Many screenwriting books tell you to start with your hero. However, an equally important character is your villain so when you’re coming up with ideas for your screenplay, you can start with either the hero or the villain. Eventually, you’ll need to consider both your hero and villain to create a complete story.
If you follow most screenwriting books, they tell you to start with your hero but that can lead you into creating a lopsided story. The purpose of creating a story with your hero is to identify the emotional change your hero goes through. When you start with your hero, focus solely on who that hero is, how that hero changes, and who that hero becomes at the end.
In even a simple movie like “Escape to Witch Mountain,” the hero begins as a lonely cab driver living in a dumpy motel. By picking up the alien kids, the hero changes until at the end, the hero now has a female companion and has lots of money as well. While the story itself isn’t that great, the main point is that that hero changes from start to finish.
When you focus on your hero, you’re creating the emotional arc of your story. When you focus on your villain, you’re creating the physical arc of your story that defines the environment for how the hero will change.
For example, in ”Die Hard,” the hero’s change goes from being separated from his wife to being together with his wife. The villain forces the hero to change by battling terrorists. If the villain was a giant pink bunny rabbit, then the hero would have been forced to change by battling a giant pink bunny rabbit. The villain acts like the cup and the hero acts like the water poured inside.
The villain shapes the visual aspects of your story while your hero defines the emotional aspects of your story. Ignore the hero’s emotional change and you wind up with loud, visually stunning movies with no substance whatsoever. Ignore the villain’s effect on defining the movie and you just have emotional change with nothing visually interesting happening on the screen like a bad foreign film.
You can start with either your hero or your villain, but here’s how it can work either way. Let’s say you start with your hero. You want your hero to begin life as a shy introvert. By the end of your story, you want your hero to be a confident man. How will you achieve this? By defining your villain.
Make your villain an invasion force of aliens and your hero can develop courage by battling aliens with laser guns and missiles. Make your villain an arrogant co-worker and your hero can develop courage by finding ways to confront and defeat the villain in a court room or corporate board room. The hero’s change can be identical in both stories but the type of villain you choose defines how for hero can change.
Whatever change you wish for your hero, your villain needs to impose an Impossible Goal on your hero. In “Rocky,” the Impossible Goal is to stay on your feet for the entire fight against the heavyweight champion of the world. In “Die Hard,” the Impossible Goal is to defeat an army of well-armed terrorists. In “Saving Private Ryan,” the Impossible Goal is to find and save one person in a huge battlefield.
The villain needs to define an impossible goal to make your story interesting and challenging. If your villain is an invading alien force, then the impossible goal will be to defeat their advanced technology using primitive weapons (“Independence Day”). If your villain is a corrupt prison warden, the impossible goal may be to escape from prison (“The Shawshank Redemption”).
You can start with your villain if you want. Create a terrifying problem and then look for a hero who needs to defeat the villain by changing in some way. To make it easy, think of your hero as the twin of your villain. If your villain strives to achieve a goal through cleverness, then your hero’s weakness may be that he relies too much on his cleverness. If your villain relies on physical force, then you hero needs to rely on internal force (“such as the Force in “Star Wars”).
Ultimately, you hero and villain are identical people. Your hero wins by changing. Your villain loses by not changing. Once you know who your hero is, you can easily identify your villain. Likewise, once you know who your villain is, you can easily identify your hero. They’re basically the same person.
When creating your story, don’t think solely of the hero or villain but both. Focus on your hero’s emotional goal and your villain’s physical goal. You need both to create a complete story.