3 Traits Your Hero and Villain Should Share

When we think of good guys and bad guys, we think of people are diametrically opposed to one another. But what if I told you that the best stories are those that feature protagonists and antagonists who share more in common than not? The more similar your hero and villain, the stronger your story, the more realistic your characters, and the deeper your exploration of theme. Consider what screenplay consultant John Truby writes in The Anatomy of Story:

The contrast between hero and opponent is powerful only when both characters have strong similarities. Each then presents a slightly different approach to the same dilemma. And it is in the similarities that crucial and instructive differences become most clear.

Following are three areas in which you can and should strive to create common ground between your protagonist and antagonist:

Your Hero and Villain Should Share: Personality

When your protagonist and antagonist share common personality traits, you open all kinds of interesting scope for exploring both characters. In your antagonist, you’re highlighting all the worst traits of your hero and illustrating what your hero could become if he makes the wrong choices.

Examples:

In the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker was one bad choice away from becoming Darth Vader. Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice works because Lizzie’s and Darcy’s mutual pride and prejudice spark against one another. Jon Turteltaub’s movie The Kid, in which a successful but unhappy “jerk” is magically visited by his eight-year-old self, sets up the protagonist’s younger self as his own antagonist and a perfect illustration of the bad choices he’s made throughout his life.

Your Hero and Villain Should Share: Values

Heroes and villains don’t even need to have different value systems. Stories in which both characters are fighting for a good cause for a good reason present wonderful opportunities for exploring the different facets of truth and morality. How many brother-fighting-brother Civil War stories have been based on this very premise?

Examples:

Consider Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir’s movie adaption of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, in which the main character, the captain of a war frigate dueling it out with a French privateer in the southern hemisphere, wonders why the privateer won’t leave him alone and is told by another character that the French captain “fights like you, Jack.” The main character in Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot seems miles away from the brutal antagonist at first glance, but viewers soon learn that both men fight their wars in the same way: with a cruel efficiency that focuses on results more than morals. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins gives us a protagonist and an antagonist who are both concerned about cleaning up crime and making the world a better place; only their methods of achieving that objective are different.

Your Hero and Villain Should Share: Goals

Perhaps the most important similarity you can create between your protagonist and antagonist is their primary goal. Their shared goal is at the heart of your story’s conflict. It gives you a reason to keep bringing these two characters together and a mirror off which to reflect both their similarities and their key differences.

Examples:

The titular Maltese falcon, in Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir novel, is sought after by practically every character in the story. In Andy Tennant’s Cinderella retelling Ever After, both the protagonist and her evil stepmother are after the prince. David Twohy’s science fiction flick Pitch Black features a cast of characters, of various levels of antagonism, who all want to escape the eclipsed planet on which they’re marooned before the night monsters can eat them.

If you’ve ever thrown your characters onto the page, only to discover that you don’t know what one or the other of them wants—or if you’ve ever created an antagonist who ended up being a less than worthy opponent for your hero—all you have to do is start looking for (or creating) the similarities between your hero and your villain. The opportunities for strengthening your characters, plot, and theme will start springing up like daffodils after the rain.

Tell me your opinion: What traits do your hero and villain share?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Excellent post. Thanks.

  2. Excellent points, there is usually a common goal, or conflicting goals (one wants something to go ahead, the other wants to stop it).
    I love when protagonists and antagonists share traits. Val MacDermid’s The Mermaids Singing is a great thriller where the protagonists profiles the serial killer and happens to share all those traits himself.
    Wagging Tales – Blog for Writers

  3. Excellent post which is giving me much food for thought. Specifically, that my stories seldom involve a hero and and a villain. My antagonists are almost always “the system,” whatever the system may be in that particular universe. It explains why I have difficulty in coming up with conflicts that can keep the drama going.

  4. Both my antagonist and protagonist are orphans, but with different circumstances. They are both adolescents who try too hard to be adults. They have similar primary goals, but go about accomplishing them in different ways.

  5. @Mooderino: Thanks for reading!

    @Charmaine: Great example! I haven’t read The Mermaids Singing, but now I definitely want to!

    @Catana: It’s true that not every story requires an antagonist in the form of another human being. Often, man against the system stories are also man against himself stories, in which the antagonist *is* the protagonist. Plus, don’t forget that “the system” can easily manifest itself in representative humans with whom it’s easy to create conflict.

    @Sarah: Excellent example of how to use similarities between the hero and villain to bring contrast.

  6. They can have similar methods or tools, too – like in the James Bond stuff. Nobody wants to read or see a “conflict” which is K-47 vs. rocks (unless the rock-throwers figure out a clever way to defeat those better armed.)

