Series of Articles

Never Trust a Hero

You never know when your assumptions about story structure will turn on you

One of the first things you learn when it comes to writing is the idea of the Hero. You may even hear about how important his Journey is (and in recent years, how much her Journey is). You may even come to the conclusion that you have to have a Hero in order to write a great story, or at the very least, an Anti-Hero. Both conclusions are wrong, you don't need either concept and in fact, thinking in those terms will limit the kinds of stories you can tell your Audience.

Learning Heroes vs. Teaching Heroes

Understanding the importance of the Resolve of the Main Character.

The latest trend in Hero worship differentiates between central characters that educate and central characters that receive education. While accurate in certain contexts, digging deeper into story structure one can see that an important distinction calls for attention.

When taken as a whole, it seems as if there are two major categories of Heroes. On the one side you have those that transform while on the other you have those that are transformative. Heroes that learn and heroes that teach. But for a concept of story structure to prove useful to writers it must apply to all stories, regardless of genre or setting.

The learning/teaching concept works fine for "teaching" characters like William Wallace in Braveheart or Hogarth in The Iron Giant, but what about Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs or Jake Gittes in Chinatown? All four characters manage to transform those around them, but can one say that Clarice was a "teaching Hero" to Hannibal Lecter? And in the case of Jake, how can he possibly be responsible for educating others when he doesn't even have a clue himself?

Stories are Less About Teaching and More About Solving Problems

The mistaken assumption lies in the thought that stories are about characters developing by gaining or passing on knowledge. Luke may have learned to trust his feelings in Star Wars and Kirk may have taught those around him to rebel against authority in Star Trek, but to what end? Would it be accurate to suggest that this new knowledge came as a result of trying to solve a problem?

In Star Wars, Luke had a problem with testing himself, he solved those problems by trusting his feelings. In Star Trek, it was Spock who created problems with his tendency to lash out uncontrollably when confronted with his own unique heritage. Kirk's drive to oppose those who stood in his way helped solve Spock's problems by encouraging the confused Vulcan to employ a little control.

When viewed in this light, both films exist as efficient and popular models of effective problem solving. Thinking in terms of learning or teaching confuses the matter with the subjective interpretations of the audience. In other words, it becomes less of an effective tool for writers trying to create a story.

Protagonists who Teach, Main Characters who Learn

In addition, there are times when it seems like Heroes could be both learners and teachers. [Amelié][] (in the aptly titled Amelie) exists as a teaching Hero. Her gentle manipulations of those in her social circle result in the majority of them re-evaluating their situation in life, each finding a relative sense of harmony. Yet she also learns to reassess her own anti-social behavior through her relationship with Mr. Glass.

Is Amelie a teaching Hero or a learning Hero?

One could say both, but in doing would lessen the usefulness of such categorizing. The problem is that Amelie is both Protagonist and Main Character. When looking at her in terms of her objective role as a Protagonist she functions as a "teacher." When viewing her in terms of her subjective role as Main Character she operates as a "learner." And while it is clear that the Protagonist is not always the Main Character, in these situations when it is, the idea of splitting Heroes into learners or teachers becomes less functional.

One Changes While the Other Stands Their Ground

Within a complete story, two approaches towards solving the problem at hand exist: one by the central character of the piece (often called the Hero, but more accurately as the Main Character) and the other by another character who develops a significant relationship with the first. Both approaches to problem-solving battle it out act by act until the end when one changes to adopt the other's paradigm. This is what is going on when people speak of the "arc" of a character.

Covered in more depth within the series on Meaningful Endings, the answers to these questions contain the Author’s Proof or message of the piece. Instead of determining whether the Hero/Main Character has learned or taught something, this final stage of character development helps to support the Author's position. Stories are less about characters learning something, and more about an Author trying to argue the efficacy of a particular approach.

A Matter of Resolve

Instead of looking at Heroes as either teaching or learning, it is far more accurate to look at them in terms of their final resolve. Do they change and adopt a new way of approaching problems or do they stand their ground and forge ahead? If they do maintain their approach, it will be that other significant character they developed a relationship with that will change. This is how an argument blossoms through narrative fiction.

Suddenly, films that don't fit the learning/teaching paradigm make sense. In Winter's Bone, did Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) teach anybody anything? No. But she did stand her ground in her efforts to find her missing father, and in doing managed to influence her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) to change his approach. In Amadeus, did Salieri teach those around him? No. He set to destroy Mozart and saw those efforts to the end. In that tragedy it was Mozart who changed his approach, working himself to his own early grave.

