the hero urges people to start climbing up to get away from the rising sea water.
Once the hero guides a handful of survivors to the main part of the ship, he runs into the ship’s doctor who is leading another band of survivors towards the front of the ship instead of towards the engine room. The hero has to fight against this doctor and convince his band of survivors not to follow them.
In other movies like “Avatar,” the hero faces a human opponent. In “Avatar,” the hero is a crippled soldier and the villain is the leader of all the soldiers, so the villain is basically an evil, more powerful version of the hero. Three things always keep the hero bound to the villain.
First, the villain often threatens to kill the hero either physically or emotionally. The threat of death forces the hero to react to the villain. Of course, the hero could always just hide, so a second criteria binds the hero to the villain even more.
Second, the villain often threatens to hurt others. In “Avatar,” the villain wants to wipe out the aliens. That’s bad, but the hero could still walk away. The third criteria is what forces the hero to stick with the villain.
Third, the villain threatens someone the hero loves. If the hero doesn’t act, he or she will lose a loved one and lots of innocent people will get hurt. Those two criteria alone forces the hero to act and never give up fighting against the villain.
In “Avatar,” the villain threatens to kill aliens to get at the mineral resources underneath their sacred tree. Second, the villain threatens to hurt the hero by throwing him in prison and keeping him confined in a wheelchair where he’s paralyzed from the waist down. Third, the villain threatens to kill the hero’s girlfriend. Given these three threats, the hero can’t do anything but fight back.
In “Terminator 2,” the same three step process binds the hero to the villain. The hero is the good Terminator and the villain is the more powerful evil Terminator. The evil Terminator wants to kill John Connor but the good Terminator is programmed to protect John Connor. To get to John Connor, the evil Terminator has to kill the good Terminator. Second, if the evil Terminator wins, the human race will be destroyed. Third, the good Terminator doesn’t want to see John Connor die as his surrogate father figure.
In a different genre, look at “Miss Congeniality.” The villain is trying to kill someone at the beauty pageant and the hero must stop the villain. Then the villain threatens all the beauty pageant contestants. As an FBI agent, the hero can’t let this happen. Finally, the villain threatens the hero’s friend in the beauty pageant.
So to bind the hero to the villain, you need to meet three criteria:
- The villain must threaten the hero with emotional or physical death
- The villain must threaten innocent people who the hero must protect
- The villain must threaten someone the hero loves
What makes “The Karate Kid” so interesting? First, there’s a villain threatening the hero by beating him up. Second, the villain’s friends are jerks who treat others poorly. Third, the hero needs to help his teacher recover his confidence about his own life. With so much on the line between the hero and the villain, the actual fight scene is now far more fascinating to watch. Otherwise it’s just an interesting but ultimately meaningless fight scene.
What makes “Frozen” so interesting? First, the villain is threatening to let the hero die. Second, the villain doesn’t care about the people in the hero’s kingdom. Third, the villain wants to kill the hero’s sister. So when the hero protects her sister from the villain by sacrificing herself, that makes the ending far more emotionally satisfying even though the action itself is relatively simple.
Give your hero multiple reasons to fight the villain. First, the villain must threaten the hero. Second, the villain must threaten others who the hero feels duty-bound to protect. Third, the villain must threaten someone the hero loves. With this much at stake, any showdown between the hero and villain becomes far more powerful.