    I don’t like either my heroes or villains cartoonish. I always want a hint that the good guy could turn bad, or the villain could be redeemed.

  7. It often works to give the hero the rocks, since readers enjoy characters who are forced to overcome overwhelming odds. But you definitely don’t want the good guy to appear unbeatable.

  8. Such a great post. One for the bookmarks! The more alike heroes and villains are, the greater the tension between them.

  9. The greater the tension, the greater the moral conundrums, and the greater the thematic resonance. It’s win-win!

  10. Fantastic post! This really gives me an extra dimension to consider that I had not previously considered in my writing. You really are doing what you say you do: “Helping writers become authors.” Thank you.

    Perhaps you can check out my blog: jadetygress.blogspot.com

  11. Just reading THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS–Carole Estby Dagg sets her MC and MC’s mother on a cross-country, just the two of them. Does a nice job of showing what you’re talking about here, I think.

  12. Great post. There’s a point in most movies where the antagonist tells the hero something along the lines of: “We’re not so different, you and I.”

    My hero and antagonist share a common goal, and were best friends before the story takes place.

  13. @Kelene: Thanks for sharing the link. I’ll hop by right now.

    @Becky: Non-villainous antagonists often present even more opportunities for similarities. Some of the best antagonists are loving family members and friends.

    @Brooke: Exactly! I wouldn’t recommend using that line, just because it’s become such a cliche, but that’s exactly the moment of realization that you’re going for.

  14. I love the Star Wars picture. It reminds me that many successful Good vs. Evil stories keep the villain or the villain’s true identity a mystery. So, it could be someone you thought should be an ally.

  15. I was hoping to find a picture of Luke’s face looking up from Darth Vader’s helmet, after Luke cuts Vader down in the cave on Dagobah. It’s a perfect illustration of not only the similarities between good guy and bad guy, but also the fact that the hero is often only a whisker away from *becoming* the bad guy.

  16. Wow, you’ve put the finger on a writing principle that I hadn’t consciously considered but am glad to realize–once I read your post–that I have incorporated in my MG book. Whew! Protagonist and antagonist both share the personality traits stubborness and anger–but my MC’s stubborness is ultimately what she needs to achieve her goal. Appreciate the insights here…

    And thanks for your recent comment over at my place. Appreciate that, too 🙂

  17. Good writers usually have good instincts. We do the right things (most of the time anyway) without always consciously being aware of *why* we’re doing it. It’s always exciting to discover we’re right on track when our left brains finally catch up with the *reason.*

  18. In much of my work the antagonist for the main plot is a situation rather than a single villain character. Even so, there are characters causing conflict for my MC all the way along. To deepen these ‘mini-villains’ I like to add something in them that can be admired or sympathised with – it’s just dull to have a paper-thin bad guy.

  19. Well-written, realistic bad guys are every wit as important as well-written, realistic good guys. Without one or the other, the story will end up being uneven and forgettable.

  20. My novella-in-process has two very different MCs with nearly identical backgrounds–in fact, the FMC is being raised by the MMC’s father. But their actions are totally different.
    In another example, the Doctor from “Doctor Who” is horrified when his oldest enemy, one of the Daleks, claims “You would make a good Dalek.” And in a way, he would…but it horrifies him.

  21. This post was quite helpful! I’m working on some plot notes for a story where the hero and villain are very similar characters.
    Thanks!

    ~ Chy

  22. great post, and so true! Villians are so much scarier when they’re just like everyone else… 😀 Thanks, KM~

  23. @Galadriel: Sometimes the hero’s horror is the only thing keeping him from becoming the villain.

    @J.C.: Sounds like you’re on the right track!

    @LTM: Definitely. The scariest bad guys are those that we see on every street corner.

  24. I’ve been thinking about antagonists a lot lately, so this came at the good time.

    In my story both the protagonist and antagonist ultimate goal is the same. The difference is in how they want to reach that goal.

    The more I dig into it, the more similar they are. They have similar but different childhood trauma, which caused them to be on the opposite side of this particular issue.

    They each have one half of the truth and I can see several endings to the story. Either with them trying to kill each other, or putting their truths together to get the full truth.

    After all, everyone thinks they are the hero of the story. So making the antagonist “evil” just because, doesn’t create much tension or any deeper themes.

  25. Yet another interesting and useful post, KM 🙂

    I don’t usually write stories with villains, but I love writig and reading stories where the same trait of character, a value or a goal can be shown as being good and bad, depending how you look at it and what motivation is behind it. After all it’s the motivation that differentiate your hero from your villain

  26. Excellent post! I love examining the elements that go into a strong hero/villain relationship.

  27. Brilliant post with outstanding examples. I prefer the sympathetic antagonist, you can see their choices make sense but the protagonist just happens to make the opposite choice because it’s who they are psychologically.