Developing a Story With Accuracy

Thinking in terms of a learning Hero or a teaching Hero isn't necessarily wrong. In some contexts (family films) this approach might seem helpful. Within all stories, regardless of genre or intended audience, thinking in terms of the Main Character's final resolve offers greater accuracy. This concept of story structure applies to any story or piece of fiction that intends a deeper meaning.

::: expert Advanced Story Theory for This Article The learning Hero is always a Change Main Character. The teaching Hero is always a Steadfast Main Character. When people speak of teaching or learning Heroes what they mean is the Main Character's Resolve.

The problem is that the converse is not always true. Change Main Characters do not always learn something (Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, William Munny in Unforgiven). And Steadfast Main Characters do not always teach (Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles). As usual, the objectivity of Dramatica encompasses all fiction by providing a solid touch point from which to build a story. :::

Heroes Who Don't Change

Growth is one thing, significantly changing your point-of-view is another.

It would be irresponsible to suggest that one could craft a story without character development. Stories without this growth fail in the delivery of the Author's intended message. What of stories that have at their core a character who does adopt a new way of seeing the world?

When exposed to the polarizing concepts of the changing Hero and the steadfast Hero, many Authors make the mistaken assumption that the latter does not grow, that they don't "learn" anything. It is clear the former fits into the accepted notions of character-arc, Protagonists and development, but the latter lends itself to confusion. After all, characters who view the world with consistency end up uninteresting and lifeless, right?

Without Growth a Story Reaches Us Stillborn

Stories fall flat without character development. Having sat through screenings of [Iron Man 2][] and [&The Informant][], I can attest to the veracity of the rule. This failure does not come as a result of the Hero failing to learn something as much as it does from a lack of growth. Without proper growth, structural integrity collapses and the argument of the story breaks.

The act-by-act transitions that are a natural occurrence within great stories exist because the efforts to solve the problems at hand must adapt to new and ever-changing contexts. This is The Reason for Acts. They signify the end of exploring problem-solving in one area; time to move on to a new one. If the Hero did not grow and adapt to these new circumstances the whole purpose of the story would come into question.

Steadfast Heroes grow the same way.

Evolving by Standing Resolute

Contrary to its imposing title, a Steadfast Hero grows. With the passing of each Act, this kind of character digs their heels in deeper and deeper, bolstering their stance in response to the rising tension. The Steadfastness refers to their final Resolve in the moment of crisis: do they change the way the way they are doing things or do they maintain the course? In other words, it has more to do with the final result rather than the process that brought them there. Getting there means as much personal change and adaptation as witnessed in their Changed cousin.

Structure Offers a Clue to the Author's Intent

In How to Train Your Dragon where would Hiccup be if he continued to sit and stew about his unfair situation when all around him there were Vikings who were adapting to their new training and to the discovery of a big bad dragon? Beyond being a boring movie, there would be no point to the visceral three-dimensional action/adventure. But he did grow. He took a stance to protect these dragons and act-by-act he put more and more of his back into that controversial stance. He managed to find a way to overcome the bad reputation everyone had of him and managed to resolve his own personal problems.

What about Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams? That baseball field in Iowa would still be a cornfield, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) would still be hiding out in his apartment, Archibal 'Moonlight' Graham (Burt Lancaster) would never have had the chance to hit one in the majors, and Ray himself would never have had a teary-eyed catch with his father (sorry for the spoiler) if he didn't trust those voices he was hearing in his head. Act-by-act (four to be precise), Ray has his approach challenged. Act-by-act Ray rises to the challenge. Even at the end, faced with the dual fruits of his folly--foreclosure and bankruptcy--Ray refuses to sell his farm. And as a result he heals the real problem of the relationship with his long since past father.

In both films, the Authors told us the right way to solve a problem. Hiccup promised to protect, Ray refused to question voices from beyond. While both were on the right track, not every Steadfast Hero is. Ask Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. While each of these found a way to solve the problems at hand in their individual stories, personally they were taking the wrong approach.

The Audience's Interpretation Tarnishes a Story

There is no way around it: Audiences will draw meaning from the story presented and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. While Authors have something to say, it is the Audience who must finish the transmission by interpreting the story's events. This is where the problem comes for those who fear Heroes who don't "learn" something.

