Every story has a single voice, and your characters must reflect different aspects of that one voice. If you hear a single voice, it’s easy to concentrate on what that voice has to say. If you hear a dozen voices speaking at once, it’s hard to focus on what any one voice is trying to tell you.
That’s the way story telling works in a screenplay as well. If you’re trying to tell one story, it’s easy for the audience to focus and enjoy your story. If you’re trying to tell a dozen different stories at once, the audience won’t know what to listen to and they’ll wind up confused, bored, or just plain frustrated.
You may think nobody would tell multiple stories in a single screenplay, but they do, and that’s the biggest flaw with bad movies. What makes a good movie is the single-minded focus on telling one story.
The “Die Hard” script taught me this lesson. You don’t tell one story by just focusing on a single character. You tell one story by focusing on a multitude of characters that all reflect different aspects of the same character.
In “Die Hard,” the main character is played by Bruce Willis, who’s basically afraid of flying and learning to overcome his fear. So the basic story is about overcoming fear and what better way to dramatize this fear than through a massive takeover of a group of heavily armed terrorists?
The black police officer, who befriends Bruce Willis, is also learning to overcome fear. As he tells Bruce Willis over the radio, he once shot a kid who held a toy gun, and after that, he could never fire his gun again. Of course, by the end of the movie, this officer learns to overcome his fear by gunning down the one surviving terrorist who is about to kill Bruce Willis with a machine gun.
The head terrorist is the complete opposite of Bruce Willis. Instead of overcoming fear, this head terrorist is loaded with confidence and has no fear at all. He’s the opposite of Bruce Willis. Where Bruce Willis represents fear, the head terrorist represents the absence of fear, but they’re really different sides of the same person.
That’s the key to crafting the villain in your script. Your hero and villain are complete opposites, but the hero’s allies usually reflect different aspects of the hero’s same major need. In “Die Hard,” it’s about overcoming fear. Whatever your main theme might be, your hero needs to demonstrate this characteristic and your minor characters need to demonstrate those same characteristics as well. Essentially, the villain and the minor characters in your story are different mirror images of your hero.
Imagine how disjointed “Die Hard” would have felt if Bruce Willis was focused on overcoming fear, the black policeman was focused on revenge by killing bad guys, and the head terrorist was focused on finding a woman who could help him conduct future heists? Such a variety of different stories would have been confusing at best.
The next time you see a movie, try to identify the major characteristic of the hero and then look to see how that characteristic is reflected in the villain and the minor characters. If it’s a good movie, you’ll probably see this unity of multiple characters reflecting the same characteristics. If it’s a bad movie, you probably won’t see this unity at all.
By telling the same story through different characters in the same movie, your script will speak in a single voice. If you don’t tell the same story through different characters, you’ll wind up telling different stories and risk losing your audience in the process.