And Then a Hero Comes Along

Chapter 1 is about a hero who isn’t a hero yet. Chapter 2 is about the Herald and how the hero avoids the Call to Adventure. Why does the hero avoid the Call to Adventure? Isn’t that cowardly?

James Scott Bell has written novels by the dozen, plus several books on how to write a book. Bell suggests that heroes be complex.

Heroes need to struggle with physical issues like fighting villains and saving the world, but even more, they need to struggle with internal conflicts. That’s means questioning a hero’s mental and emotional well being, as well as his or her physical struggles. 

This is crucial. Never make your protagonist all good. A hero’s antisocial tendencies – and we all have them – give his character room to arc. The hero’s got problems, he solves his problems, and so his character arcs from a lower point to a higher point.

A character who is too good is also too boring. This timeworn philosophy spans from the biblical temptations of Jesus to Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Bell suggests listing at least 10 inner demons your hero has to fight. Really. Ten. Get creative and choose good problems. 

A fictional example: Han Solo was a smuggler. He was charming. He was loveable. He was loyal to Chewie. He grew to love Luke. He rescued Leia, but only for money. He scoffed at other people’s religious beliefs. He killed Greedo the bounty hunter. The audience sensed that Han had been in that situation before, and that he had killed ruthlessly. Let’s ask: is Han a good guy, or is he really a not-so-good guy?

Let’s take that a step farther. Think about a real person in your life – father, mother, uncle, sister, yourself – who fought their demons. They may have been a hero or a villain, but they were probably somewhere in between.

I think about my stepdad, a rugged, John Wayne-ish, wounded combat veteran. When not staying with us, he lived in a filthy shack. He was an alcoholic who drove drunk. He cussed. He told racist, off-color jokes. He once punched my mother and blacked her eye. He claimed that during World War II in Sicily, his squad was in a tomato field and desperately hungry. They ate tomatoes until they got sick, and he hated tomatoes after that. Wouldn’t eat ketchup, or let my mother put tomatoes in her vegetable soup. 

Get the picture? To make the fictional character complex, take a minute and think, not of your fictional hero or villain, but the good and bad characteristics of real people.

WRITING EXERCISE 1

Write a three-paragraph backstory scene that demonstrates the hero’s or the villain’s most troubling flaw. What happened in the past? Who inflicted this wound? Why was the wound inflicted? How does that inner demon affect the hero’s present? How could it hinder him even more in the future?

Switch Roles

During Step 4 of the Hero’s Journey, George Lucas and Ken Kesey switched the hero’s role for the villain, and the villain’s role for the hero.

In Star Wars I, Anakin Skywalker was a heroic boy. He risked his safety in a deadly race to help people he barely knew. However, he devolved into a reckless teen, and when he finally returned to Tatooine to rescue his mother from slavery, he slaughtered a whole village of people. In Star Wars 3, he intended to save his wife, but choked her so badly she later died. In Star Wars 6, he killed the Emperor and saved Luke’s life. True bad guy, or good guy who did terrible things?

Ken Kesey reversed the roles of both the hero and the villain in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Jack Nicholson played Randle Patrick McMurphy as a bad guy who acted heroically; Louise Fletcher plays Nurse Ratched as a good girl who acted villainously.

McMurphy, an iconoclast, constantly challenged authority. He did nothing with his life other than gamble, laugh at the trouble he stirred up and, shall we say, exercise his carnal nature. 

After being convicted, he behaved crazily and got transferred. At the Oregon mental hospital, Nurse Ratched read aloud his record to a doctor: “Thirty-five years old. Never married. Distinguished Service Cross in Korea for leading an escape from a Communist prison camp, dishonorable discharge for insubordination. A history of street brawls and bar room fights. A series of arrests for drunkenness, assault and battery, disturbing the peace, repeated gambling, and one arrest – for rape.”

MCMURPHY: “Absolutely true. But, Doc… she was 15 years old going on 21. And Doc… she told me she was 18. And she was very willing, you know what I mean?”

So he’s not just a smiling, reckless man-child, he’s an immoral sociopath. 

Ratched’s name sounds like the word “wretched.” She hides from the world by obscuring her large breasts behind a starched white nurse’s uniform. Called Big Nurse, Ratched manipulates Billy Bibbit, Harding, Ellis, Col. Matterson, Martini and Chief to spy, to report each other, and to expose each other’s weaknesses in group sessions. 

Nurses are supposed to help patients, but Big Nurse hurts them instead. Ratched emasculates patients by treating them as if they are misbehaving boys. Ratched terrifies patients so badly, they never challenge her authority. 

McMurphy gives his fellow patients a role model to regain their sanity, and they learn to recognize themselves through him. The patients realize McMurphy is right and begin to admire him. 

Kesey brilliantly and anti-thematically twists the hero’s and the villain’s characters. The villainous McMurphy becomes more normal, more humane, more heroic. Ultimate good girl Nurse Ratched is less human, more depraved, more villainous than McMurphy.

And that’s how their character arcs change. McMurphy realizes that Nurse Ratched oppresses the patients around him. However, he evolved to rescue his fellow mental hospital patients.