What a Hero "learns" is something an audience creates themselves upon finishing a story. Assuming the story is whole and the Hero has grown (a big assumption in an era when all Hollywood asks of its heroes is that they have a built-in audience, preferably the type that nurtures a fetish for spandex), the audience will interpret the difference between where the Hero ends and where they began as the adoption of some sort of knowledge. When Authors create a story they need not concentrate on developing something that is beyond their reign.

Heroes do NOT Have to Learn Something

Last week’s article made the distinction between Heroes who grow by learning and Heroes who grow by teaching. That article proved the purpose of story not to be to teach the central character something revelatory, but rather to argue that a particular way of solving a problem is either right or wrong. Offering an audience the chance to experience problem-solving and its results from within the eyes of this character and from without is the power of complete stories. It gives an Author the opportunity to argue their unique perspective in a way that can't exist in real life.

This is the power of great stories.

Authors should worry less about what the audience interprets from their story and more about making sure their message is as succinct and as clear as possible. Make sure that the character's growth in approach moves with each act. Leave the interpretation--and notions of learning and teaching--to the Audience.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

In Dramatica, this growth that a Main Character undergoes, whether they are Change or Steadfast, appears as the Main Character Growth. Once the Main Character's Direction, this appreciation describes the course a Main Character will take on their way to their final Resolve. Whether Stop or Start, more detail on this story point lives within the article Applying Pressure to the Main Character.

Solving the problems within the big picture story while failing personally (as in the examples of The Wrestler, Chinatown, and Romeo and Juliet) exemplify the need to differentiate between the Objective Story Throughline (the big picture part) and the Main Character Throughline (the personal part). Success in one end doesn't necessarily mean a resolution in the other, and vice versa. The combination between the two offers a story's Meaningful Ending.

The Mechanics Behind Want Vs. Need

The difference between the two lies within the concept of justification.

When one first approaches story structure, they become introduced to the concept of a Hero's wants clashing with what he or she truly needs. As useful as this tool can be in analyzing a story after the fact, it is what lies beneath it that is of import to an Author.

No matter where you look, the idea of want vs. need persists:

[Heroes] do greater and greater things to get what they want, take more and more extreme measures to achieve this goal, until, perhaps, they turn a corner, and we're no longer rooting for them – we realize that [to] achieve this WANT, without servicing this NEED would be worse than never having what we wanted in the first place…the hero realizes it too

This particular explanation comes from Million Dollar Screenwriting instructor Chris Soth, but is exemplary of the thinking behind a Hero's internal struggle towards the end of a story. The Hero wants something, strives for it, but near the end of the 2nd act discovers that what he wants doesn't match up with what he needs. He ditches his original motivation for this new one, and marches into the 3rd act with a new purpose.

This works great for Luke Skywalker, Neo, Phil Connors, Shrek, Simba and Will Hunting. But works less for William Wallace, Robert Angier, Salieri, Clarice Starling and Ree Dolly.

What did Robert Angier need in The Prestige? He wanted to be the greatest magician the world had ever known, even if it killed him. Need? If anything he needed the adulation of the crowd more than he wanted it. Contrary to the above understanding, his unconscious need syncs up perfectly with his conscious want. Same with William's need/want of a free Scotland, Salieri's need/want of being remembered way past his years, and Ree's need/want of finding her missing father.

Is there an explanation for this dissonance?

The Mechanism That Is Justification

The concern with this second group of Heroes stems from the fact that they are all "teaching Heroes" who don't change. Instead of discovering some deep-seeded personal problem that they were unaware of, these characters find themselves driven to focus on solving the problems external to them. Because they are aware of what drives them, these Heroes will turn to it as a source of motivation to get them through their story. Act by act they build up a reason to justify their actions during the moment of crisis.

The other group of Heroes, the so-called "learning Heroes" start out with that psychological justification intact. In these cases, each Hero's story becomes a process of revealing this justification to them. Luke was unaware that he had this huge chip on his shoulder that compelled him to test his mettle against everyone he met. Ben revealed this to him, giving him a reason to trust something outside of himself.

Interestingly enough, Will Hunting had the same exact chip on his shoulder. Anyone but his closest friends became instant fodder for his rigorous scrutinizing--a result of Will’s parents abandoning him at such a young age. Through his relationship with Sean (Robin Williams), Will became aware of this problematic tendency, and like Luke, found peace through a willingness to trust others.

One group of Heroes undergoes the process of justification, the other has their justifications revealed to them. Both are attacking a problem. One happens to be looking in the wrong location.

