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‘One Punch Man’ – if you read that and think “How can that possibly be interesting?” then you’re right on track with understanding the basic needs of an interesting story. I myself would not have given this a try unless I had seen images of the protagonist and realized these people clearly have a sense of humour.
And that theory was reinforced before even the opening song (which is now stuck in my head).
This show combines the most engaging elements of the super-hero genre and anime styling while taking them both beyond the unspoken boundaries of reason to just tell a great action story while having as much fun with it as possible. The main character (Saitama) is far from the only interesting character on the show. Whether your thing is Super Man, Iron Man, Ninjas, Guyver, The Force, you are likely to find at least one character that appeals to you. I found several.
So what’s the premise?
This one guy becomes so strong that he can take out any threat with a single punch.
Isn’t that boring?
So… So why are you raving about it?
That’s why this is worth analyzing. I was just as surprised as you are. If you read my Storytelling blog post about Tension Killers, you’ll notice I warn writers not to make their heroes so strong that there is no perceived threat.
“The best way to understand tension (and equally important, to understand tension-killers) is to think of it as a game… … A game is only a game as long as there is a chance that you can win, and a chance that you can lose. If there is no chance of winning, then you check out. If there is no chance of losing, then there’s no excitement. The tension only exists as long as the Protagonist has both a chance of winning and a chance of losing.”
You might ask, “Then how does this show get away with it?”
It doesn’t. Saitama’s life is incredibly boring. He’s lost all passion. And the audience feels that about him.
The thing is, in Saitama’s case, the antagonist is not his enemy – the antagonist is boredom. In a weird way, we as the audience end up wanting the villains to be incredibly strong, just so that Saitama can have some excitement in his life.
There are other points of tension as well. His friends are not invulnerable, and he notes early on that he has a habit of never arriving on time, as well as other issues he has to deal with. But the usual primary point of tension is thrown out in this show, which makes for a very challenging premise to write with. I keep wondering how they can possibly keep the show interesting, and they keep finding a way. I even have my doubts about a second season, but I’ve come to enjoy them proving me wrong.
This show was brought to my attention at the perfect time. I’d been struggling with writer’s block for a while. A lot of the entertainment I used to get excited about has not been as interesting to me lately – that includes various anime and super-hero titles. So a show that takes both of those genres, mashes them into one, takes them to the extreme level of absurdity and shoots it into my face with a bazooka is the kind of wake up I needed right now.
The action is stylistically over the top and very well choreographed, and the art design is fantastic (in the right places). The combination of themes from western and Japanese pop cultures makes this show an easy transition for sci-fi fans who are new to anime and want to be introduced to the genre, while the diversity in the characters serves as a showcase of what makes anime character designs so awesome. Many of these villains are so well thought out, detailed and executed that it makes you feel as if they could have been very significant characters if they didn’t have the misfortune of existing in the same world as Saitama. A lot of inspirational material here for fellow writers.
One complaint I have is that the intro song keeps putting me in the mood for a video game, but as the show is still fairly new there aren’t yet any games based on it, nor any that comes close to the feel of the show.
I wanna do some analysis now and explain some more why this show impresses me so much. As of yet, we have not been given an explanation of Saitama’s power. Although it feels as though the show may be riddled with clues, a definitive explanation has not been given. We know where Saitama thinks his power came from, which is a rigorous exercise regime, but it doesn’t logically follow for physical workouts alone to cause that much difference. This created an interesting response in me as a viewer though, because even though I don’t know how he got his power, his level of intensity in training makes me feel that he’s earned it; and that actually feels more important than the how. How many times have we seen heroes with supreme power that they didn’t seem to do anything to earn? They tend to feel like dooshes to me. But because Saitama’s power is addressed the way that it is I end up not giving credit for his power to science or magic or fate or anything else like that – I end up associating his power with just how hard he worked to get it – and that makes it even more impressive whenever I see a demonstration of his power. This is what makes Saitama better than Super Man.
Here’s my problem with Super Man. He’s not a man – he’s an alien. That disqualifies him from being a representative of how ‘Super’ a ‘Man’ can be. But that’s how writers want to use him. Writers keep holding him up as a symbol of greatness and justice that men can achieve if they stand up for what they believe in and all that, but his powers are not accessible to humans. You have to be born a Kryptonian in order to even have access to those kinds of powers.
