Your Hero: Top Ten Rules (Expanded)

By Michael Schilf · March 17, 2011

The most important character in your screenplay is your protagonist: your hero. Without her, there is no story. But when creating that unforgettable protagonist, you must know the entire iceberg, so follow these Ten Key Rules (now with expanded explanations), and you'll sculpt a hero that breaks the mold.

1. You must create an interesting protagonist, one that your audience will want to watch, hope, and fear for.

Heroes We Hope and Fear For

When creating your hero, audience connection is key. Your hero needs to be an interesting somebody who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it, AND also a somebody that the audience cares about – somebody they hope will obtain the main objective but fear the goal will be thwarted – by external forces or by the hero him/herself.

2. We don’t have to feel sympathetic toward him/her (although it is a great help), but we must at the very least feelempathy.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Creating a hero that we feel sympathetic toward is a HUGE help. It’s almost impossible not to care if we feel sorry for someone else’s misfortune, not to mention that sympathy often equates to likability – and a likeable hero is easy to hope and pray for. However, sympathy is not the essential ingredient. Empathy is the key. Not every hero is likeable or should be; there are many heroes (or antiheroes) that we dislike, but we stay with them because we’re able to understand why they do as they do. In the film Monster (2003), for example, Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a serial killer. Clearly, we should not like what she does nor condone her cold-blooded killings, but because we can empathize with the realities of her cruel childhood plagued by profound abuse, we hope she will be able to survive none the less.

3. We love to see characters acting bravely, so it is not only what the character is trying to accomplish that makes us cheer for him or her, but it’s the lengths he/she is willing to go to get it. Make sure the lengths are far. We want a journey.

Acting Bravely

We fear protagonists will succumb to their weaknesses, but we hope that they will act bravely under extraordinary circumstances. There are few things more enjoyable for the audience than to see the ordinary protagonist thrust into an extraordinary situation and overcome insurmountable odds by simply just being brave.

4. Know your main character. His/her dreams, wants, and desires must be there on page one. Ask how we identify with, relate to, or are fascinated with him/her.

Know the Dream/Goal

This is more than just knowing the hero’s main objective –that is, the pursuit of what your protagonist is trying to accomplish that gives shape to plotting the main story of the film. You must know every dream, want, and desire. Take, for example, an action film in which your hero is on a life and death pursuit to rescue his abducted daughter, the main objective is obvious, but what about all the other goals: does he regret the past and promise to be a better father, does he secretly wish for acceptance, or is it something more tangible, like the desire to take his daughter to a Yankee game for the first time? The more you understand what your hero wants – both internal and external – the easier it will be for your audience to champion his causes.

5. A central character cannot exist without conflict.Make sure you have enough obstacles (internal and external) that your character must face.

Conflict Is Bliss

Right when the audience thinks it can't get worse for your character(s), it gets worse; and when there is absolutely no way the situation can get more severe, it does; and finally, when there is no possibility things can deteriorate even more, it rains. It always rains. But the bestconflict occurs because of a character’s own flaws: hubris, doubt, narcissism, jealousy, overconfidence, etc. because it is with the character's own flaw(s) that will get him or her into even more trouble, and self-induced trouble is a recipe for success.

6. Your main character must have a weakness (hopefully many). They are often oblivious of these weaknesses, or in denial, or constantly trying to hide from themselves.

Creating Weaknesses

Just as the best villains are the ones who are layered and complex – bad guys in whom the audience can empathize with – the same rule applies to your hero. When your hero is truly "good" in all situations, he is set and stony and not very interesting. We have no reason to fear for him because we know he will always do the right thing. However, if you establish early on that your hero has weaknesses (hopefully many) and is even oblivious of these weaknesses, or in denial, or constantly trying to hide them, then it's easy for your audience to fear.

7. Attack your main character at his/her weakest spot, and he/she will show things about him/herself that he/she doesn’t want to reveal.

Attack! Go For the Jugular

And when you do this, really go for it. Hit your hero at his or her weakest spots, because when you corner your characters, and I mean really squeeze them, they will reveal things about themselves that you never even knew existed. And when characters are forced to reveal things they are unwilling to share – deep secrets and psychological scars – conflict is abundant, rich with emotion, and those are the scenes we want to see.

8. Your main character should not be aware of the full dimensions of thetheme atthe beginning of the story, but he/she will learn.

Character Awareness

Every action has a reaction, and nothing is as easy as it seems. The reality is that situations are complicated, especially what's beneath the surface, and even though it is obvious that your hero must be aware of the main objective, it is usually a mistake if your hero is aware of the full dimensions of the theme at the beginning of the story. It’s okay for your audience to see the big picture (or not); sometimes you want your audience to discover along with your hero. But regardless of the creative decisions you make as to what the audience knows and when, it is important that your hero learns along the way. The theme – and its implications – should be revealed on your hero’s journey.

9. Think of your main character unfavorably. This will make them believable and more human.

Thinking Unfavorably

This can take some practice, especially if you really love your character, but try to think of your protagonist unfavorably. The application of this approach will make them very real – because we all know that real people are incredibly flawed and do some pretty ugly things. To put it another way, when you like someone, it's often quite hard to look at their actions without a bias in their favor, and that lack of truthful insight can create an unattainable illusion, but if you erase that positive bias, you will immediately make your protagonist very human and more believable.

10. Change. Make sure your characters learn as they go. How does he change? What does she learn? How is he/she becoming someone different?

Character Arc: Growth vs. Change

By the end of his or her journey, your hero should be different because of the experience. If you don’t show the possibility of moral transformation or an increase in wisdom in your protagonist(s), there really is no point in writing the screenplay at all, because one of the most fundamental human principles is that human beings do have the capacity to change. This is the character arc. But is there a difference between growth and change? I say yes; it’s not just semantics. Knowledge is growth, but acting upon that knowledge is change. You need at least one.