The Hero-Driven Story
Basically there seems to be two different types of stories: one where a villain drives the story (“Die Hard,” “Star Wars”) and one where the hero drives the story (“Little Miss Sunshine”, “Broken Flowers”). The difference is that in a villain-driven story, there’s a single dominant villain with henchmen who make the hero’s life miserable. In a hero-driven story, there are just a series of villains who have no relation to each other and who just pop up to harass and delay the hero in his or her quest for a goal.
In a large majority of movies, the villain pursues a goal with Horrible Consequences with a deadline that forces the hero to react. In stories where the villain’s goal dominates, then the villain and his henchmen constantly create obstacles for the hero to overcome.
Think of “Die Hard” where Bruce Willis must constantly fight against the army of terrorists controlled by the villain, or “Star Wars” where Luke must constantly fight against stormtroopers and TIE fighters controlled by Darth Vader.
In some cases, stories don’t have a single villain. Instead, these stories typically have multiple, unrelated villains who all work together to block the hero, even through they don’t even know each other. Unlike movies driven by a strong villain’s goal, movies with multiple, unrelated villains are more often driven by a strong hero’s goal. Two prominent examples of this story structure are “Finding Nemo” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
In “Finding Nemo,” the hero is Marlin, a father who has just witnessed a scuba diver kidnapping his son Nemo and taking him away. Now Marlin’s sole goal is to find and rescue Nemo. To achieve this, he must overcome multiple, unrelated obstacles. First, he needs to deal with a vegetarian shark who falls off the wagon and decides he wants to eat fish instead. Next, he has to deal with a carnivorous fish in the darkness of the deep sea.
Some more unrelated obstacles include pigeons trying to eat fish and a roving band of jellyfish that can sting him to death. Finally, there’s the dentist who has captured Nemo. Marlin must battle all of these obstacles, who have no idea that the other obstacles even exist. At all times, Marlin must face a new set of unrelated villains who block his way.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero dreams of entering the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Like “Finding Nemo,” there is no single villain’s goal driving the story. Instead, it’s the hero’s goal that drives the story.
First the little girl must convince her family to take her to the beauty pageant. Then they drive in a VW bus that breaks down. Next, the grandfather dies so they have to smuggle his body out of the hospital without getting caught by the nurse. Later they have to deal with a police officer who steps them for speeding. Finally, they have to deal with the lady in charge of registering contestants, who refuses to let the little girl in because she’s a few minutes late.
All of these villains have no relation to one another, yet they’re constantly popping up just in time to slow down the hero’s progress towards her goal. When your hero has a strong, driving goal, then you’ll most likely have multiple, unrelated villains. When your villain has a strong, driving goal, that’s when you’re most likely have a single villain controlling multiple henchmen like every villain James Bond ever faces.
When your hero has the strong, driving goal, the villains that he or she must face just can’t pop up at random. Instead, every villain is partially created by the hero’s actions. In general, stories where the hero pursues a strong goal needs to rely on an interesting hero. Stories where the villain pursues a strong goal (think James Bond) often relies on an interesting villain in addition to an interesting hero.
What makes “Die Hard” so fascinating is that both the hero and villain are extremely memorable characters. In most villain-driven stories like James Bond movies, the villain is often more interesting than James Bond. In “Skyfall,” the villain is a deranged ex-spy. In “Dr. No,” the villain is the mysterious Dr. No. In bad villain-driven stories, the hero can often feel like a cardboard character, such as bad James Bond movies like “A View to a Kill.”
When a story is driven by a strong hero goal, then the hero must be interesting, unique, and memorable because their quirky personalities is what keeps our attention and creates their own conflict.
In “Finding Nemo,” the first villain are the vegetarian sharks, trying to give up eating fish. Marlin would never have run into those sharks if he hadn’t been searching for his first goal, which was to find the scuba diver’s mask that contains the address where his son, Nemo, has been taken. He likely wouldn’t have met the sharks if he hadn’t been arguing with Dory, his friend who claims to know which way the scuba diver’s boat went.