Dragon Ball Z was very upfront about this. You can’t be as powerful as Goku unless you have Saiyan DNA, no matter how much training a human does. At BEST you’re Krillin.
But Saitama is human. We don’t know where his powers came from. They may even be alien in origin. But if Saitama himself is human, then whatever power he gained and how, it is something accessible to humans. And even though we don’t know what he needed to do to access it, we know that he worked hard in the meantime. This makes him a far better representative of a ‘Super’ ‘Man’ than actual ‘Super Man’.
And now for the Parental Cautions part of the review. I would certainly say it’s not for young kids. Teens maybe, but there are some things to be aware of as a parent.
Though cartoon, animes are known for being horrifically graphic, and this show is no exception. Most enemies pretty much explode when Saitama punches them. Though I find the violence in this show significantly less oppressive in the humourous, hyperbolic context in which it’s used. Kind of like Mortal Kombat if everyone had ten times as much innards.
Occasional guy butt. There are definitely more naked men in this show than I would normally agree to watch. And though there are some shots of naked guys from the front, their frontal matters are generally hidden by shadow or carefully placed wreckage.
There is also a mosquito girl that is naked but doesn’t seem to have the expected parts. As with many naked female creatures in sci-fi or fantasy fiction, she has bosom bumps instead of nipples.
There are some T-shirts going around in the show that say “Oppai” which means “Breasts” and that have a symbol resembling a curvy ‘W’ with dots for nipples. So, not very graphic artwork.
Practically nothing. It really impressed me. The mosquito girl makes satisfied noises when her minions drain their blood into her, and there are some phrases that could be taken as innuendo, but she is only around for half an episode. After that, the only other mildly sexual comments come from Purri Purri Prisoner, who talks about not being able to control himself around cute men.
As is common with anime, the writers and artists employ a lot of tactics like gnarly, monstrous faces and pseudo-sexuality in the behaviour of some of the villains in order to make the audience more uncomfortable with them. It’s the only explanation I have for why the Deep Sea King wears a speedo. For me, the monstrous mutant effects are not quite nightmare inducing, but it’s another reason the show is not really suitable for young children.
There is Mild Language throughout, with brief Profanity.
There doesn’t seem to be much, at least not that caused me any concern personally, and I’m pretty uptight about that stuff. I’ll just mention a few things that come to mind that might concern others. As usual, when I do these reviews I’m thinking primarily of what might be concerns to Christian audiences.
The villain Vaccine Man calls himself “Mother Earth’s Apostle.”
The villain Beast King calls himself “Almighty”.
In episode 7 Saitama wears a shirt with a cartoon devil face. I do not know what the shirt says.
Purri Purri Prisoner’s special attacks are called ‘Angel Mode’, ‘Angel Rush’ and ‘Arc Angel Flash’.
There is mention of a couple of fortune tellers and it shows them looking into crystal balls, but I recall no chanting or use of common occult symbols.
Tornado is described as having E.S.P.
There is a super hero called “Pig God”.
There is the brief appearance of winged creatures that to me resembled Japanese bird demons. They were not around for long.
As is explained in the show, there is a rating system for threat levels that goes (in ascending order) from “Tiger” to “Demon” to “Dragon” to “God”. Now since it’s a Japanese show I assume they don’t mean “Threat Level Jesus”. They are likely using a generic term, but it’ll sound weird when someone on the show looks at a particular threat and says “This is ‘God’”, unless you know the context.
Despite the seeming necessity to spend at least a bit of time on this subject, I found myself hesitating to do this. The reason is that it seems a bit counter-natural to give out a list of rules regarding what love ought to look like. Both in fiction and in reality I’ve seen people fall in love in any number of ways. Probably too many to list. So the best advice I can give on writing a love story well is just to be authentic to your personal tastes. Not everybody will get it, but some will.
I can’t suggest a single formula for it, because it happens in different ways all the time. And why shouldn’t it? Those of us who have been looking for a long time tend to get over-focused on other people’s stories, assuming that it happens the same way with each person, so that we’ll recognize it when we see it. But love is meant to be special, so why would we assume that all love stories should look the same?
You can only write what you believe, because audiences sense and get turned off by inauthenticity. If you are familiar with hardship, write hardship into your love story. You don’t have to “write what you know” from personal experience, but you may need to talk to people who have gone through what you want to write. And you will have to believe that this love story is actually possible for your characters.
