Writers: If your hero doesn’t come with a few warts and a bagful of secrets; if your villain sneers and snarls as if he missed the humanity train … well, do yourself a favor and hold the presses. Pure good battling pure evil is as interesting as bringing peanut butter to New York, but leaving your jelly in L.A. Your sandwich and your characters are going to be pretty dull.
Think of oil and vinegar as good and evil. Bring them together and you’ve got a very tasty dressing or marinade—because at their heart, they clash. And that’s the key! In the end, the best characters are marinated in the same human broth. They just handle it differently. Heroes and villains are always more interesting when they can see themselves in each other. They will never come to terms—like oil and vinegar—but. And being the creative writer you are, you’re going to give your two characters opposing agendas just to give them something to fight over. Oil and vinegar do fine alone, but that’s why God invented writers. A strong plot helps, but oil is oil and vinegar is vinegar. That, my friends, is where the heart of your story lies.
Good and evil is a brain thing. If you want to write a good story, you need to fill it with heart—the heart of your reader. The more emotions you stir in your characters, the more you will stir in your readers. And it is my experience that writers want to be stirred.
Now, I don’t know exactly when or how this white-hat/black-hat, good-versus-evil myth originated, but it is clearly an American concept born out of an improbable revolution, and a naiveté that could only take root in haphazardly populated country built on tenets that drew newcomers like milk and honey draw ants.
Enter the second Great American Revolution. Film. Okay, I’ll drop the pretense, and just say movies. Movies are to film, as books are to literature.
Aye, that’s where the Great American Good vs. Evil myth found life—in the incendiary incubator called Hollywood. Forget that the rest of the literate world already read and understood Hugo, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Shakespeare. The huddled masses who reached these shores were promised streets paved with gold as well as liberty and justice for all. So, the concept of good triumphing over evil at the end of every reel was irresistible. Even if it rarely actually happened no matter how many black hats and white hats fired blanks and first-draft dialogue. Still, the myth itself was plenty strong enough to fill movie houses.
We shouldn’t forget the origins of Hollywood. To use modern terms, the early film industry grew out of a handful of technical nerds meeting up with some forward thinking venture capitalists. Sound familiar? Most didn’t know much about telling stories, so they told them in black and white, just like their medium. Their mistake was they thought they had to keep it simple for us. They were proved wrong again and again.
I can think of only one true, untarnished, yet wholly human hero in all of American fiction--To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, though I’m certain he would eloquently decline my sincere nomination.
I know I’ve come the long way around the barn to say this, but I hope you’ll always pay as much attention to the scars that represent your hero’s flaws, as the attributes you truly admire. Give your hero a break—given him a breaking point.
Next week, with N.K. Wagner’s permission, I’ll be back to explore some of the great hero/villain combinations in film and literature.
Oooo! Permission? Is someone asking permission? Oh, I like that! In fact … hey, you’re kinda cute. Ever consider adding a title to that pretty name of yours? Like Creative Director? We happen to have an opening.
Wha …? No, I’m not high. That’s incense. You really think I’d let Mary Jane in here? Then who’d get this rag posted? Huh?
Well, you think about it and let me know.
Goodness, he has the prettiest eyes.
N.K., thank you, but I must decline your dubious offer. Ambulances, Babs, and L. Oliver Bright all the scare the Saltines out of me.
I do know a gal named Fritz who might be interested. She used to be a lion tamer.
- Lee Hill
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