Advice to Screenwriters – Let the Hero have his way

I’ve been doing some script analysis lately, and ran into this peculiar phenomenon, whereby the hero changes along the story. so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the matter.

First of all, you may ask who the heck am I to talk on this matter, and you won’t find any Hollywood master-pieces or strange affiliations to Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, or Joss Wheedon, but I have been researching and writing for film since 1998. I have shot and am in post-production on my first feature, Amnesia, and I’ve written and directed a number of shorts.

I’m not claiming to be an authority, for I tend to frown at the term, but I do claim to have some experience and a strong opinion.
What I write here is not derisive but meant as some food for thought for screenwriters.

What I mean with the title of this piece, are the following bullet points:

Who is the hero?

The hero is defined by his personality (behavior) and goals (what he wants to achieve and will spend the whole movie trying to conquer). It is this combination that drive the hero, and the story forward.

But a hero is also defined by the villain. Very much so. And if your villain is weak, or too cheesy, you don’t feel as much emotion from the hero’s success (Comedy) or failure (Tragedy).

And since all art is a communication of a thought or an idea, with the intent to create an emotional effect on the audience, why wouldn’t we want the strongest emotional effect? The more personally involved an audience gets with the lead and the story. the more they’ll feel the ups and downs, and after the credits Tweet or Facebook about it to their friends.

The hero should have the most interesting/difficult actions in the story

Otherwise we feel gipped. Who cares if little Timmy, cute as he is, who’s had maybe 2 lines in the whole movie, actually delivers the fatal blow to the villain? I’d much rather see the hero, not his allies, be the one to conquer.

And if the hero just drifts along while everyone else does the important things, then he’s not much of a hero, is he? Whose story are we following? It is their triumphs and failures I want to see. Allies should follow his instructions or lead, but the victory must come from him, otherwise your story loses emotional potential.

The hero should be likeable

Heck, I would even argue the most likeable. Have you ever found yourself watching a film and rooting for someone other than the main character? (Wanted comes to mind)

Minimally, the viewer has to care enough about the hero to want to see him succeed or fail (Comedy or Tragedy), otherwise, why waste 90-120 minutes of our time?

The book “Save the Cat” by the late Blake Snyder talks wonderfully on this, where you literally have the lead save a cat, so the audience like him, and know he’s the good guy.

The hero should remain constant throughout the story

In a film you have only 90-120 minutes to tell your story, and unless you’re doing an ensemble piece, you should stick to 1 hero. You can also tell the story of 2 people, like in Gladiator where Joaquim Phoenix and Russel Crow both evolved and faced their owns slings and arrows – but in the latter, you see how long the film had to be to fit everything in. An example comes to mind, of The Village, where M. Night Shyamalan changes the hero, coincidentally from Phoenix’s character, to a role that had been small, and lets her reveal the twist ending. Clever as it was, I couldn’t get past the idea that my hero had just died,and who the heck was this little blind girl? (I exaggerate)

The point is that a story is a completed cycle of action, a beginning, middle and end of a character’s life. It normally encompasses a short span of time, and leaves the likes of Pillars of the Earth to a TV miniseries (great show, by the way, but even in that ensemble piece, I felt the loss when my favorite lead roles died and passed the torch to their children).

The hero’s story is defined by the obstacles he faces

Whether he succeeds (Comedy) or succumbs (Tragedy), those obstacles make for your story’s strength. If all he has to face are tiny pile of ants he can kill with some insecticide, then that doesn’t make for very interesting storytelling.

His obstacles may or not be real, and they may not be hurdles that you or I would find challenging — they do have to be challenging to the hero. If he’s afraid of water, rescuing someone from drowning is quite a feat. For you, the Venice Beach Lifeguard, it may be trivial and all in a day’s work, but if for the hero it presents a quintessential quandary, then it works.

When we watch a movie, we become the hero who’s story we’re following. We begin to identify with him (or her) — in a good script — and feel the ups and downs. We try to predict what’s going to happen, or how the hero will react to what’s coming, and we jump on that bandwagon, and ride the rollercoaster.

So, my advice is, let the hero have his/her way. Don’t give it away to someone else and lose the emotional impact you can have.

Film is a specific medium with a limited amount of time to tell your story. Don’t water it down. Novels and short stories, the written word, have other boundaries, but a screenplay is the vehicle used to get the money to make a movie. It is a visual medium. Character’s inner thoughts don’t translate from the page, except in their actions.

So, treat a script as what it is, and let the hero have his/her way!

Val Gameiro
Writer, Director, Filmmaker
Austin, Texas