As far as writing for your audience, there are a few things I’ve noticed that modern audiences are not keen on, so I mention the following things in light of trends I’ve seen in audience feedback from various stories.
Abusive relationships are a no-no. This includes physical and verbal. We live in a world that is waking up to the realization that spousal abuse goes on a lot more than we had thought a few decades ago. Even the threat of violence, even in jest, won’t be accepted by today’s audiences. The days of The Honeymooners are over. If a husband says he’s gonna send his wife to the moon it better be a romantic getaway.
The same goes for women being physically or verbally abusive toward their men. This goes on in real life too, and it’s equally reprehensible.
Shutting down their heart is another situation audiences don’t want to see a character get into in order to be in a love relationship. Modern audiences are aware of the need to take care of one’s self, and even if the relationship itself feels right, audiences will feel uncomfortable with the idea that the character has to put their heart aside to do it.
Sacrifice in order to be with someone is okay, but only if it is the person’s own choice and not something the other person requests of them, because then it falls under the abusive relationship category.
If your character is currently involved with someone, and said person is not Mr. or Ms. Right, any of the above issues can be considered acceptable reasons to end a relationship, to the majority of audiences.
It doesn’t have to be that the current significant other is a bad person – they could be the nicest person in the world, but if your protagonist feels that they have to ignore a part of their heart in order to be with them then audiences will generally feel that it’s not the right move for the character to stay in the relationship.
Mr. Wrong will often fall into the category of Self-Satisfied Dooshes, so look up that blog post for more details on what those characters are like if you want to use that approach.
Loyalty is good, but on its own it is not enough reason for a relationship in the eyes of modern audiences. Usually because if loyalty is the only thing then it means the person’s heart is not in it. Loyalty can suffice as a bridge to keep the couple together from one stage of life to another but, for example, with a married couple audiences won’t want to see them reach a point where loyalty is the only reason they’re staying together. Audiences will want to see the couple remember why it is they fell in love in the first place.
If they have nothing else going for them, staying together out of loyalty may be the right thing to do, but it’s not the happily ever after thing to do. It depends how you want your audience to feel about the relationship.
Change is okay if done for the right, personal reasons. Changing just to be with someone is not smiled upon as much, since modern audiences want to see two people in love learn to love each other for who they are rather than demand that they change. It’s okay if a love interest inspires change, only if the change itself is something that lines up with what is on the character’s heart to begin with.
Case in point: when it comes to Disney’s The Little Mermaid modern audiences dislike the message sent by Ariel changing herself into a human to be with a guy she just met. And understandably so. But don’t forget that what lay on Ariel’s heart was a general interest in “that world” long before she ever encountered anybody from “that world”. Once she met him, her interest changed from general to specific and personal (“your world”) and then her judgement was clouded. (And now half of you are singing. My apologies.) So by the time she made the decision to change, she was doing it for the wrong reasons, but in the big picture the change itself was in accordance with what was already written on her heart from the beginning.
Again, I say all this only as an analysis of how modern audiences respond to different kinds of love stories. Ultimately, you decide what is and is not best for your characters. You can go against the grain of how most audiences feel about certain relational situations, but if you want to cause audiences to feel a particular way about things then you’ll need to carefully consider The Message you want to send and how to go about it.
This concludes my series on Storytelling for the time being. I may add some extra subjects to this blog category later on but my focus for Storytelling now is going to be putting together a book for release in early 2018. I’ll take what I’ve written here, expand on it, add some more categories and revise as necessary before publishing the book. (Update: The Storyteller’s Handbook is available now. Click here to purchase!)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and learned some things. From here on the blog posts will go back to their natural, more random states, but discussions on Storytelling will still come up here and there as I do reviews and analyses of various films and TV shows.
The most common mistake I see male writers make when writing women is to write every woman the same. All women are written as stereotypical women who are good at cooking and cleaning and staying at home and not having an opinion. Then there’s other male writers who, trying not to seem sexist, go in the complete opposite direction and write all women as aggressive, leather-bound power bitches who are really good at fighting and making witty comebacks.
Neither approach works, because in either case the writer is painting all women the same. Now here’s the thing, some women are stereotypical, and some women are tomboys. And neither of them feel that they need to be anything different, because they don’t. That’s who they are. They’re individuals. Every woman is different. The problem comes when we write all women as being one way or another. It’s unrealistic because that’s not the world we live in. It’s like how in comic books every woman has the same measurements. Nobody believes that.
