I just read a friend’s screenplay where the hero basically drifts through the story with no change. He stays the same from the beginning to the end while watching the story change the secondary characters around him. As a result, the hero is pointless. What makes the hero seem even more pointless is that unlike the other characters, the hero experiences no risk. Without a threat to make the hero’s life worse, the hero has no reason to do anything, no reason to change, and no sense of accomplishment when he or she finally reaches the end of the story.
At all times, your hero needs to face a threat where the threat can make the hero’s life worse. In action films, this threat is simply death. If Rambo fails, he’ll get shot and die. In drama, the threat is more often an emotional death. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the hero faces the loss of never seeing his kids as often as he wishes. Since seeing his kids is crucial to his happiness, taking away his kids would make the hero’s life worse.
In “12 Years a Slave,” the risk is that the hero will never get back to his family and will remain a slave for the rest of his life. In “Back to the Future,” the threat is that the hero will fail to get his parents together so he’ll never be born. In “The Help,” the threat is that the black housekeepers will forever be stuck as second-class citizens. In “How to Train Your Dragon,” the threat is that the hero will never get the girl and will forever be a wimp unable to help the Vikings battle the dragons.
Without a risk that threatens to make the hero’s life worse unless he or she does something, you don’t really have a story for your hero. Imagine a tightrope walker crossing the Grand Canyon. You can see the risk (falling to his death) so when he finally reaches the end, you can see it’s a major accomplishment. Now what would happen if you watched that same tightrope walker cross that same distance by walking along a sidewalk in a small city like Little Rock, Arkansas? Since there’s no threat of falling, there’s no interest in the final accomplishment. The tightrope walker may have covered the same distance, but without the threat of danger, there’s no sense of achievement at the end. Without a sense of achievement at the end, there’s no interest in the hero.
You have to threaten to make your hero’s life worse because that forces your hero to act. If the danger only makes the hero’s life annoying, that’s not enough to motivate anyone. Threaten to make the hero’s life worse and that’s a strong motivating force to force your hero to take action. Then constantly show the danger the hero faces if he or she fails. If the hero fails, his or her life will be dramatically worse so the hero has no choice but to keep fighting to win and make his or her life better.
In “Die Hard,” the hero has to keep fighting or else he’ll be dead and his wife will be dead. Not doing anything spells total disaster so he has no choice but to keep fighting. By achieving his goal of staying alive and rescuing his wife, his accomplishment at the end makes his life better but also creates an emotional sense of accomplishment because he survived so many risks along the way and still won in the end.
That’s the type of emotional victory you want your audience to experience. Boring heroes make boring stories. Exciting heroes make exciting stories. It’s really that simple.