What makes any story more interesting is conflict. There’s always conflict between the hero and the villain but you can’t have the hero and the villain constantly battle because that fight needs to occur at the end. One common technique is to have henchmen of the villain constantly attack the hero, but another technique is to use the hero’s world against the hero as an obstacle itself.
In “Hidden Figures,” the obstacle isn’t just a black woman trying to convince NASA that she’s smart enough to do the job, but also the rampant racism raging through the hero’s world. Yet this racism is never directly confronted but introduced in subtle ways that continually attacks the hero. In the opening scene, racism is introduced when a white policeman confronts the three black women.
Another hint of racism appears when one black woman confronts a white woman and asks why can’t she be a supervisor if she’s already doing the work of a supervisor. The white woman says that’s out of her hands, which basically means she’s avoiding the issue and hiding behind racism without being an outright racist. Yet another scene occurs when a black woman first enters a room filled with white men, and a white man mistakes her for a cleaning lady.
Later, this black woman drinks form a coffee pot while all the white men stare in horror. The next time this black woman tries to drink coffee, she notices a tiny coffee pot has been set aside just for her, labeled “Colored.”
Perhaps the best example of a world trying to defeat the hero occurs when the hero has to walk clear across NASA’s campus just to use a colored woman’s rest room because there are no colored woman’s rest rooms in the part of the campus where she works. By making the world constantly fight against the hero, the hero has to struggle against more than just the villain.
“Star Wars” also makes Luke’s world work against him. When Luke first tracks down R2D2, he has to battle the Sand People who attack him. Next, Luke has to enter a seedy bar where Obi-wan must go to find a pilot to take them away. While Obi-wan’s looking for a pilot, two strangers try to fight Luke before Obi-wan rescues him. By constantly making the environment work against Luke, “Star Wars” makes Luke’s struggles even more satisfying when he triumphs in the end.
Before you start writing your screenplay, think of all the ways your hero’s world can work against him or her. In “Thelma and Louise,” men constantly work against the heroes such as the hitchhiker who steals their money to the policeman who stops them. In “Don’t Breathe,” the hero is trapped in the villain’s house where the villain knows his way around but the hero does not. In “Green Room,” the hero is trapped in a bar while the villain and his attack dogs and henchmen surround the building, ready to kill the hero if he steps outside.
The world is a nasty place for your hero so make sure the world constantly fights against your hero’s dreams. The tougher the world of your hero, the more satisfying your story can be.