Ladies, the same goes for you. Whenever I’m watching something where every guy has a muscular build and the same dark-brunette haircut, and the only difference between them is their jobs and how much money they make, I start to feel like my only purpose in the world is to give you kids. Let’s both try and employ more variety in our characters of the opposite sex.
So what’s the solution? The easiest way to avoid coming across as sexist is to have multiple women in your story and paint some of them one way, and others a different way. And try to avoid making comments about what’s stereotypical and what isn’t. Women don’t care, so they wouldn’t bring it up. Women want to be known, they don’t want to be categorized. If it requires explaining then it’s not true femininity.
It gets trickier when you have only one prominent female character in your entire story. But in that case, the lack of variety is understandable, and the audience knows that. I would recommend mixing both stereotypes and non-stereotypes into the one character. This seems to have worked for me. Nevaeh likes long flowing dresses, and she also fishes. Women aren’t often portrayed as fishers. I made Cary a mechanic with a working knowledge of hi-tech computers, who dances in her pajamas to various pop songs. She likes to talk about relationships, but she’s unsure whether or not she wants children. Most women are pretty darn sure whether or not they want to have a child, so this matter was something that made her feel more like an individual rather than a stereotype.
If this area is a challenge for you, a book that I strongly recommend reading is Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge. It does an excellent job of saying “here are some common themes we’ve noticed in the hearts of women” without saying “you need to do all these things in order to be a woman”. You will find plenty of variety in there, in terms of how women are portrayed, while seeing how it all fits together with the feminine heart.
The next post will be my last on Storytelling for a while. We’ll talk about one of the more complicated themes to work into your tale – Love Stories.
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.
Actually, Dooshes sometimes end up in the good guy category, but they are generally some sort of antagonist toward whoever the protagonist is, which in its own sense kind of makes them a villain anyway.
Though their roles in fiction tend to be obvious, most people run into dooshes on a regular basis in real life. And friends have asked me to explain what a “doosh” is in real life. The exact definition changes slightly depending on circumstances, but generally a doosh is a person who “everyone” thinks of as being awesome and righteous when to the discerning it is clear that they are full of themselves and doing everything out of selfish motives. I say “everyone” in quotation marks because obviously not literally everyone is deceived by them if the discerning people can tell that they’re dooshes, but it tends to feel like they’re fooling everyone. In fiction, certainly, the “everyone” can be slightly more complete, however your protagonist at least should be able to see past it even if nobody else can.
That’s one type of Doosh, which I’ll call the Self-Satisfied Doosh. But there’s another type of character that seems to fall under the title of Doosh, and that’s what I’m labeling as the Obsessive Doosh.
An Obsessive Doosh is anybody who is unreasonably antagonistic toward the main character – going out of their way to cause problems and annoyance, even if they’re not actually that smart about it.
Then there are some characters who check both boxes on the Doosh list, who are loved by almost every other character and who seem to go out of their way to cause problems for the protagonist. A common introduction for a Doosh would go like this: “I’m awesome. But you’re new here and I find that intimidating. I DON’T LIKE YOU.” *Shove*
If you happen to spot a character doing that to the protagonist in a story, odds are they’re the Doosh.
Dooshes are also very often the guy in a romantic comedy who the girl is with but should NOT marry. But she’s thinking about marrying him because everybody apparently loves him.
Examples of Self-Satisfied Dooshes…
Belloq from Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Carter Burke from Aliens
Cyclops from X-Men
Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith (in the other films he was fine but in the third prequel he suddenly turned Doosh)
The Trivago Guy
Examples of Obsessive Dooshes…
Chuck Hansen from Pacific Rim
Dwight Schrute from The Office
In something of a role-reversal, MacGruber is this kind of Doosh to his partner for most of the film
Examples of both…
Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation
Tad McKowsky from the South Park episode ‘Asspen’
We’re nearing the end of my posts on the art of Storytelling. My next post will be about how to write Women. (And no, it’s not Part 4 of writing Villains, it’s a separate post of its own. That’s just the order in which I happened to put these posts together.) :p
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.
These can be interesting if done right, but you have to be very careful. Sympathetic Villains, as mentioned in the last post, are usually villains who hate themselves, or hate what they’ve become, but they don’t see a way to change. The change usually comes through some intervention on the part of a hero, but not always.