In Stage 4 of the hero’s journey, McMurphy becomes their friend and mentor, and realizes the patients need to escape the conforming attitudes and restrictions that Nurse Ratched is imposing on them.

Nurse Ratched’s character does not change, does not arc, and that’s one reason why the audience does not like her. She starts the story as mean and scheming and manipulative, and the anti-mentor never learns.

Even more brilliantly, in Stage 6 – Tests, Allies and Enemies – Kesey increasingly identifies Ratched as a demon and McMurphy with Christ. McMurphy willingly lies down on Ratched’s crucifix-shaped electroshock therapy table and asks for a crown of thorns. Like Christ, McMurphy sacrifices himself to Ratched for the benefit of his disciples. That’s why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Was McMurphy a bad guy or a good guy?

WRITING EXERCISE 2

Let’s arc a character. Think about a hero in your life: a friend, a neighbor, a mentor, a coach, a teacher, a pastor, your mom or your dad.

First, list qualities that disappointed you: bad temper, lazy about mowing the lawn, inconsiderate about drinking milk out of the container. 

My mom was a good mother, but when it came to taking from others (and by that I mean money from family or the government), she acted as if it was her right. If you’re writing a real character, admit his faults.

Write down 10 good qualities that made that person your personal hero. Name something he sacrificed for others. 

Now write about something you saw your hero did that was disillusioning? Did your personal hero hide something his closet that he didn’t want anyone to find? What did this skeleton reveal about your hero’s inner life? What is the worst time in the plot of your story for that closeted info to be revealed? Who will open that closet? What the hero’s natural enemy will gain? In the next seven minutes, write those conflict points, and make the pages hum with tension. 

The Power of Ordinary

When we elect presidents, we choose an ordinary man or woman who says and does extraordinary things. We want a peanut farmer like Carter who speaks like Kennedy and leads like Reagan. 

Heroes and heroines also should be ordinary people: Harry Potter and Scout Finch were students. Jane Eyre was a governess. Celie from The Color Purple was an abused woman. Rocky Balboa and Adrian were just faces in a Philadelphia crowd.

But hero have something special about them: Rocky had heart. Anakin Skywalker didn’t remain true to himself, Luke Skywalker did. That qualities were why Luke never gave in to the Dark Side of the Force and saved the galaxy.

Characters who look extraordinary often aren’t the heroes. Rachael McAdams and Amanda Seyfried are beautiful in Mean Girls; Biff Tannen is the tall handsome one in Back to the Future.

You are the writer. You decide who is extraordinary, and why. In the Mean Girls world, we pretend that Lindsay Lohan looks ordinary until the writer, Tina Fey, proves Lindsay Lohan is smarter than Amy Poehler. If writers do their jobs right, the audience willingly suspends their belief that Clark Kent looks like an ordinary schlub and that Superman is a handsome superhero. 

How do writers do that? One way is to physically disguise people like Talia Shire in a sock cap, oversized black plastic glasses, no makeup and baggy clothes. And when we’re ready for that big kiss in the final scene, she’s in a white silk blouse, mascara and lip gloss.

Motivation is another factor. Luke the moisture farmer is unremarkable. The trained Jedi who slayed Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett was a man on a mission to rescue Han Solo and Princess Leia. Sylvester Stallone, the writer, made Rocky Balboa a bum fighter, but he gave heart to the accomplished boxer who beat Apollo Creed. 

Writers have the power to decide, but we give the decision to our characters.  The good witch Glinda said the power was within Dorothy.

GLINDA: It’s true Dorothy, you’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas. 

SCARECROW: Then why didn’t you tell her before?

GLINDA: Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself!

TIN MAN: Well, what have you learned, Dorothy?

DOROTHY: Well, I think, I think…that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard! Because everything I’ll ever need is right there!

GLINDA: That’s all it is! Now that you’ve found it for yourself, those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds.

Change Is Power

Unforgiven earned nine Oscar nominations and won four for Clint Eastwood, including Best Picture and Best Director. Why is Unforgiven one of the best westerns ever in the history of best westerns?

One answer is the hero’s inner journey. William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, has a terrific character arc. The Schofield Kid comes looking for Munny because Munny was the meanest gunfighter his father ever knew, but Munny has changed.

MUNNY: “I ain’t like that no more, Kid. Whiskey done it as much as anything. I guess I ain’t touched a drop in ten years. My wife, she cured me of it… cured me of drink an’ wickedness.”

The best heroes change from within, usually after facing a crisis and resolving their central conflict. Resolving inner conflict is the duty of central characters. 

In Unforgiven, a cowboy cut a prostitute’s face, and the Schofield Kid wants to collect a $1,000 reward posted by the other prostitutes. The Kid, Munny and Ned Logan need $1,000, so the money is the inciting incident that starts the plot rolling, but it’s also a McGuffin (finding the Maltese Falcon, and sending R2D2 and C3PO from Leia’s ship to the planet Tatooine are two more examples of McGuffins). 

As a young man, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) helps William Munny kill people for profit. But 10 years later, Ned and Munny are older and wiser. They have changed. When they find the first of the cowboy gang, Ned shoots the cowboy’s horse. The horse lands on the cowboy. Texas Slim is trapped, and tries to get free.