Marlin’s goal of finding the scuba diver’s mask leads him into his next villain, which is the blind carnivorous fish in the deep sea. After he and Dory escape this villain, Marlin’s own desire to ignore Dory leads him into the poisonous jellyfish. His search for Sydney (the location of these scuba diver) leads Marlin directly into the mouth of a whale and later into a flock of pigeons. Finally, his pursuit of Nemo leads him directly into the dentist’s office.
At all times, the hero must create his own problems by putting himself into situations where he must face different villains.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the little girl is the hero, but she’s relatively helpless despite being the driving force. Although she’s a strong character, her family members are even quirkier and stranger, from her father who’s a failed motivational speaker to her brother who has taken a vow of silence to her grandfather who’s a dirty old man. Through their own pursuit of a goal, hero’s of hero-driven stories create their own villains in pursuit of another stepping stone that brings them closer to their ultimate goal.
The first obstacle that the hero must face in “Little Miss Sunshine” are her own parents. They want her to pursue her dreams, but don’t have the money to get her there. Not wanting to disappoint her, they decide to drive her to the beauty pageant.
Their next obstacle is that their VW bus breaks down. Although the little girl hero doesn’t solve this problem, her desire motivates her father to solve that problem by push starting the VW bus whenever they need to go anywhere.
When the grandfather dies, the father again, driven by the hero’s determination, convinces him to take action once more to smuggle the body out. Since the little girl can’t physically perform actions to overcome the problems, her father becomes the substitute figure instead.
Defining a Physical Hero’s Goal
In stories drive by the villain’s goal, the hero has an emotional goal with no clear way to resolve it. In “Star Wars,” Luke just knows he wants an adventure, but he doesn’t specifically want to blow up the Death Star. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis just wants to get back with his wife, but he doesn’t even know the terrorists exist.
In hero-driven, goal-directed stories, the hero has a clear, physical goal that he or she wants to get. In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin’s clear goal is to rescue his son Nemo. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the little girl’s clear goal is to enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.
If your hero has a clear, physical goal, then you likely won’t have a single villain opposing you hero but a bunch of unrelated villains. When defining your hero’s goal, ask yourself, “Is my hero’s goal something I can see?” Rescuing Nemo is a clear, physical goal that the audience can see. Competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is a clear, physical goal that the audience can see. Hero-driven goals are always big, audacious goals.
If you hero has a small physical goal, then you’ll likely need a villain’s bigger goal to drive your story. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’s character has a goal of getting back with his wife. That’s relatively mundane and trivial. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s goal is to have an adventure. That’s big, but vague.
To create a hero-driven, goal-directed story, your hero’s goal needs to be:
Physical and clearly defined. (Can you take a picture of it? If not, then it’s too vague.)
Immensely important to both the hero and the audience
What is your hero’s physical goal that can be photographed to show its achievement while also being immensely important to your hero?
Plotting the Stepping Stones of Your Hero’s Goal
Instead of a single villain creating a mystery that gradually gets revealed over time, a hero-driven story gradually reveals stepping stones that the hero needs to reach in pursuit of a larger goal. Your hero often goes through three major stepping stones before reaching the ultimate goal.
In Act IIa, the first stepping stone marks the beginning of the journey. In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin’s first goal is to find which way the scuba diver went with Nemo. To achieve this goal, Marlin needs to find the scuba diver’s mask. Blocking his way to the mask are the vegetarian sharks, an ancient minefield, and the blind, carnivorous fish in the deep sea.
Once Marlin gets the scuba diver’s address off the mask, his next stepping stone in Act IIb is to get to Sydney where the dentist has taken Nemo. To get there, he has to get past poisonous jellyfish and a whale.
When Marlin finds himself in Sydney, Act III begins where he has to get past a flock of pigeons and finally get into the dentist’s office itself. The conclusion of Act III represents the climax where Marlin finally gets to save Nemo from a fishing boat.
