The Measure of a Hero

It is said that the measure of a hero is determined by the magnitude of the villain he must overcome.  While this does help to define the scale of a hero’s achievement, it says nothing about how much he must reach beyond his abilities to succeed.  To more fully measure a hero one must provide the readers or audience with two yardsticks .  One that speaks to quantity, the other to quality.

Determinations such as these are essential to both elevate and humanize a hero.  But where are they to be found in story structure?  Nowhere.  They are, in fact, part of story dynamics.  While structure provides the “what” of story, dynamics provide the “how much.”

As usual, Dramatica sees these two forces as being intertwined.  And just as usual, we can best understand them in the form of a quad.  The hero and villain occupy two opposite points in the quad, but what occupies the other two cross-wise points?

To answer this, we must briefly consider the nature of the quad.  While every quad contains a great number of interrelated dynamics, there is one sort with which we are now primarily occupied – the defining pair vs. the refining pair.  In other words, the principal relationship vs. the moderating relationship.

One way to employ the quad is to think of one pair as a ruler for measuring the essential nature of a relationship and the other pair as a means of putting it in context.  So, for example, our initiative – our drive to effect change as represented by the protagonist – is in relationship with our reticence – our drive to prevent change as represented by the antagonist.  If this is the relationship being measured, then the characters representing our reason and emotion  put that relationship between protagonist and antagonist in context and moderate it, just as in our own minds, the battle between our initiative and our reticence are moderated by the intertwined cross-relationship between our intellect and our passion.  Simply put, our reason and emotion have it out and continuously adjust the degree of our drive as primarily determined by our desire to alter things vs. our desire to let sleeping dogs lie.

Well, if you’ve gotten through that, then it should be easy to consider that while protagonist, antagonist, reason and emotion are all structural parts of narrative representing structural parts of our minds, then the hero and the villain are not quite so structural.

Hero and villain include storytelling attributes layered on top of the underlying structure just as while our lives may be understood from a logical perspective, it is our overlying manner that defines the essence of our personalities.

A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character (the character with whom the readers or audience primarily identifies – the one about whom the story seems to revolve).  He is also the central character (the most prominent) and in addition a “good guy.”

In contrast, a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character (the one who is philosophically opposed to the point of view of the main character).  He is also the second most central character and in addition a “bad guy” – a character of ill intentions.

So, as we can see, hero and villain are not archetypes, like protagonist and antagonist, but are stereotypes –  a combination of structural and dynamic elements, comprised of underlying specifics and contextual attributes.  This being the case, we cannot look to a purely structural quad to understand how to measure a hero, but must create a new kind of quad – a dynamic quad that organizes two relationships of storytelling.

The first relationship, as we began, is that of hero and villain.  And now at last, the second relationship is that of the detractor and the booster.  The detractor is a stereotype who downplays or badmouths the qualities and abilities of the hero.  The booster speaks of the hero in hyperbole – literally in heroic terms.  One of these spreads the conception that the hero is inadequate to the task.  The other sets an elevated bar beyond realistic expectations.

Just as the hero is built upon the structural protagonist while the villain is built upon the antagonist, the detractor stereotype is constructed on the structural skeptic archetype while the booster is constructed on the structural sidekick archetype.

So, while the magnitude of the villain determines the stature of the hero, the cross-dynamic between the detractor and the booster determines how well the hero meets expectations, thereby reducing or enhancing it and, in effect, telling the readers or audience how hard the protagonist had to work – how much grit he had to employ to exceed his own abilities in order to succeed against the villain.

In your own stories, then, do not become so focused on the relationship between your hero and villain directly, but rather take time to develop subtle scenes, moderating moments, in which expectations of the hero’s innate abilities, tenacity, and character are both raised and lowered.  In this manner, you will contextualize his true accomplishments and much more richly convey the measure of a hero.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica