In the next few posts I’ll start talking about how to write Heroes and Villains. Before I do though, there is an important aspect to establish first in your storytelling, which will help you to recognize if your heroes and villains are even making a difference in your story.
(Raiders of the Lost Ark and Aladdin Spoiler Alert)
I don’t know if there is already a name for this principle, but it goes like this: You can determine the relevance of any item in your story by analyzing how the story would unfold differently if you remove that item.
This was brought to light in a tangible way by a particular episode of The Big Bang Theory titled “The Raiders Minimization”. It analyzed the film Raiders of the Lost Ark and realized that the character of Indiana Jones held no actual relevance to the unfolding of the story. With Indiana Jones in the story, the Nazis acquire the ark and the ark kills them. Without Indiana Jones in the story, the exact same thing would have happened. So his presence in the story makes no difference, so he is irrelevant to the story. He accomplished nothing. I’ll talk more about that film at the end of this blog, but first, the principle of Cause and Effect is worth discussing in detail.
For the record, in order for the hero to be a hero, they have to accomplish something. Something useful. You don’t want to tell a story where your hero is irrelevant, because then they’re not really a hero. This is why “and then the police showed up” is not a popular ending, because then the police are the hero, and your character is just someone who managed to not die for two hours. Now the police showing up in the end is tolerable if that was the hero’s entire goal from the beginning, because then you’re making it an integral part of the game – the tension. And the game is over when the police show up. But you want the hero to be the cause of the police showing up. You don’t want your audience to believe that the police would have shown up anyway if your “hero” had not been around.
In light of this principle, you want your hero to be somebody who shows up and solves a problem that already existed before they came onto the scene. I.e. there’s a crime spree going on in the city and the police don’t have the man-power to stop them. Then your hero shows up and is able to stop them, or joins the police squad and gives them the help they need to put an end to the crime. You want your hero to make a positive difference.
Likewise, when writing villains, you want your villain to be somebody who makes things worse by their presence, or by the decisions that they make when they come onto the scene. You want everyone in the story (or the good guys at least) to be worse off because of the villain’s existence.
And at the end of the story, if the hero defeats the villain, you either want everything to be back to the way it was before, or you want things to be better because of the continued work of the hero. But you don’t want a scenario where things are better because of something the villain did. That would be to give credit to the villain for the good way that things turned out in the end.
A film that does this principle extremely well is Disney’s Aladdin. Consider how the story changes by removing certain elements from the story. In each case everything that should have relevance has the right kind of relevance. Let’s analyze it one piece at a time.
First, the villain. Without Jafar, there is no threat to the kingdom, so the city of Aggrabah is better off without him, although the princess is still lonely either way. Since he is in the story, he controls the sultan through the hypnotic properties of his staff, and he is able to force a marriage between him and princess Jasmine against her will and rule the kingdom. With or without the existence of the lamp, he is still a problem for the kingdom.
Aladdin is the hero, and like a proper hero he saves the day. True, without him in the story, Jafar never would have been able to get the lamp, but even without the lamp, Jafar is still able to marry Jasmine against her will and rule the kingdom because of his hypnotic staff. But Aladdin is the one who recognizes what the staff is doing, and Aladdin is the one who breaks it, removing Jafar’s power. And even with the lamp in play, Aladdin still has the wisdom to trick Jafar into trapping himself with his greed.
So with or without the lamp, Jafar still wins as long as Aladdin is not around. With or without the lamp, Aladdin still saves the day. Which brings us to the lamp. The fact is, the lamp is unnecessary. It makes the story more interesting, but it really isn’t necessary for Aladdin to be the hero – and that’s the whole point of the film.
Some might say, “But without the lamp, Aladdin would not have gotten the girl.” But don’t forget, Aladdin and Jasmine had already met. They were in his hideout and having a special moment. Aladdin was about to get the girl. The only reason that moment was interrupted was because of Jafar chasing him down, which only happened because he was looking for the one who could get the lamp for him. Without the lamp, Jafar never ruins that moment. Aladdin gets the girl, the girl brings him home, Aladdin see what’s going on with the scepter, breaks it and saves the day, the sultan rewards him by revoking the law that Jasmine has to marry a prince, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even better, Aladdin never goes through that whole mess of thinking he has to be somebody else in order to win Jasmine’s heart. They just fall in love naturally.
That’s why the movie is called “Aladdin” instead of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” as the story is normally called. Because the lamp isn’t the point. The lamp doesn’t save the day. The lamp isn’t the hero. Aladdin is.
In summary: nobody’s perfect, but a hero by definition should (at the very least) solve more problems than they cause. And a villain, by their own choices, should cause more problems than they solve.
If I may go back to The Big Bang Theory’s analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark for a moment, I look at the film a little differently. Yes, all their points about the ark and the Nazis are valid, but without Indiana Jones in the story the girl would have been tortured and killed, or at the very least tortured and taken prisoner. In fact, even if she had somehow survived all the way to the end of the film, she still would have died along with the Nazis when the ark was opened. The only reason she didn’t die is because Indiana Jones told her to keep her eyes closed. So in my opinion, the point of Indiana Jones is not to defeat the Nazis, or even to acquire the ark. The point of Indiana Jones is to save the girl.
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.
Excellent tutoring here, Benjamin. You’ve given me a lot to think about in my next novel. I especially like your take on Indie’s heroic role in ‘Raiders’; the point of his presence in the story is to get the girl. Personally, I always like it when the hero gets the girl.