Think three stepping stones to the hero’s goal. In “Finding Nemo,” those three stepping stones are to find where Nemo is (by reading the address on the scuba diver’s mask), get to where Nemo is in Sydney, and then get to the dentist’s office where Nemo is trapped in an aquarium.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero must first get her family together to get started on the road trip that will take them to the beauty pageant, which forms Act IIa. The first major obstacle occurs when the VW bus breaks down, which forces them to push start the bus whenever they need to get going. At the end of Act IIa, everything appears to be going well when the grandfather suddenly dies.
Now Act IIb begins and the second stepping stone is to continue towards the beauty pageant by hiding the grandfather’s body in the trunk after smuggling him out of the hospital. This goal nearly gets thwarted by the police officer who stops the father and wants to look into the back seat of the VW bus. After the hero manages to get past this obstacle, the final obstacle starts Act III.
The first obstacle in Act III is the bitchy lady in charge of registering contestants. Because the hero has arrived late, the lady refuses to let the hero register to enter the pageant. Then the final climactic scene occurs when the hero has to perform in the pageant and appears totally outclassed. Despite her family’s pleas to give up, she bravely goes on stage anyway and her act brings together her whole family.
If you’re creating a hero-driven story where the hero needs to pursue a strong goal, what are the three major stepping stones your hero needs to overcome?
- Stepping stone #1: Find where Nemo was taken (by reading the address off the scuba diver’s mask)
- Stepping stone #2: Get to where Nemo was taken (Sydney)
- Stepping stone #3: Get to the dentist’s office in Sydney where Nemo is trapped in an aquarium
“Little Miss Sunshine”
- Stepping stone #1: Get everyone on the road to head towards the beauty pageant
- Stepping stone #2: Get back on the road again and get to the city even after the grandfather dies
- Stepping stone #3: Get to the pageant itself and register as a contestant
Stepping stone #1: What’s the first step your hero needs to take in Act IIa to get closer to the goal?
Stepping stone #2: What’s the second step your hero needs to take in Act IIb to get to the goal?
Stepping stone #3: What’s the final step your hero needs to take in Act III to achieve that goal?
Defining Your Villain’s Motivation and the Real Conflict
In stories where the villain dominates and controls the hero’s situation from start to finish, the villain often has a goal of his own to achieve and the hero just happens to get in the way. In stories where the hero’s pursuit of a goal dominates, the villain is often much less stronger and motivated to fight the villain. Instead, the villain needs his or her own reason to opposite the hero.
In most cases, the villain really doesn’t care about the hero, but the hero’s appearance simply threatens the villain’s daily activities. In “Finding Nemo,” the dentist just wants to keep his fish and has no idea that he’s even hurting Marlin by keeping his son Nemo as a pet. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the mean registration lady just wants to follow the rules and doesn’t personally care about the little girl entering the pageant.
In hero-driven stories, the villain is an external threat, but the biggest challenge is really the internal conflict that the hero must overcome to achieve his or her goal.
In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin can’t get together with Nemo until he trusts that Nemo knows what he’s doing, which saves everyone from the fishing net. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the little girl isn’t fighting the mean lady as much as she’s fighting the tremendous odds stacked against her in the beauty pageant and her own family trying to convince her not to embarrass herself by performing on stage. Despite the doubt from her own family, the little girl decides to go on stage anyway, which is her ultimate triumph.
Hero-driven stories make the final battle less a fight against an outside enemy and more a fight against an internal conflict. As a result, hero-driven stories can have far more emotionally satisfying endings than typical villain-driven stories like bad James Bond movies.
For your own story, decide what your villain’s motivation might be to oppose your hero. More importantly, define the emotional struggle your hero must overcome to finally achieve his or her goal in the end. The goal isn’t as important as the way that person must act to achieve that goal.
Defining the Four Part Story Structure of Your Hero’s Goal
Remember the Four Part Story Structure? Your hero’s goal also fits into this four part structure as follows:
- Hero has a goal and works to pursue it (Act I)
- Hero achieves first stepping stone on the way to the goal (Act IIa)
- Hero achieves second stepping stone to arrive at the goal (Act IIb)
- Hero faces and overcomes an internal problem to achieve the initial goal (Act III)
In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin’s initial goal is to protect his son, Nemo. When Nemo gets captured by a scuba diver, Marlin’s next stepping stone is to find where Nemo went, which he can learn by retrieving the scuba diver’s mask. Once Marlin learns that Nemo’s in Sydney, Marlin gets to Sydney.