Final Resolve and What It Means

In both cases, the Heroes have the same decision to make at the end of a story: continue doing things the way they always have or adopt a new approach. For the Hero that changes, they are solving their internal problem--their source of grief. That is why from the outside (the audience's perspective), it looks as if they are fulfilling a need. Most Heroes want to be free from their grief. Only once revealed to them what they "need”, do they then find it.

For the Hero that simply soldiers on, they started out motivated by this need. Revealing it to them will have little to no effect on them. Instead, when it comes to that crisis decision, they continue to focus their efforts where they always have--on working the problem.

Regardless of their final resolve, what they want or seem to need, Heroes showcase a particular approach to problem-solving.

Why Want vs. Need Doesn't Work

Screenwriter John August on want vs. need:

I spent a few hours this week looking at the characters in my project through the want-vs-need lens, before finally concluding it is complete and utter bullshit. Trying to distinguish between characters’ wants and needs is generally frustrating and almost universally pointless. The fact that I can answer the question for Big Fish and Charlie after the fact doesn’t make it a meaningful planning tool.

The reason why want vs. need fails for creative writers is because it is an interpretation of meaning after the fact. Much like the dueling concepts of learning Heroes and teaching Heroes, these interpretations of a story's events spring forth as the credits roll. The concept functions after the first draft or two as it makes the final message concrete, but is that helpful when staring at a blank page?

When setting sail on a work of narrative fiction, the drive should be there to say something meaningful with the story. If it isn’t, then the Audience on-board can expect a ride adrift a pointless and hollow sea.

If, on the other hand, the intent is to communicate something profound, then understanding the process of justification and how it works with the central character of a piece remains the best practice for righting the rudder.

::: expert Advanced Story Theory for This Article While the focus of this article is on the Hero, the uselessness of want vs. need applies to all Main Characters. When people speak of a Main Character's want, what they are describing is the Main Character's Response. Luke wants the waiting to End: the waiting to join the Academy, the waiting for his Jedi training to end, and so on. These apparent problems are Focuss of his real problem of Test. Likewise with Will you have a Main Character focused on the Cause for his genius as one of the reasons why he can't get close to anyone. He looks at a piano and sees black and white keys and a box of wood--the same way "regular" people look at high-level math. These are simply Focuss, the distancing Effect he fosters on others is growing from his true problem of Test.

When people speak of a Main Character's need, what they are describing is the Main Character's Solution. Both Luke and Will need to start Trusting. From the Audience's perspective the only way the Main Character succeeds (and this is assuming a Judgment of Good) is when they do what they "need" to in order to overcome their own personal Problem. But this only works smoothly in Changed Main Characters.

The reason "need" breaks down in Steadfast Main Characters is that their solution is never employed. Why? Because if they were to make that switch, they would lose all motivation to end the story. Their original drive (a Steadfast Main Character's Problem) would lose its power. Steadfast Main Characters that use their solution cancel the argument for want vs. need.

Warping The Prestige into the concept of want vs. need finds Robert Angier "needing" the Ability to perform the Transported Man. He achieves this, so then what? What does that mean? The fact is want vs. need doesn't say anything meaningful about story, which is another reason why it fails. It's far more meaningful to think of Angier's Steadfast drive of Desire and how that ended up in a Personal Tragedy.

With the combination of Resolve, Outcome and Judgment an Author has powerful tools to craft meaning. :::

Heroes That Aren't

The central character of a story is a perspective, not a champion.

Heroic characters have their spot in narrative fiction. Taking us along for the ride, they a drive a story to its inevitable ending. But what of stories that strive for something more elegant?

Throughout this series on Heroes we have covered learning heroes and teaching heroes, heroes who don't change and the difference between what a hero wants and what a hero truly needs. But the one thing we have avoided is the concept of the Hero itself.

They're All The Same

There are many entrenched with the notion that Main Character, Protagonist and Hero are interchangeable words. Having lost the will to explore the subtle differences between these concepts of story structure, they throw their hands in the air proclaiming It's all the same to me. Unfortunately, taking this approach robs these terms of any usefulness they may have had in constructing a meaningful story.

Building a story necessitates certain tools. Building a strong story necessitates accurate tools. Acting as if the blueprints or the right size nail are inconsequential guarantees a final product that will crumble into another heap of pointless forgotten drivel.

If story matters, the tools to build them matter more.

Caveats Abound In The Land Of The Hero

The definition of Hero:

  1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
  2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.