There are right and wrong ways of doing this, and what is right or wrong to you will depend on what fundamental views you hold on the nature of evil. I can only give you advice based on what my views are, but ultimately, tell the story you want to tell as it makes sense in your mind.
The Sympathetic Villain is a pattern in storytelling these days where we see someone we would hold as being inherently evil, but they are not what they seem. They do unspeakable things to innocent people and seem to feel no remorse for it, or they actually feel joy from it, and we as the audience tend to hate them and want to see them punished.
Then the storyteller flips it around on us and shows us something the character had been through sometime before, some sort of horrible childhood or even a single experience or years of experience that desensitized them to those horrors and now, as a direct result, they inflict suffering on others without a twinge of conscience. The audience is then left wondering what real evil is, or if there even is such a thing, if apparently anybody can be turned.
Personally, I disagree with any story that implies that a person is evil only because of what’s been done to them. Feel free to disagree with me – this is just my own personal take. There may be historically documented accounts of that principle at work, and I won’t discount that, but I also don’t think we hear often enough about the accounts of men and women who have been put through tremendous suffering and persecution just because of their beliefs, and have refused to change into what their enemy wanted. I’m thinking of course of missionary martyrs, but I know there are other examples. I’m not denying that people have breaking points, but breaking is not the same as conforming.
As I see it, there are two kinds of people in the world, when it comes to suffering and how they respond to it: There are those who experience intense suffering and then try to bring balance to their world by doing whatever they can to inflict the same suffering on others, and there are those who experience intense suffering and try to bring balance to the world by doing whatever they can to avoid others having to go through the same kind of suffering.
Obviously, intentional jerks are the first kind. Life screwed them over, so now they screw over everyone else, which in their minds is what everyone else deserves after what’s happened to them. Then there are all the people (both real and fictional) who excuse the fact that they’re rapists by saying that they were sexually abused as a child. Some people are sexually abused as children and don’t grow up to be rapists – they grow up to work for Child Protection Services. They take preventative measures instead of spreading the suffering.
So how to properly write a sympathetic villain? I would say the best examples are those who do something wrong without realizing how much they will come to hate themselves as a result of the path they’ve chosen. This is the case with Gollum. He murdered his friend for a ring. There is no excusing that. He deserves some kind of punishment. But to become a slave to the ring for hundreds of years (a little under a millennium if I remember correctly) cut off from the sun and eating dirty fish and goblins, sounds like possibly a worse fate than even what he deserved. The death sentence may have been more merciful had he been caught, but the ring enabled him to hide and thereby prolong his suffering.
Monsters are a different kind of character than simply a Villain, because Villains are generally held responsible for the damage they cause because of the choices they make. But Monsters, traditionally speaking, are simply the way they are, naturally, instinctively, without any choices to make on the matter. They do not do what they do out of evil intent or misguided beliefs, they simply do it because it’s what they are, and nobody blames them for it. This is the case with King Kong and Godzilla. It’s like a force of nature.
It’s like in a disaster movie where nature has gone haywire and sends earthquakes and tornadoes to destroy cities. The people in the film hardly blame the storm for doing what a storm naturally does. Nature is not the villain. But in some disaster movies the storm is “caused” by the unnatural work of scientists prioritizing business and profit over safety, and those people are considered the real villains. The storm is just a result of the villains’ actions. Godzilla was created by nuclear explosions, so the real villain is man.
In some cases the Monster makes a connection with a child or something, and then chooses to fight the villains in order to protect civilians. So it is possible for monsters to become heroes. Many Monsters are considered pure-hearted anyway, especially if they’re simply animals.
Other examples of Monsters…
My next post will talk about one of the most hated (or loved) villain types of all – The Doosh.
Godzilla photo Attribution: Bandai Namco Entertainment America under Creative Commons
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.
To be clear, when I say “villain” I do not exclusively mean “the antagonist”. Most stories have only one antagonist, but many stories have several villains. In classical literary terms, the Antagonist is generally the primary character (or thing) that gets in the way of what the Protagonist wants most in the story. If the most important thing to the Protagonist is his family, the Antagonist will be someone threatening his family. If the Protagonist wants to win a competition, the Antagonist will be his final opponent. But in a story where the Protagonist has several obstacles to face, the Antagonist will be the one most directly responsible for those obstacles. For example, if the hero is fighting a terrorist group, there will be several villains to face off against, but not all of them are ‘the Antagonist’, the Antagonist will be the one leading the group. In some competition stories, the Antagonist may not necessarily be the final opponent, but the one coaching the opposing side.