MUNNY (to Ned): If he gets behind them rocks we ain’t gonna get him… 

KID: Why don’t you shoot? What’s goin’ on?

It’s an easy shot, but Ned can’t pull the trigger. Ned looks up at Munny. The agony in Ned’s eyes says it all. He never wants to kill again. So Munny shoots Texas Slim.

The Kid desperately wants to become a killer, and now it’s his turn. The Kid sneaks up on Quick Mike in an outhouse. After the cowboy begs for his life, the Kid realizes he’s wrong. Shooting a helpless man who is begging for his life isn’t brave or fun or heroic. He shoots Quick Mike, but he breaks down and cries later. That’s how and when The Kid changes.

THE KID: Oh Ch-ch-christ… it don’t… it don’t seem… real… How he’s dead. He ain’t gonna breathe no more… n-n-never.  

MUNNY: It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killin’ a man?  You take everythin’ he’s got… an’ everythin’ he’s ever gonna have…

THE KID: Well, I gu-guess they had it… comin’.

MUNNY: We all got it comin’, Kid.

The Kid quits and rides away. So does Ned, but he’s captured by the sheriff, Little Bill, who sadistically kills Ned. Munny hears about this and he reverts to the killer he was. He wants revenge for his sidekick. Munny kills Little Bill.

So back to the original question: Why is Unforgiven the greatest western in the history of great westerns? The best stories are all about change, and the audience enjoyed watching the character arcs of Munny, Ned and The Kid.

It’s important to note that some heroes may not change, or may not change much. 

Dirty Harry didn’t change. Rambo also changed little. He also started as an ex-soldier who only wanted to be left alone, and he remained that way throughout of the film.

WRITING EXERCISE 3

How is your hero or heroine ordinary? What ordinary things does he say or do? How does he look physically? Write a Stage 1 scene that shows your hero in his ordinary world, at the beginning of his character arc. However, foreshadow the man or woman that the hero will become at the end of Stage 12. Include a wish, a thought, or a Stage 2 call that foreshadows something special. List the ways the hero will change.

Conflict Is Good

Do characters need an arc or inner conflict to make a story work? Yes, because conflict produces change, and change makes most stories memorable.

There may be no conflict in Stage 1, the hero’s Ordinary World. The conflict in most stories begins in Stage 2, when the herald issues the Call to Adventure. The conflict usually starts in your Chapter 2.

Like Rocky Balboa, the hero probably avoids conflict. That’s a basic truth for most of us: conflict in our lives is bad. But conflict in a story is good.

Anne Leigh Parrish, the writer of six books, asks what makes a believable hero. A hero doesn’t have to be nice, or moral, or a pillar of the community. Decent men and women with no flaws or vices make good fathers and mothers, but they’re boring heroes. 

A hero must deal with conflict. A hero must be tortured, reluctant, flawed, quirky, compelling, and in some way unlikeable. That what makes them plausible.

Jack Sparrow is contemptuous of authority; he is immoral, disloyal to women, and has no gumption. He’s quirky. He’s a Pirate of the Caribbean, so he should be an antagonist, but he puts other people above his personal gain. 

Victor Lazlo is a hero of the French Resistance, but does he have a character arc in Casablanca? Rick Blaine does. The protagonist’s character arcs by doing truly selfless things. Rick is tortured, reluctant, flawed, compelling, and in many ways unlikeable. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says. 

But he is heroic. What happened when the newlywed Annina Brandel came to Rick? Annina and her husband are trying to make it to America during World War II, but they need exit visas. If she makes love with the prefect of police, will Capt. Louis Renault really give them the visas he promises?

ANNINA TO RICK: Will he keep his word? 

At first, Rick vouches for his friend, Louis. But then he sees the newlywed husband is gambling his last dollars to win enough money to bribe Capt. Renault.

RICK: “Have you tried 22 tonight?” 

The husband puts his money on 22. The croupier hears Rick and stops the roulette wheel on 22. The young woman sees what Rick has done. So does Louis. But when she thanks Rick, he shrugs and refuses the credit.

RICK: “He’s just a lucky guy.”

Rick, who sticks his neck out for nobody, changes so that he can help a couple of strangers. And although he loves Ilsa, he heroically tells her to get on the plane and go with Laslo.

RICK: I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

ILSA: But what about us?

RICK: We’ll always have Paris. 

WRITING EXERCISE 4

How is your hero tortured, reluctant, flawed, quirky, compelling, and in some way unlikeable? Write a scene that shows your hero to be contemptuous of authority; immoral, disloyal or feckless. By the end of the scene, prove that the hero is a good man or woman. How? One plausible way is for the hero to perform a truly selfless act.

Published by garybob309yahoocom

Gary Robert Pinnell is a career journalist who retired in 2017. He has written a novel, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, about 1967, when he ran away from Duncan, Oklahoma, hitchhiked to California, and lived in a communal restaurant in Palo Alto until he found his father. He is now working on The Women of Oklahoma!, a true story of the behind-the-stage women who helped make the history with the 1943 musical.

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