  28. I have a story in which the heroes and the villain both want to right a wrong committed by the other side. In two stories the hero and villain share the same gift of magic but differ in their view of how it should be used.

  29. I like this very much. I certainly find diametrically opposed villains to be too straightforward much of the time. My protagonist and antagonist are brothers and look alike but have different attitudes about the way their life restricts them. And both are striving for the same goal, but the protagonist can’t let the antagonist know he’s trying to stop him, or bad things will happen… 🙂 Thanks for these great thoughts!

  30. @Felicia: Excellent viewpoint. I love stories in which the antagonist is just as close to grasping the ultimate revelation of the story as is the hero. That kind of similarity not only keeps readers guessing, it also stirs up some very deep and intimate questions about truth and morality.

    @Kate: These principles hold true whether or not your antagonist is a villain. For example, in a romance, the two leads create conflict by antagonizing each other through their differences, but, ultimately, it’s their similarities that make the story (and the relationship) work.

    @Paul: This is a relationship that a lot of authors overlook, but it’s one that really makes the story tick when done right.

    @PW: Me too. I like bad guys I can love to hate, but, even more, I like the ones that make me ache to hate them.

    @Wolfe: Just that bare bones description is enough to be make me curious about the story, thanks to the inherent characterization.

    @Juliette: Life is rarely black and white. Fiction shouldn’t be either – especially when it comes to characters.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Both my protagonist and antagonist feel they had failed the women they loved at a crucial time, both watched them die and both seek peace with their past.

    Nadine Liamson

  32. Great post! I had never considered this before, but of course, you are absolutely right. My antagonist has been a little nebulous for me, and I think giving him traits/internal motivations that he shares with my heroine will make him much more intriguing. Thanks for the insightful guidance! To answer your question, at the moment they are after the same hidden object. But I’d like to add a level of complexity by making him an example of what the heroine could turn into if she chooses the wrong path. Thanks again!

  33. @Nadine: Nice. I can see how that would open some interesting moments of comparison.

    @M.E.: Too often we leave our antagonists’ motives up in the air, when, really, the bad guy drives the story just as much as the good guy.

  34. I have a basic understanding of this only insofar as Goals are concerned. In the screenplay I’m writing, both protagonist and villain are after the Palawan islands that are rich with mineral resources and heritage. One is a reluctant crusading photojournalist, the other a headstrong engineer who believes in development at any cost.

    Your post is opening my mind on the other levels of Values and depths of Personality that I may have to look at again to explore various “facets of theme, truth and morality”.

    Thank you for this, and for responding to my other reply about the Inner Critic: where you remind us that self-doubt is not by any means a measure of “our self-worth nor the worth of our writing.”

  35. Gosh, that’s a great post, thanks!

  36. @Pathfinder: Writing definitely falls under that old cliche of being like an onion – we slowly peel off the layers of what makes it hold together, learning a little bit more all the time, and using that growing knowledge to deepen our stories.

    @Sally: Thanks for reading!

  37. When I first started reading your post, I thought, “Uh-oh! I didn’t do this.” But then the more I thought about it (I’m in the midst of revising my novel right now) the more I realized this is EXACTLY what I’ve done! My hero and villain share values and a similar goal, it’s just that neither agrees with the other’s method of attaining that goal.

    Another great, thought-provoking post, K.M. Thanks!

  38. I love this tips very much! It’s very useful, especially when I was going to do a similar thing with the hero and villain in my story. Thank you!!! 🙂

  39. @Holly: They say opposites attract, so that must mean that people with similarities – including our protag and antag – will end up repelling each other.

    @M.J.: Sounds like your instincts are worth following!

  40. I like a smart villain – one who makes intelligent choices and pursues his/her goal. There’s nothing worse than a dumb villain. There’s no sense of accomplishment when the hero defeats them.

  41. Smart villains = smart heroes. Can’t lose with that equation.

  42. Wonderful post! I’m new to the site, but already it’s an excellent resource.

    I’m still discovering who my antagonist is — he’s not the character I thought he would be. But what he has in common with my protagonist so far is that both are 11-year-old boys who do not “fit in” at school and both have enormous powers built around the ability to disappear.

  43. You’re starting from a nice foundation of similarities. It often takes me much longer to discover my antagonist than my protagonist.

  44. great post 🙂 I tried to do this, with some success I think (hope*), by making them both end justifies the means believers, but just with one good end and one bad. The heroine actually at one point expresses fears that she is like the villain which I thought helped. But I did make the antagonist so incredibly evil that I think I may have to put in a scene of him rescuing a kitten or something just to even it out.