I’m gonna talk about a few different types of villains over the next few posts. But I wanted to start off by addressing one of the most central elements to writing believable villains in the first place – the difference between Personal Villains and Obstacle Villains.
Personal Villains and Obstacle Villains
The Antagonist is there to create tension. The hero wants something, and the Antagonist gets in the way or causes a disruption. This is a normal part of story-telling. Where I see writers stumble in this area is when villains are written purely as obstacles and not as people, and I’ll explain why this is troublesome. In stories, obstacles exist for one reason – to be overcome. People exist for countless reasons. The reader knows this, so whenever a character is written as little more than an obstacle, a thing to be hated and overthrown, the reader quickly gets a sense of where the story is going and how it will end up. But when the villain is written as a person, meaning when the character feels like a living, breathing human being with emotions and history and dreams, then suddenly the possibilities become a lot more complex, and the reader has a greater sense of wonder for how things will turn out. There’s more tension.
I’m not saying that every villain needs to be sympathetic (as in, they’re only villains because life circumstances brought them to that), which is a different issue that I’ll address in the next post. I’m just saying that the villain needs to at least seem like they have some kind of conscience, even if it’s a messed up conscience.
I find it difficult to put into words, because if I simply say “no one wants to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk” then a lot of people would say “I’ve met people like that” or “I used to date that” or “I am that”. And if I simply say “in their own mind, everyone is the hero of their own story”, then it will leave some people asking “then is there such a thing as intentional evil?”
So far, the best way that I know how to put it into words is this: Nobody wants to hate themselves.
There are plenty of people who hate themselves, but they all have a desire to change without knowing how. (Those are Sympathetic Villains, which I’ll get to in the next post.) And people very often do things that cause them to hate themselves, but they usually find themselves in that place because of an oversight. They know something is wrong, but they do it anyway believing they can handle the outcome, underestimating the depth of self-loathing their actions will eventually lead to. But nobody wakes up in the morning, looks themselves in the mirror and says “I hate what I am – precisely as planned. (maniacal laugh) Let’s try and do even worse things today so that I’ll hate myself even more.”
And this is what most Obstacle Villains sound like in my head. They don’t even bother to justify their actions by thinking “This is ugly, but it’s for the greater good.” It’s like they know they’re in a story and that their whole purpose for existence is to make the audience hate them, so they only do things that they know will cause the audience to hate them so that it feels so much better when the hero finally takes them down. This is the kind of writing that pulls audiences out of the feeling of immersion, because it reminds them that they’re looking at a work of fiction focused on getting an emotion out of them. The villains do not feel like real people. Nobody intentionally lives their life that way, so neither should your villains.
Personal Villains justify their actions. They need to, because they’re people and they have a conscience. Even if the justification makes no sense to the audience, it should at least seem like it makes sense to the villain. It can be partly because of the way they were raised, depending on the message you want to communicate. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be that they think they’re doing what’s best for others. As I’ve had to correct myself, some people are in fact jerks just for the sake of being a jerk. But they love themselves for it rather than hate themselves. Why? Because they have reached a point of reasoning that says “The most honourable thing I can do for myself is just take care of my own needs and my own happiness. I owe it to myself to accumulate as much happiness as I can, regardless of how it makes others feel. Others should do the same, but those who are not capable will suffer, but that’s not my problem. Everyone should look out for themselves.” They are able to justify it in their own mind as ‘every man for himself’ mentality. They know they’re jerks, but they believe it is the ‘right’ way to approach life so they don’t look down on themselves for it.
You can definitely write your villain that way. Just don’t write your villain so that he actually goes out of his way to do things just for the sake of being hated by the audience. A question you need to ask yourself as the writer is “What is this character’s focus?” What is their goal? What is their dream? What do they care about? What is their motivation? Whatever it is, it needs to somehow connect with what they’re doing. They need to believe that their actions lead toward that goal, and are related to their focus. That’s the difference between a villain who is personal and a villain who is just an obstacle to be hated and overcome.
Symbolic Heroes can be among the most difficult types of heroes to write, at least in a way that makes them likeable, and I personally avoid them like the plague. The reason is because these characters are intended to represent or symbolize a particular thing by their actions, powers, strength of character and so on. When a character represents something they therefore don’t have permission to do anything that goes against whatever it is they represent. The common results are characters who have no personality. They have no flaws. They make no mistakes. They have no bad days. In other words – they’re unrelatable.
