At the simplest, most melodramatic level, a hero faces problems that come solely from an outside source such as a villain intent on destroying the world. This type of problem is often unsatisfying because you wind up with an unchanging hero who constantly battles a villain in escalating but repetitive conflict. Think of “Terminator 3” to see how boring constant and repetitive conflict can be despite any special effects and stunts to spice up the visual appearance of the conflict. Most action films rely heavily on an outside villain causing problems for the hero such as “Under Siege” or “Predator.”
On a deeper and more emotionally satisfying level, a hero should create his or her own problems. Now the problem is less the struggle to overcome a villain but more a struggle to overcome his or her own flaws. In “Tootsie,” the hero is a womanizer who suddenly finds himself stuck in a problem of his own creation. First, he’s dressed as a woman and has to hide this fact from everyone else. Second, he’s in love with the leading lady, but he can’t show his love for her because he can’t reveal that he’s not a woman. Third, other actors on the show are falling in love with him and he can’t stop them because he can’t reveal his disguise as a woman. In “Tootise,” the problems stem from the charcter’s own flaws rather than solely on an outside villain.
What makes “Tootsie” even more emotionally satisfying is that the villains the hero does face are like separate personalities of himself. The way the hero used to treat women is the exact same way that other men are now treating him. So not only does the hero have to face a villain, but he also has to face his own personality embodied in that villain. Now it’s not just a matter of defeating a villain, but defeating the internal conflict within himself in order to defeat the villain.
So the three levels of problem sources include:
- Outside villains (often emphasized in action films)
- Problems created by the hero (often emphasized in comedies)
- Problems created by villains who represent the hero’s own behavior (often used in great movies)
It’s easy to come up with simple, good guy vs. bad guy mentality movies like “Air Force One,” “White House Down,” and most mediocre James Bond movies. It’s much harder to come up with a story where the hero has to battle his own problems and villains who personify the hero’s own emotional flaws, but that’s the path to a great movie, and isn’t that what you should be striving for anyway?