Recently I posted an article on 12 Cliches storytellers should avoid.
The list garnered positive feedback, as well as requests for in-depth discussion on how to “bust” these clichés in an actual story.
Each week, for the next twelve, I’m addressing one cliché and giving tips on how to build a better story without it.
Today’s cliché is . . .
Last week, while working out at my local gym, I caught the end of a TNT drama. I can’t remember which show it was. But the hero and villain (and one of the hero’s friends) found themselves in a classic Mexican standoff.
The friend was already wounded. The hero was backed up against a cliff. It was a tense situation, to be sure. But right in the middle of that nail-biting drama, the gun wielding villain had the nerve to whine to the hero: “Come on, Craig. Please! You and I, we’re not that different!”
Ding. Ding. Ding. End of Drama Round One.
Better luck next time, TNT.
Okay, okay. I hear you protesting: the statement IS technically accurate. In fiction and on screen, the best heroes and villains share some kind of common weakness and/or have similar goals or life experience.
What differentiates a hero from a villain is his/her approach or response to their point of similarity.
Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are an easy case in point. Think about it: Vader and his son shared many similar experiences and advantages. They even shared the same mentors! Yet from their similar backgrounds, they came to polar-opposite conclusions and chose totally different paths.
But the writer of Star Wars didn’t feel the need to tell us so.
And that is where most of us get into trouble, mirroring our heroes and villains.
We let them talk about it.
The fundamental problem with “You and I, we’re not much different” is that it’s not an emotional revelation. It’s a principle of storytelling. And the instant your characters start spouting about craft, they ceased to be just that: characters.
The TNT show is a perfect example. Once that line had been spoken, the “story spell” broke. I was no longer emotionally caught up in the fate of three desperate men who shared a common past. Instead, I became the clinical observer of a storytelling process, performed by actors, whose writer had told them to yell “Hey, look at me! I’m obeying the rules!” at that point in the script.
Jarring, to say the least.
Overall, dialogue appeals to the intellect. Whereas, even in fiction, the best stories are rooted deeply in emotion. By pointing out their role in the story, even as part of the story, the TNT drama characters ripped their audience out of emotion and into intellect.
And that’s—quite frankly—where they lost us.
That’s why visuals are so important to good storytelling. And why they can save your hero-villain similarities from turning into a story lecture.
Visuals don’t invite intellectual dissection; they evoke powerful associations and memories, which in turn evoke emotion. Since great stories run on emotion, a visually tale allows its readers/viewers to get swept away in the story itself, not in the analysis thereof.
So how can you sweep us away with a cleverly-similar hero and villain—rather than using them to sing your storyteller praises?
First, scratch the “You and I, we’re not much different!” line from your story’s third-act climax. Then try enriching your characters’ ties in the following areas:
This is your character’s primary weakness that directly conflicts with his/her ability to solve the main plot problem. Is it greed? Anger? Inability to let go of the past? Naivete? Consider having your villain manifest this same flaw, in a much more advanced way.
There’s an old saying in storytelling: “The villain is what the hero will become if s/he doesn’t change for the better first.” (If you’re drawing a blank, the Seven Deadly Sins is a great place to start, with its opposite, the Seven Cardinal Virtues.)
Heroes and villain shouldn’t be robotic copies of each other. But they can demonstrate a continuum of the same thing. For example, perhaps your hero is a bit cocky and indulges in displays of self-importance among his or her friends. Then give him/her a villain who’s got the same penchant—on steroids. A few well-chosen incidents of micro- versus macro-exhibitionism, and your audience will catch on that these two like minds are headed for an epic showdown.
This one goes hand-in-hand with action. What is the motivating attitude or worldview behind your hero’s behavior? Your villain’s? Is there space in this arena, to reveal a similar attitude about an issue, that results in very different approaches? Let’s say your hero and villain both hate poverty. One chooses to steal from the wealthy in order to feed the poor, while the other earns his own money and give it away. Same attitude about the same problem. Totally different approaches.
People’s pasts have much to do with who they become. If you’re struggling to mirror your hero-villain, explore their histories. Could they have grown up in the same neighborhood, or undergone the same kind of training? Did they choose a similar life path or experience a similar heartbreak? Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films are especially adept at pitting Bruce Wayne‘s character against villains with eerily similar life experience. What separates Batman from his foes is his response to that experience.
Ultimately, telling us about your characters should never become a crutch for showing us something instead. Whether we’re talking about the hero-villain paradigm or some other aspect of story, watch out for classic, clichéd comments that reveal storytelling, not the story itself.
If your hero and villain do a little too much verbal self-comparison, remember: you’re the writer. The delete key is always in your hand.
Remove some of those obvious lines and strengthen the visual parallels instead.
You’ll be amazed at how different those similarities will be.