I’m working on my sci-fi screenplay and realising an essential truth about story plot and goals again. Many of us just assume that stories, especially movie plots, are actually about the hero. I’ve taken that fact for granted for most of my life, until I came across Trottier and Wangle’s books on screenwriting. I was overwhelmed by a great realisation that many stories are really about the antagonist and his primary goals. Think of the latest RPG game that you have played. Does it really revolve around your character, or does it revolve around the villain and his goal for revenge or annihilation – and you are simply getting in their way? Is the shooter you playing about you, or the villain trying to take over the world?
Ok, so let’s take some more practical examples. Let’s take the Spiderman movies that I am a fan of. In the original Spiderman, Peter Parker is an ordinary guy that gets bitten by a spider and is transformed into a superhero. He has some small goals at first, such as winning a contest so that he can get enough bucks to buy a car, and thereby impress Mary Jane at school. Then his uncle gets killed, and he goes out for revenge. Cut to the chase scene, and he accidentally kills the guy he believes is responsible for his uncle’s death. That remorse makes him want to take responsibility for his actions by becoming a hero for the town and help those in need… but sets no real goal for him. Enter Norman Osborn. Norman has real goals. He wants to develop a super-weapon which would allow him to become an major arms-dealer to the military. Things go wrong, he is kicked off the board for his own company and so… he rids the world of the members of the board. With his new power he realises he can achieve true success, except for one little bug that keeps getting in his way – Spiderman. He realises that in order to achieve his goals of ultimate power, he will need to eliminate Spiderman. Suddenly, Spiderman has a goal when Mr Green Goblin uses his aunt and Mary Jane against him – enter the major showdown, and Spiderman wins.
Not convinced? Let’s take a quick look at Spiderman 2. Our beloved Spidey still has some needs in life – getting a well paid job, paying his rent, getting the girl of his dreams, stopping the small-time criminals in the town – but no ultimate goal. Enter Doctor Octopus. He has real goals. He has just invented some new technology that could create solar energy that would be able to power the city of New York by self-sustaining itself. Things go horribly wrong though, and in the destruction that ensues, he becomes Doc Oc. The machines on his back drive his mad but eventually he realises he can still achieve his goal of self-sustaining energy and tries to obtain some more of the element that created it – except the goodie gumdrop Spidieman starts interfering with his goals. So let’s use the woman that he loves again, Mary Jane, to give him a personal goal (other than saving the city), major showdown while Doc Oc almost achieves his goal, and Spidey wins.
Still not there? Ok, you got it – Spiderman 3. Spiderman is on top of the world. He has the job of his dreams (kinda), woman of his dreams, and life of his dreams (relatively). He is almost a show off with no real purpose in life than to enjoy what he has. Enter venom, whose main purpose in the beginning is simply to have a host to live on. Enter Sandman, who simply wants to save his daughter from a fatal illness for which he has no funding. Harry Osborne, a.k.a Goblin Junior, still wants revenge on spidey for “killing his father”. Spiderman starts to realise that venom is bad and rids himself of it, giving venom its new goal – revenge. Sandman is pestered (liked his villain predecessors) by the meddling spider who won’t let him kill and steal for funding and decides to rid himself of the bug. Goblin Junior uses his friendship with Peter to basically take everything he loves away from him, stripping him empty. Eventually though, when he finds out that his father killed himself and was the villain, he joins Spidey. This leaves the two villains to team up, use the love of his life (again, part 3) against him, and attempt to eliminate him. Goblin junior helps and, hurray, the villains are defeated and Spidey wins. Wish we found out what happened to Sandman’s daughter though, or his new plans to save her.
So, if you haven’t realised it yet, many movies, games and books are actually about the villain, how the hero interferes, how the villain attempts to get the hero out the way, and how the hero changes in the rising conflict. There are some exceptions though, plots that are hero-driven. These are situations where the hero has a personal goal within himself that is the catalyst for the plot, and has various obstacles or minor villains that get in his way of achieving it. A good example of what I think would be a hero-driven story is “Scott Pilgram vs The World”. Scott has one fantastic goal… winning the affection of the most wonderful woman he has ever met. So what are the obstacles? He has to battle each of her super-villain exes until he has defeated them all. Not one of the villains actually has beef with Scott, except that he wants to date her, which means he has to go through them. Also, the “The Count of Monte Christo”, one of Alexander Duma’s masterpieces – the villains have already achieved their goals as the major turning event in Act 1 of the movie; now it’s the hero’s turn, who is the only one left with a goal – revenge.
Of course, even in Villain-driven stories, the hero has his own personal goal he needs to overcome to defeat the villain. This key focus on who the main story is based on has assisted me to focus more on the villain in my screenplay, and how the hero’s own goals will be entwined against the villain. So the next time you watch a movie, read a book or play a game, take a deeper look…. who is the story really about, whose goals and who drives the hero to oppose them in every way possible? Harry Pottter, or Voldermort?
The Count of Celenic Earth