When we think of a hero in a movie we immediately assume we are talking about the central character otherwise known as the Protagonist, but many stories conceal a multitude of heroes, often unsung, in secondary, supporting roles that are just as important to the narrative and Protagonist’s psychological development and physical journey.
Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original “Star Wars”. He is a hero in his own right because he allows himself to be slain by Darth Vader in order to push Luke Skywalker toward the next stage in his journey. Without this sacrifice Luke would depend on his mentor to see him through the final conflict instead of believing in his own inner strength. And that is the key to a good hero. Someone who sacrifices their own needs – or indeed life – for the sake of the greater good.
When constructing a story, writers typically focus on the central plot and central character, and this normally results in villains and secondary characters entering the stage simply to support what has already been established. This can inevitably lead to two-dimensional characters that become sounding boards or vessels for exposition, and a central storyline that makes sense but is unfulfilling to an audience.
Instead, try introducing well-defined, three-dimensional characters with their own lives and stories outside of the main plot and then weave these secondary stories around the central storyline, and design some of the Protagonist’s story choices around the secondary characters. This may not always work and you should obviously never lose focus of the principle story and character but the process will open your mind to new avenues and hopefully create a more rounded and engaging narrative.
Treat every character as a hero, even the villains. That’s right, villains are heroes of their own stories. When we think of Alan Rickman’s enigmatic villain Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” we see a guy who wants to steal money and kill whoever gets in his way. But perhaps there is more to his story than we know? Perhaps the screenwriter explored a complex backstory for Gruber that never made it to the big screen – because it was unnecessary for an audience and would more than likely be overly expositional – but knowing about Gruber’s childhood and experiences may have helped shape the part.
I am sure that Alan Rickman didn’t just read the role as a villain and that was that. Like all good actors, especially those who believe in “the method”, he may have tried to find a spark of humanity in Gruber, something he could use to justify Gruber’s actions. Maybe Gruber’s father used to work for a big conglomerate like the Nakatomi Corporation and that they fired him and it lead to the break up and suicide of his father. Gruber would of course never reveal this to his accomplices but for him, the heist meant more than money. It was revenge and closure. A salute to his father.
By understanding that EVERYONE in a movie has a story to tell and a life beyond the bounds of the movie screen and pages of a screenplay we can begin to view each role, from hero to grumpy waitress with only three lines, with the respect they deserve. The truth is, that grumpy waitress is the way she is because her boss is a jerk, she has no love life and is working three jobs so she can afford to look after her sick mother. She is the epitome of the “selfless hero” – but we’ll never know.