These standards become a problem when the character labeled Hero fails to live up to its noble definition. To combat this lack of character, writers ascribe terms like tragic heroes, or anti-heroes, or dark heroes, or whatever perfunctory adjective they can come up with to justify the original definition. Regardless how twisted the terminology may be, the pattern is clear: when you need to clarify what kind of a hero you have in a story, you have effectively destroyed whatever useful purpose that term ever had.

With the introduction of these colors, as many as those in a double rainbow, the word Hero simplifies to simply "who the story is about." In that case, it might be more accurate to cite this entity as the Main Character. Why bring into question the heroic nature of a character if you don't need to?

Needing to attribute the status of Hero to the central character of a story is where the confusion in understanding story structure begins.

Heroes That Don't Fit the Bill

Luke Skywalker was a hero. So was Neo, Kirk and James Bond. William Wallace, George Bailey, Clarice Starling, Bruce Wayne, Paul Rusesabagina, Wikus Van De Merwe, Ree Dolly, Dom Cobb, Amelie, Hiccup, Simba, Woody and Remy claim the status of Hero. No need to tack on an adjective in order to justify their heroic status.

But what about Sarah Connor, Scout, Michael Clayton, Columbus, Hauptmann Wiesler, Bernie Lootz, Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch or even Joshua 'J' Cody from the intense Animal Kingdom? Like this second group, J was the central character of the piece, but heroic? Maybe tragic hero, but again that need to qualify in order to justify appears.

What about a character like Rick in Casablanca? He ended up doing heroic things. Was he like that from the beginning of the story? Certainly not. He refused to stick his neck out for anyone. As a result, most would adjust his hero status with the term 'reluctant hero'. Having to qualify a concept of story points out the uselessness of it in accurate and meaningful conversation. The reason why one can't call Rick an all-out Hero? Simple--while he is the Main Character of the story, he is NOT the Protagonist.

Heroes are Both Main Character and Protagonist

Reference the first character list above: Luke, Neo, William, George, Clarice, Wikus, and so on--all these characters, while certainly what their stories are about, also happen to be the prime movers of the central plot of the story. This is the definition of a Protagonist, the one who pursues the successful resolution of the story's problem set into motion by the Inciting Incident. This dual conceit of being the character who the story is about and the one responsible for driving the plot was what they were trying to describe when they coined the term 'Hero' way back when. This need to tack on qualifiers like 'learning' or 'teaching' or 'reluctant' or 'anti-' comes from a lack of awareness that the one who drives the story does not have to be the one who the story is about.

If They Don’t Pursue, They Are Not a Hero

Michael Clayton is about Michael Clayton, but it is Karen who drives the story. Same with Sarah Connor in The Terminator. She is the Main Character, but it is Reese (Michael Biehn) who drives the efforts against the big metal baddie from the future.

A similar structure exists with J (James Frecheville) in Animal Kingdom. The story centers around his emotional descent as we experience every gut-wrenching moment along with him. But it is through Det. Leckie (Guy Pearce), not J, that we witness a character pursuing a course of action against the disturbed Andrew 'Pope' Cody (Ben Mendelsohn). Joshua still has his resolve tested at the moment of crisis--as all Main Characters should--but when it comes to resolving the initial problem put into action by Pope's return, it is 100% Leckie's responsibility from beginning to end.

This is why one would never call J as a 'Hero'. Laughable at best to consider calling him this when one takes into account the final outcome and the sophistication with the rest of the story. 'Tragic Hero' would be the term bantered about in film school classrooms, but this would only serve to muddle the conversation and inspire an attitude that all story theory is subjective. A result that would be both defeatist and non-productive.

Save the term Hero for the character who pursues the story goal and is the character with which we the audience empathize most with; the character we the Audience are in the story. This approach makes the most sense and clarifies the nagging notions that something isn't right about calling a character a "Hero." Killing off the qualifiers should be job one for those interested in authentic and meaningful storytelling.

Advanced Story Theory for This Article

This concept of splitting the Hero into equal parts Main Character and Protagonist was 'discovered' (rather uncovered) by the Dramatica theory of story in the mid-90s of the previous century. The concept is so revolutionary and obvious once grokked that it becomes the gateway drug into learning more about the theory. If this structure paradigm was insightful enough to point out this elegant feature of stories, then surely it must have more to say about what is going on within a story.

Those interested in writing stories with purpose would do well to learn all they can.