The biggest examples of these kinds of heroes are types like Superman, Captain America and Wonder Woman. In recent films, Captain America has been given a lot more room to be himself (himself being Steve Rogers) but back in the day he wasn’t allowed to make mistakes. Superman has had this issue throughout his whole career.
Wonder Woman’s issues are different. Because she is supposed to represent all of womankind, she is therefore not allowed to do or be anything contrary to what women are like. The problem is, every woman is different. So fans complain about Wonder Woman not being accurate to the way real women are, and then when the writers change her according to what half the fans say, they get complaints from the other half saying “That’s not the way women are either.” As a result, Wonder Woman has gone through so many changes over the years that it’s actually laughable. Does anybody even know who Diana really is?
(I speak from what I’ve seen so far in television and films. I haven’t yet seen the new Wonder Woman movie or heard any reviews on it, so I can’t yet speak to whether or not the writers were successful with this latest version of the character.)
One (of many) reasons why Batman tends to be more popular than Superman with modern audiences is because Batman doesn’t have to represent anything other than Batman. If it’s what Batman would do, then it’s what Batman does. The only complaints from fans are due to writers not having a firm grasp on who Batman is as a person, and even that happens often enough.
Is there a solution? I think there is at least one – possibly more.
I think one solution is this: just give the character some flaws and get it over with. Even representative characters still have to be characters, and characters are people, and people – if they’re true to life – are flawed. Bring their quirks out into the open as quickly as possible. The sooner the audience comes to recognize the character’s flaws, the less bothered they will be by building up expectations of perfection and then having those expectations broken later on.
When I wrote ‘The Kingdom’ I was very intentional about bringing the princess’s character flaws out into the open long before her symbolism becomes apparent. That way she’s a person first, and a representative second. Her flaws stay with her throughout the story, even after readers begin to feel that she represents something; but by that point it’s okay in the reader’s mind, because Nevaeh is not that thing, she is just a character who has some symbolic similarities with that thing.
In my next post we’ll start discussing how to write Villains, starting with how to make sure your villain is believable.
Another relatable type of hero is the Reluctant Hero. In fact, these sometimes go hand in hand with Unlikely Heroes to make them even more relatable. It is a character who senses they have the option of doing something heroic but they spend considerable time in the story trying to avoid it.
Sometimes the reason is because they feel they don’t have the power to do anything significant (although if you go that route then you’ll need some explanation as to why the thought of doing something has even occurred to them in the first place). Sometimes it is a character who has little or no power and then enters a situation where they are being offered the power to make a difference. They are afraid of the responsibility, their own character flaws, what it might cost them, or any number of other things. Generally a fear is in place, and it is a fear that they will have to overcome if they are to become the hero that the story needs.
Sometimes it is a character who already has the power to do great things, but they have been focusing on selfish ambitions, or they have been afraid of what becoming a hero might mean, or they are afraid their power will cause more damage than good.
A prime example of a reluctant hero is Frodo Baggins. It’s just not in Hobbit blood to do much of anything adventurous. In the end his desire to protect his homeland overcomes his fears and feelings of inadequacy.
Luke Skywalker is a reluctant hero at first. He longs for adventure but when it falls into his lap he’s like “It’s such a long way from here.” Unfortunately it takes the loss of the life he’s known for him to be willing to step up.
Other examples of Reluctant Heroes…
Strider in the film version of The Lord Of The Rings
Sarah Conner from The Terminator
Simba from The Lion King
Rapunzel from Tangled
Wolverine from X-Men
James Edwards from Men In Black
Bruce Banner from The Incredible Hulk
Nathan Algren from The Last Samurai
Jack Shephard from Lost
I would describe an Anti-Hero as a villain who you want to see succeed because their goals in some way end up benefiting people you care about. I think there are exceptions, but that’s generally what it comes to. Most fictional jerks that people love, like House for example, don’t start off being likeable for who they are but they are able to help people the audience does care about, and so the audience wants to see them succeed by proxy.
Jack Sparrow is a pirate. He steals things – at the very least. For all we know he’s also murdered several innocent people, but we don’t know much about his history. Regardless, in the first film his goal of getting his ship back lines up with Will’s goal of rescuing the woman he loves. Audiences who aren’t much fans of thieves will still end up wanting to see Jack succeed, even if only temporarily, just so that he can help Will to rescue Elizabeth.
