Okay aspiring writers and critics! Like I said in my earlier blog, there is such a thing as objective quality, and being able to accurately judge what is good or bad is going to depend on your ability to understand and analyze what you are making or critiquing. To get the brain working a bit, let’s start with a classic: the hero vs. villain relationship. It’s a bit like opening up the hood of a car: if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it!
Now keep in mind: I didn’t say, “Protagonist vs. Antagonist”, which is actually different, since a protagonist is pushing the plot and the antagonist is against them, but either side can be morally good or morally evil. We’re specifically talking about Heroes and Villains, and what should be considered the fundamental pieces of writing their dynamic.
- Relationship Type
- Relationship Quality
- Relationship Goals
- Relationship Arc
- Relationship Conclusion
Relationship Type: are they bitter rivals? Frenemies? Total opposites locked in an eternal battle? Make your choice and make it strong. Once you have figured out the type of relationship they have, you can build the bones for the rest.
In real life, you can date people because you think they’d be good to marry, or because you think they’re just fun to date, OR because you’re on the rebound, OR because they are unchallenging as a partner, OR because they’re your sugar daddy… get the point? In each, you’re still dating, but the type of relationship is different each time. Mother/Daughter, Father/Son, Best Friends, and Opposites Who Just Met are types of relationships to decide on. You’re picking how each half of the relationships relates to the other.
Relationship Quality: do they have a good relationship or bad relationship? Once you know who each side is and how they relate to each other, you need to determine how well they relate to each other and the strength/weaknesses in their dynamic will be.
Superman and Lex Luthor are enemies, but there is a type of mutual respect, though not admiration or friendship, when each regards the other. On the other hand, Ripley vs. The Queen Alien is almost completely rage driven, where each hates the other. The quality we’re talking about here isn’t just between good and bad, but also love and hate, respect and fear, and more.
This is an important difference from the relationship type. Once you’ve decided how these two see each other, you have to flesh out the scale of how they’ll treat each other. In real life, you can have a great relationship that is cordial, upbeat, and fun with someone who isn’t going to end up as right for you; there are entire movies dedicated to this premise. A poor quality relationship between a mother and daughter could mean that the daughter is neglected, ignored, and left to fend for themselves.
So for your hero/villain relationship, you need to determine the quality. The biggest mistakes you can make as a writer in this area is to either change your mind or be wishy-washy. For reference, watch the Kylo/Rey dynamic shift in “The Last Jedi” from being enemies to being… well, whatever Rian Johnson was trying to make them. Characters can have arcs, but once you’ve established something as powerful as the capture and torture of one character, trying to make them love interests a day or two later may cause serious logical problems.
On the other hand, deciding in advance that characters like Magneto and Professor X are equals and former friends who are looking at the same issue with very different points of view, gives you some wiggle room for why they might be ruthless to each other one moment, and cordial friends the next. You’ve already implied that they have a tumultuous history and may vary between two poles each time they meet. Better designs in the writing allow for more believable ranges and flexibility in how the characters treat each other. But you do have to make some solid decisions, and not deciding in advance leaves the characters in the lurch, with the audience scrambling to figure out why these characters are together… like Reylo.
Relationship Goals: what is each half getting out of this? Spider-Man stopping the Green Goblin isn’t just about stopping a maniac; that maniac knows who he is and is threatening his personal life, unlike other villains who only see “Spider-Man”. In The Dark Knight, the Joker wants Batman to see him as an equal, a “freak” and is trying to prove a point about the “soul of the city” to Batman with his acts of terror. Deciding on why that hero needs something from that villain or vice versa gives a strong direction to go with your writing.
This is all about “need”. What do they need from each other? If they don’t need anything, then your story can fall flat because there is nothing pushing the characters into conflict other than the plot. “He wants to blow up a building, I want to stop him” falls really flat, but if your character’s wife is inside the building, and the villain made you feel helpless for the first time in your life as he killed someone in front of you, then you have John McClane and Hans Gruber, where the conflict gets personal very quickly. John needs to save his wife, which means stopping Hans; Hans needs the detonators from John to finish his plan: it’s all about need.
Relationship Arc: Beginning, middle, and end. Once you know your goal, decide how these characters meet, how things escalate, and how they conclude.
If you plan on reusing characters, concluding the story just means finishing another piece of a mini-arc in terms of the overall goal. For instance, Luke Skywalker has a destiny to face Darth Vader; each mini arc is part of the trilogy, as Luke fights to save the princess, fights to save his friends, and then finally confronts Vader in the finale. But he has a confrontation with Vader in each film, each as a mini-arc that is a piece of their overall story arc.
Good arcs start and end in different places, and have a rising and falling action. Missing these gives a feeling of being unfulfilled for the audience; they many not know why, but it’s usually because the character didn’t change, learn anything, lose anything, or have any true conflict. That means something is missing in your arc.
Relationship Conclusion: It’s more than just how the arc ends, it’s about the IMPACT that relationship has on the characters moving forward. Just like breaking up with an ex can lead to a rebound, depression, or learning how to spot the right person instead of the wrong one, the conclusion of their conflict should push have an effect on the characters moving forward.
Depending on the conflict, the aftershocks could last a very long time in the characters future, or could cause them to reconsider a more immediate decision they otherwise wouldn’t have made. The choice is up to you, but to have a worthwhile conclusion, you should decide in advance how deep the impact will be.
Food for thought! Good luck, and happy writing/analyzing!