Character Conflict Matrix

Stories are about drama and drama is about conflict. In most stories, you’ll have two main characters: a hero and a villain. Obviously the hero and the villain should have conflicting goals where if the hero wins, the villain loses but if the villain wins, the hero loses. Think of any sports movie like “Rocky” or “The Bad News Bears” where there can only be one winner.

Besides the two main characters (the hero and the villain) fighting each other, most stories also have two secondary characters: the mentor and the ally. Both the mentor and ally help the hero, but to strengthen any story, the mentor and ally should also be fighting against the villain in some way.

In “Avatar,” the four major characters are:

  • The hero, a Marine running around in an alien avatar’s body
  • The villain, a Marine leader who wants to wipe out the aliens
  • The ally, a scientist who trains the hero how to operate the avatar body
  • The mentor, an alien female who saves the hero and teaches him the ways of their culture

So the four major conflicts look like this:

  • The villain wants to wipe out the aliens but the hero wants to save them
  • The ally wants to learn from the aliens but the villain wants to use force to get the aliens to cooperate
  • The mentor wants to protect her way of life but the villain wants to wipe it out
  • Basically, the hero, mentor, and ally must all fight against the villain. When all three characters fight against the villain, you have a stronger story. When only the hero fights against the villain, you have a one-dimensional story.

What makes a great movie like “Die Hard” so enjoyable is seeing how all the main characters have a story arc of their own that they conclude against the villain. The hero eventually kills the villain, but the ally (the hero’s wife) gets to punch the face of the TV news reporter who gave away her name and nearly got her killed, and the mentor (the black police officer) regains the confidence to shoot his gun when he shoots and kills the last terrorist. Even the limousine driver gets to ram a terrorist to get back at the villain.

The mentor and ally don’t need to defeat the villain (that’s the hero’s job) but they do need to defeat someone working on the villain’s side. By giving every major character a conflict against the villain that ultimately gets resolved, the story feels more balanced, and that just makes a stronger overall story as a result.

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