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.
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?
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.
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?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).