Watch any boxing match and you’ll always see two equally matched opponents. While one may be more skilled than the other, from all physical appearances, the two are nearly equal. That equality is what makes your villain so frightening to your hero and makes it easy to identify who your hero or villain should be.
Some people know who their hero is, but struggle to find the right villain. Others create a villain first, but have no idea who might be the most effective hero to combat the villain. The answer is simple. Make your hero and villain nearly identical characters.
There’s a reason why two nearly identical characters make for great conflict. It’s because they’re so much alike that we really can see no difference between them so the outcome is always in doubt.
Think of any movie and the villain is nearly always identical to the hero. The only difference is that the hero changes, and that allows the hero to win while the villain refuses to change, and that’s what causes the villain to lose.
In “WALL-E,” the hero is a robot named WALL-E while the villain is the auto-pilot computer named Auto.
In “Die Hard,” the hero is a tough and crafty cop while the hero is a tough and crafty terrorist.
In “The Incredibles,” the hero is a superhero and the villain is a supervillain.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the hero is a bitter, frustrated man and the villain is a bitter, frustrated man.
In “Avatar,” the hero is a Marine while the villain is a Marine.
Think of the villain as the hero gone bad. One reason why the original “Star Wars” was so intriguing was because Darth Vader is so similar to Luke, and Luke can easily see how he could become like Darth Vader as well. The hero isn’t just fighting against another person, but also fighting a person who represents his temptations to turn evil.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the heroes are two women yearning to break free from their confining lives. The villains are men who are trying to maintain the status quo. Two sides of the same coin.
What happens if you create a villain who has nothing in common with your hero? They won’t butt heads to maximize the conflict. Imagine a shy accountant as the hero of “Die Hard.” He wouldn’t use the same violent skills as Bruce Willis did, so the story would turn out completely different.
Now imagine that your villain is nothing like your hero. Would a James Bond movie be exciting if James Bond had to battle an evil librarian?
Go one step further and consider making your supporting characters (both your hero’s allies and your villain’s minions) the same type of character. In “Inglorious Basterds,” the main villain is the feared and relentless Jew Hunter. However, one of his minions is the smart and suspicious SS officer who exposes the British spy in the German tavern, which leads to a massive shootout that kills nearly everyone.
The heroes of “Inglorious Basterds” are the French girl who survived the massacre of her family, and Brad Pitt, who leads the Inglorious Basterds on a rampage behind enemy lines. Both hate the Nazis and both are clever. If both of these were Nazis, can you see how they would be nearly identical to the villains?
Instead of seeing your story as filled with diverse characters with completely different goals, your story is really about a single character pursuing the same types of goals in different disguises. Just come up with one interesting character as your hero or villain, and you’ve defined the blueprint for creating the rest of your characters in different disguises.