Then he finds a way to get to the dentist’s office where Nemo is trapped in an aquarium. Although he fails to rescue Nemo initially, he eventually reunites with Nemo just as fisherman capture Nemo in a huge net. By trusting that Nemo knows what he’s doing, Marlin overcomes his over-protectiveness so Nemo can escape and finally reunite with Marlin once more.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s initial goal is to enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Her family agrees to drive her there but nearly get derailed when their VW bus almost breaks down. Then the grandfather dies and his body can’t be taken across state lines, so they smuggle him out of the hospital and leave anyway. A police officer nearly discovers the body but they finally make it to the beauty pageant where the hero must face the pressure from her own family not to perform in the beauty pageant. The hero does it anyway and her actions help bring the family together.
For your own story, identify these four parts of the hero’s story:
- What is the hero’s main goal that can clearly be visually seen? What does this goal look like?
- What’s the first step your hero needs to take to get one step closer to the goal?
- What’s the second step your hero needs to achieve to get to the goal?
- What internal conflict does the hero need to overcome to achieve the initial goal?
Hero-driven, goal-directed stories heavily rely on a clear, distinct goal that’s extremely emotionally driven so the audience can fully understand why the hero wants to achieve that goal. The hero’s goal needs to be concrete so we can visually see when the hero achieves (or fails to achieve) that goal.
That means the hero’s goal must be both emotional and physical. While villain-driven, goal-directed stories like “Star Wars” have a hero who pursues an emotional goal, the hero often lacks a clear physical goal to pursue. Only when the villain interferes in the hero’s life does the hero suddenly have a physical goal.
In hero-driven, goal-directed stories, the hero has a clear and distinct physical and emotional goal right from the start. Now it’s just a matter of pursuing that goal and overcoming a series of unrelated obstacles and villains along the way.
Of the two approaches (villain-driven vs. hero-driven), the villain-driven story structure is often easier to create. Villain-driven stories tend to rely more heavily on action while hero-driven stories tend to rely more on emotional conflict.
In “Broken Flowers,” Bill Murray plays a man who tries to find which of his old girlfriends may have sent him a letter that he has a son. Bill Murray’s goal is clear and emotional. If he discovers which old girlfriend sent that letter, he’ll have achieved his goal. The goal is emotionally-driven because we can understand someone wanting to know which woman raised his son who he has never seen. There’s no single villain in “Broken Flowers.”
In “Paper Moon,” Ryan O’Neal plays a con artist who’s forced to deliver a young girl to her aunt. When he drops the little girl off at her aunt’s house, then he’ll have achieved his goal. His emotional goal is to get rid of this little girl as soon as possible because she’s a pain in the neck. Like “Broken Flowers,” there is no single, dominant villain in “Paper Moon” who consistently threatens the hero.
Hero-driven stories tend to rely less on action and more on drama. Both “Broken Flowers” and “Paper Moon” are dramas with lots of comedy thrown in. Villain-driven movies like “The Matrix” and “Avatar” are dramas with lots of action thrown in.
If you have no idea how to start your story, first determine the type of story you want to tell. Action and horror movies tend to be villain-driven stories like “Alien” and “The Exorcist.” Comedies can be villain-driven stories like “Ghostbusters,” “Men in Black,” and “Miss Congeniality,” but many comedies are hero-driven stories like “Groundhog Day,” “Back to the Future,” and “Legally Blonde.”
When in doubt, start with a villain-driven story first. If having an all-powerful villain in control of an army of henchmen doesn’t make sense for your story, then switch to a hero-driven story instead who faces an endless parade of unrelated villains. Because there is no big bad villain to consistently root against, hero-driven stories rely more on comedy, quirky but lovable characters, and dramatic conflict to maintain the audience’s interest, which can be a bit trickier. Ultimately, both story structures can work equally well as long as it works for the type of story you wish to tell.