Heroes are admirable because they fight an uphill struggle against tremendous odds, so the best way to increase the odds against the hero is to make sure everything works against the hero. The two main factors that can work against the hero are:
- Minor characters
Luck never works for the hero but can work for the villain. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the hero’s uncle accidentally leaves the savings and loan money in a newspaper that he pressed in the villain’s lap. By luck, the villain now has the hero’s money and by holding on to this money, the villain can ruin the hero.
Luck can’t work the other way because then it creates a phony story. Imagine if in “It’s a Wonderful Life” the hero has lost his money through his uncle’s mistake. Now as the hero is wandering around, despondent and thinking of suicide, he stumbles across a bag of money that someone dropped behind and this bag of money is exactly the amount he needs to save his savings and loan. See how this would create an unsatisfying conclusion because luck would have suddenly solved the hero’s problems without the hero having to do anything.
So the general rule is that luck always works against the hero but can work in favor of the villain. Besides luck working against the hero (and working for the villain), minor characters should also work against the hero (while possibly working in favor of the villain).
In “Searching,” a father’s daughter has gone missing so the father looks on his daughter’s computer for information that might explain what happened. The villain’s goal is to keep the hero from finding out the truth of what happened to his daughter, so when the hero meets minor characters, they all serve to help the villain by making these minor characters look like they were responsible for the missing daughter when they aren’t. These minor characters don’t cooperate with the father and they behave in suspicious ways, which all contributes to the belief that they’re hiding something from the father when they really aren’t. Yet the actions of these minor characters help the villain to cover up the truth of the missing girl’s disappearance.
Think of any good movie and you’ll notice that luck usually works against the hero and minor characters often unwittingly help the villain even if they don’t know who that villain might be. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s goal is to appear in a beauty pageant. Even though there’s no single villain opposing the hero’s goal, there are a series of unrelated characters who all work to keep the hero from getting to the beauty pageant on time. A villain doesn’t always have to be an evil, James Bond villain mastermind. A villain can simply be anyone who gets in the hero’s way.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the two women simply want to get away for the weekend. Then a minor character tires to rape Thelma. Later another minor character (played by Brad Pitt) steals the money Thelma and Louise need to get away. Later, a truck driver annoys the two women by leering at them. At all times, all minor characters exist solely to confront and block the hero.
Look through many bad screenplays and you’ll often see multiple scenes where nobody and nothing opposes the hero. That means the scene is likely poorly written or doesn’t belong in the first place. Every scene must oppose the hero whether it’s by chance or through minor characters getting in the way.
Often times the hero can overcome these minor characters fairly easily, but conflict is necessary to make the scene interesting in the first place. If there aren’t any minor characters to get in the way of the hero, then the hero needs to fight among his or her allies.
In the original “Ghostbusters,” the ghostbusters need money to start their business, so they convince Dan Akroyd’s character to take out three mortgages on his house. As they walk out of the bank, Dan Akroyd’s character asks if he should be doing this and Bill Murray’s character calmly tells him, “Relax, everyone has three mortgages these days.” This may be a minor conflict but it’s enough. Imagine how boring this same scene would be if the ghostbusters simply walked out of the bank with no conflict at all. That would simply create a boring, flat scene. By adding a bit of conflict between the ghostbusters, these short scene becomes far more interesting and funny at the same time.
So don’t make life easy for your hero. Luck and chance must work against the hero along with minor characters if the villain himself can’t oppose the hero. If minor characters don’t get in the way of the hero, then having the hero’s friends do it instead. Ultimately, someone or something must get in the way of the hero in every scene. If there’s a single scene where your hero isn’t being blocked or opposed, then chances are good that scenes needs to be rewritten or modified.
Make your hero suffer in every scene somehow. That ultimately makes a far more interesting story.