  45. I always like to see a scene of the bad guy doing something either outright good (although we have to be careful that this doesn’t feel cliched) or at least ambiguous. It really helps bring shades of nuance to his personality.

  46. I just came from Charity Bradford’s blog. What a wonderful post. When agents complain about superficial villains, it must be because the writers haven’t taken this idea into account.

    It reminds me of Harry and Voldemort. They share doorways into one another’s mind, being able to speak to snakes, and the potential for great power. They’re even both orphans. But what separates them is Voldermort’s thirst for power and Harry’s ability to love.

    In my WIP I finished, the antagonist and protagonist share several goals. I’m going to think about it more thanks to your post.

  47. Many authors struggle with finding a spark of original life in their villains. But the more realism we can inject into our antagonists, the deeper the rabbit hole will go. Plus, it allows us more opportunities to challenge and explore our protagonists.

  48. In my sci-fi trilogy “Space & Time”, the antagonist is the cultural ideal. The protag should /want/ to be like him because he defines success according to their society. But their society is wrong, and she bucks the system.

    In my fantasy series “Swords and Sigils”, the protag wants to be left alone by the antags, who are trying to control him. He’s only a few choices away from becoming them, however, and he has outside influence that helps him change his choices. So he won’t become like them, either on purpose or by default.

  49. I like the idea that the social mores require the hero to be like the antagonist. It creates the opportunity for a lot of interesting moral questions.

  50. Kyle J. Stone says:

    Hey, how are you all doing! I’m sure it’s been a very long time since anyone has taken a glance at this page about the commons between hero and villain.

    Ms. or Mrs. K.M. Weiland, my name is Kyle J. Stone. I’m currently 21 years old, have a beautiful wife and a newborn son (February 14th, 2013 is his birthday), and I’m three months away from finishing my deployment here in Afghanistan. I’ve loved and served God my entire life whilst living in an environment on either side of the moral fence.

    I’m introducing myself because I want you to remember this post, and I want you to understand the great deal of inspiration you have provided for me in talking about the hero/villain factor.

    I’m currently writing a book trilogy. They are each named differently.

    Acratara (Book One)
    Craota (Book Two)
    Elohim (Book Three)

    You may recognize the last book title, as the name ELOHIM is one of God’s many names in the Bible. One of the many reasons I chose to use that name in the book is because of the inspiration I gathered from reading Ted Dekker’s Black, Red, White, and Green books. Elyon was such a catchy name and it stuck with me for a long time.

    My story revolves around the character Evan McCarthy, a very intelligent, loving, caring boy, age 17, who is a member of a group of individuals, chosen by Elohim (God) to bring about the imprisonment of Traitus (Lucifer), through the retrieval of four weapons that previously had belonged to four powerful elemental beings (archangels), who, in the past, were given responsibility over the Earth, Sky, Oceans, and fires of the world. The lore of the angels and the weapons lies in the past, a retelling if you will, in my vision, of Satan’s casting out of Heaven, and his plans for revenge. The weapons act as one to perform as a key, to send Satan to his eternal imprisonment and bring about peace to the world. There are obstacles in their way of course, including a group of Traitus’ followers who call themselves “Craota”. The Acratara and Craota all have their own sets of skills and abilities passed down to them from their families that range all the way back to medieval times, Evan McCarthy’s generation being the present, or modern day time, which is the setting of all three novels.

    I’ve always been a fan of Spielberg films, I’ve always loved the emotions of the characters and how I’ve cared for them, and the deep stories that come with them. And that’s how I’ve applied those elements to my books. There are plenty of side-stories, plot twists, and character development that I feel have been overlooked in a lot of novels.

    I’ve just finished my first novel, “Acratara”, here on deployment, and I am going to send my manuscript across as many publishers as I possibly can. These are novels that I believe that the world needs. People need a new perspective on God’s love and power and a motivation to read their Bibles, and to teach their children about him, and I know this would be a great way to do that. I give no credit to myself, only to God, whom I prayed to, to help me every day to write everything humbly in his name.

    One day you will see these novels on the shelves, and I want you to know that I thank you for taking the time to inspire writers like myself to produce great works for the Lord, through stories, ideas, and imagination.

    -Kyle J. Stone,
    –Future Bestselling Author
    🙂

  51. Milly Jonas says:

    This I a great post, I found it so useful! Ive been planning a story but my protagonist and antagonist have turned out so similar that they are almost the same characters of the opposite gender! Does this matter or should I differentiate them a bit more?

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