Other examples of Anti-Heroes…
Riddick from Pitch Black
Dominic Toretto from The Fast And The Furious
Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z (Seasons 2 and 3)
In my next post I’ll talk about one of the most difficult types of heroes to write – the Symbolic Hero.
There are many different kinds of hero types used in popular stories, and many different kinds of villains. I’ve only listed a few different kinds in these next few blog posts, and as storytellers get more creative I expect more types to pop up. So don’t take these posts about heroes and villains to be a complete list – I don’t want to box any authors in – but I do want to give you an idea of some of the more common types and how they’re used. Some characters will even fit multiple categories, or switch categories as the story progresses. We’ll start with the most common type of hero.
(Star Wars Spoiler Alert)
Unlikely heroes are among the most popular kinds of heroes because they tend to be the most relatable. Most of us don’t feel like we could be heroes, but a lot of us wish we could be. To see someone like us, with the same disadvantages as us, plucked out of their normal everyday life and brought into an adventure where they somehow manage to save the day is one of the most inspiring kinds of stories. And there’s a lot of ways it can go wrong.
Going back to what I said about the ‘What If’, if you take someone who can’t fight, and put them in a situation where they have to defeat a master martial artist in order to save the world, the Natural Conclusion is: the world ends.
The audience knows that. They know you have to take the story that Step Further that sees the protagonist somehow pulling it off, but it’s in the Step Further that I think a lot of writers make unfortunate choices.
Methods of enabling the Unlikely Hero to succeed
- Just make it happen
This is of course the laziest solution, and it tends to be obvious and put off audiences. A problem I’ve seen too many times is writers making their villains so powerful that there’s no reasonable way the hero can win, and then the writers just make it happen anyway. It’s the reason the Emperor has no defense against being picked up by a one-handed Darth Vader. It’s the reason Darth Maul is suddenly paralyzed when Obi-Wan jumps over him.
The audience knows that the only reason the hero won is because the storyteller wrote it that way. It would not have happened without the writer’s intervention.
That may sound silly, because of course the story was written by someone. But when you’re telling a story – a gripping, immersive story – the point is for the audience to get so caught up in the story that they feel as if it’s really happening. They should, at least for the duration of the story, forget that you exist. That’s the goal of a truly immersive story. But putting in outcomes so unlikely that the audience knows they wouldn’t have happened without the writer’s intervention, reminds them that they are reading/watching a work of fiction, and suddenly the illusion is lost. If they know that the hero is going to win no matter what, then why does any perilous situation after that matter anymore. The Tension is lost. Game over.
- They’re the Chosen One
I would generally (but not universally) recommend against this. It has its merits if done right, but in most cases it just tells the audience that the unlikely hero is going to magically become a likely hero and save the day automatically. It is then impossible for them to lose. Game over.
There are versions of this where being the Chosen One does not mean automatic victory – it just means they are the best choice available. Most cases of a “chosen one” tend to be linked to a prophecy though, and prophecies have a nasty habit of breaking tension in stories. A good way to get around this may be to replace phrases like “you are destined to do it” with phrases more like “you are the only one who can”. This still places responsibility on the character to live up to their supposed potential, rather than removing all sense of worry, and can feed into the inner struggles of Reluctant Heroes (which I’ll discuss in the next post).
This is the route I recommend most strongly. Without creating a prophecy of victory or making it just happen, training allows the hero to have both a chance of winning and a chance of losing, thus maintaining the tension. You do still have to make sure they train properly for the particular challenges they will face.
- They are given a powerful gift
This is best done in combination with training rather than on its own, just because of the messages it sends depending on how you do it.
As much as audiences want to see a protagonist overcome significant challenges, because it makes audiences feel as though they can too, the story loses its impact if the victory makes no sense, or if it is attributed to something unattainable like pure dumb luck or outside forces. Hard work, intelligence, quick thinking, perseverance and various positive character traits that play into the struggle are much more significant to audiences as reasons for the hero’s victory. Being given a magical weapon as a free gift from someone outside the circumstances of the story is not as significant as the protagonist searching for the magical weapon, overcoming obstacles and earning the weapon themselves, or discovering the power within.
Examples of Unlikely Heroes…
Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit
Sarah Conner from The Terminator
Ripley in Aliens
Emmett from The LEGO Movie