Creating Unforgettable Heroes: Three Lessons from the Bard

By J. M. Evenson

When most people think of heroes, they think of words like courage, wisdom, and strength. These are the qualities we imagine we want from a “hero.” But if you look through Shakespeare’s work, there is not a single hero with these qualities.

Shakespeare knew that real heroes — the ones that truly move us — are far from perfect. Most of us are imperfect beings. We like our heroes a little bit broken because we are, too. It is a simple psychological truth: audiences aren’t inspired by watching perfect heroes triumph in small battles. They’re inspired by watching imperfect humans struggle to do great things.

Far from putting the audience off, imperfect heroes engage our sympathy. But how did Shakespeare create such memorable heroes? What makes these characters so powerful? And how can we capture that power in our own scripts?

MAKE YOUR HERO AN UNDERDOG

There are few variations on a hero as popular as the underdog. Watching a hero struggle to overcome nearly insurmountable odds is one of the purest narrative pleasures ever conceived.

Henry V is classic underdog, and one of Shakespeare’s most revered heroes as a result. Henry V starts out as a young, unproven king with a sordid past. He’s never even been to a war, let alone won one, so when he and his ragtag army of Englishman end up on the edge of the biggest battle of their lifetimes, they are terrified. They should be — they’re outnumbered twenty five to one! But Henry and his troops rise to the occasion. The dazzling, come-from-behind victory keeps audiences nailed to their seats. It is everything an underdog story should be.

The underdog hero translates particularly well to the silver screen. Perhaps the greatest underdog film of all time, Rocky (1976) tells the story of a small-time boxer who ends up fighting World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed. At the start of the film, Rocky can hardly make it through a single practice. By the end Rocky proves once and for all he’s not “just another bum from the neighborhood.” Both Rocky and Henry V become memorable heroes not because they were born perfect but because they manage to overcome their imperfections.

GIVE YOUR HERO A WEAK SPOT

Othello is an incomparable warrior, a revered military tactician, and a true friend. He’s the very definition of heroism, with one important exception: he has a weak spot. Vulnerable to the “green-eyed monster,” Othello is a deeply jealous man.

Supervillain Iago is keenly aware of Othello’s blind spot and uses it to his advantage. Through scams and machinations, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is having extra-marital relations with another man. It’s a horribly cruel trick that destroys more than one life — and all because of Othello can’t control his feelings of jealousy. What makes Othello compelling is not his heroic nature but rather his weak spot. Because the audience can relate to his jealous fears, Othello becomes a kind of Everyman character. He is the classic hero undone by his own weakness.

Nominated for no fewer than five Academy Awards, The Black Swan (2010) tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a young dancer with the New York City ballet, who wins the coveted part of the Swan Queen. As we soon learn, however, Nina is plagued by crippling perfectionism. The more she pushes herself, the more her mental health deteriorates. In the final sequence, Nina’s weak spot consumes her: she gives a spectacular performance, but it ends with her death. “I just wanted it to be perfect,” she says.

We all have a weak spot, and these stories make the idea of being conquered by our weakness seem like a terrifyingly realistic possibility.

HAVE YOUR HERO STRUGGLE WITH INNER CONFLICT

The most famous of all Shakespeare’s heroes is without a doubt Hamlet. Far from a typical hero, however, Hamlet is actually best known for questions and doubt. He is a psychologically complex character — smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, and possibly insane. The key to building psychological complexity into your heroes is giving them an inner conflict. Watching a hero struggle with inner conflict generates sympathy and creates psychological depth that audiences recognize as uniquely human.

For Hamlet, the struggle begins in the very first pages. He is visited by the Ghost of his father, who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, the reigning king. His father’s Ghost demands that Hamlet kill Claudius in revenge.

If Hamlet were a typical avenger, he would go do it. But Hamlet is a thinker. In a moment of pure anguish, Hamlet asks his famous question: “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” In this passage, we discover the true nature of Hamlet’s dilemma. Why do bad things happen to us? Is it better to die than to suffer? What happens to us after death? These are real questions — ones that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of time. The directive from the Ghost thrusts Hamlet into a moral quandary, and from that moment on, Hamlet is ripped apart by an agonizing internal conflict. Should he, or shouldn’t he, kill Claudius?

Audiences love watching characters be torn apart by inner conflict. Take Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), for instance. We watch Jim battle both his inner demons and the treacherous world around him. As he tries to cope with Buzz and his gang of bullies, Jim looks to his father for help. Over and over again, Jim asks his father: “What can you do when you have to be a man?” The question becomes central in the most famous scene, when Buzz forces Jim to play a game of chicken. Jim knows it’s a dangerous game, but if he doesn’t play, how can he be a man? When Buzz’s jacket gets caught on the door handle, accidentally dragging him over the cliff to an explosive death, Jim goes into an emotional tailspin. His anguished guilt erupts when he screams out the celebrated lines: “You’re tearing me apart.”

Many screenwriting manuals will tell you to find a single motivation and make sure your hero stays on point. But what we learn from Shakespeare is that sometimes it’s better to not to limit your characters to one motivation. Let your characters struggle with their inner conflicts. Let them have flaws, and let them overcome. Above all, let them be human.

lge_j._m._evenson_creatorJ. M. Evenson received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. At UCLA, she was awarded the Harmony Gold Screenwriting Prize and the Women In Film Eleanor Perry Writing Award and won top honors at the UCLA Showcase Screenwriting Contest. As a writer in Los Angeles, she has worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. An award-winning teacher of Shakespeare, composition, and film, Evenson currently teaches at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California

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One thought on “Creating Unforgettable Heroes: Three Lessons from the Bard

  1. CatWagman

    Thank you, J.M. for your excellent article.

    Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how William Shakespeare can still take his audiences into the hearts and minds of his characters.

    The ease with which you draw our eyes to the details and nuances of the characters you cited illustrates how we scriptwriters and observers of human nature can, with practice and application, also captivate another’s imagination.

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