Making Your Heroes Proactive

I wrote yesterday about how to start developing the motivation for your hero to stop the villain. Often, this is because the villain is doing evil things, and so the hero rises to stop them. However, sometimes your villain isn’t out there driving the action just yet.

This post is about how to change your thinking so that your hero is driving the action forward, rather than waiting to respond to the villain.

To draw from my own personal development, right now I have a villain who I want to be generally heinous. They also have a specific plan to perform a specific evil action, which my heroes will want to stop. However, due to various factors, my heroes don’t yet know about this villain’s plan, and they can’t know for some time (certainly not within this first story). Therefore, they can’t respond to it.

Now, one option is to have them responding to elements of the villain’s plan without seeing or knowing about the bigger picture. For example, if the villain has to steal this rare object in order to build their death ray, maybe the heroes only know that they stole this rare, dangerous object and they need to get it back—without knowing what the villain will use it for.

This only works if the specific element of the villain’s plan is dangerous and villainous on its own; because the heroes can’t know the larger plan, and may not know for some time, they have to respond to the dangers and evils of this specific sub-plan. Otherwise, responding to the vague potential of a larger plan only works in the short-term (such as earlier on in the story). Stretching out the mystery of the larger plan for several stories can work if each smaller sub-plan is interesting on its own.

Another option is to build the general villainy of the main villain, so that wanting to stop them has nothing to do with a specific plan. This is actually far more common than you might think; Sauron, Darth Vader, Voldemort, Joffrey Baratheon, etc. were all villains who may not have had specific plans to do evil, other than power and domination. At least, whatever plans they had were not built up over time, but a natural extension of their general villainy.

So, for example, Sauron wanted to destroy and rule Middle Earth; Darth Vader had the Death Star and was destroying the rebellion (I’ll admit I don’t know as much about Star Wars, so correct me if I’m wrong); Voldemort wanted to be immortal (and through his previously achieved plan, sort of was) and then wanted to get rid of muggleborns not out of a specific plan but out of his prejudice (a.k.a. general villainy); and Joffrey is a vicious, abusive brat who got away with it all because of his power as king, but as far as I can recall, we don’t see him having any desires or plans other than staying in power and using it to be a dick.

What I mean here is that these villains want power, will do evil things to get it and keep it, and through their general villainy, behave horribly and hurt people and then use their power to get away with it. Thus, if their only “plan” is to rule over the world in a dictatorship, they don’t necessarily have any more detailed plans to hurt people in more specific ways. These are the villains who will say, “If you do what I say, you’ll be fine.” Because that’s all they want—power.

Wanting power is not inherently evil, though we tend to suspect those who do (and rightly so). There are two general factors that take wanting power to the level of villainy: the means they use to get the power, and how they abuse the power once they have it (either by doing evil things to keep it, or by doing evil things in general and then getting away with it). If they are hurting people in either of those scenarios, then they are “general” villains that need to be stopped, even if they don’t have a specific plan beyond that.

This second option leads to a villain that your hero will want to “stop” based purely on the fact that they’re a villain. They may want to kill them, depending on your tone and the nature of your hero, or they may just want to remove them from power, bring them to justice, stop them from hurting more people, etc. The point is that this isn’t about stopping any particular plan, just about stopping the villain in general.

Which brings us to our proactive heroes.

Once we’ve established that this villain needs to be stopped, but we don’t know (or they don’t have) a specific plan of theirs to stop, then you need to figure out what these heroes would plan on their own. This can actually lead to a more proactive story for your heroes, which is a good thing. But it can be a bit trickier to plot.

Imagine you know there’s a killer on your street. You know they’re a killer, and you know they’ll kill again—but you don’t know when, or who. You also know that they’re the police chief’s son, so going to the police won’t do anything (and you don’t have any proof anyway). You are motivated to stop them (either because it’s the right thing to do, or they killed someone you know, or you’re the only one who can, etc.). But what do you do?

You have to come up with a plan and put it into action, regardless of the killer’s specific actions. Thus, the villain is not driving the plot; you are. This is the proactive hero.

Lord of the Rings is probably the clearest example of this. The heroes know that Sauron is evil, that he’s coming back to power and in doing so will take over Middle Earth and kill lots of people. They can’t really stop his “plan” (short of amassing allies and armies, which they do in addition to their more proactive plan). But they do know his weakness—the Ring—and so they send Frodo to destroy it. That is their proactive plan to destroy the villain.

So the first option is to find your villain’s weakness and have the hero target it. Now, using this weakness could kill the villain, but you may not want to go that far (or it may not be appropriate given your story). Perhaps this weakness disqualifies them from the competition? Makes them too nervous to compete? Destroys their secret or strongest weapon (like the Death Star)? Makes them mortal so you could kill them if you had to (like the Horcruxes)? Captures or incapacitates them somehow?

Another option (which might result from targeting a weakness) is to remove their power. Whatever the source of their power, regardless of what plan they may or may not have to use it, if your heroes go after that power they may be able to destroy the villain (again, whatever that might mean in your story). Could they damage their reputation (Serenity)? Compete with them in an election? Take away their magical object? This option works best with a villain who is already in power and is abusing that power, and so the hero wants to take them out of power where their general villainy will not be allowed (this may or may not involve killing them).

Of course, the final option (that I can think up off the top of my head) is straight-up defeat or destruction of the villain. Killing them, arresting them, incapacitating them, overthrowing them, etc.—it stops them from doing and being whatever they were. It requires a specific plan to accomplish, but it may just be about overpowering them, fighting them, etc., even with their power and without their weakness. This is the direct approach, and requires as much of a plan on your hero’s part as anything else. A plan to increase your hero’s strength, or their amount of allies, or in some way raise their chances is a proactive plan of offense that works the same way as the others.

These options are in opposition to stopping a villain’s specific plan (and usually stopping the villain with it). Those are also proactive stories in the sense that the hero is taking definitive action, but it usually requires the hero to know the villain’s plan in some sense first.

Most superhero movies fall into this scheme—yes, the villain is evil, but it’s their plan to open a portal to the alien army that needs to be stopped. Or their plan to launch helicarriers that can assassinate thousands at a time. Or their plan to nuke Gotham into submission. And so on—this is why some superhero villains survive the defeat of their plan to try another day. While the hero may also be on the lookout to defeat the villain, they are mainly focused on stopping the specific plan.

This can also be the case when the villain’s plan to get power (or keep it) is specific, rather than generic bad behavior. For example, in Divergent, the Erudite have a specific plan to gain power: slaughtering all of the Abnegation by mind-controlling the Dauntless. Because Tris is immune to this specific plan, she is able to fight them and stop it, releasing the mind control and ending that specific plan. However, the Erudite live on (for now) to try again, or to try other methods, and basically continue the fight. While I’m sure Tris would want to stop Jeanine herself, her main goal at the moment is to stop her plan. If Jeanine did not have a specific plan, but using random tactics to gain power (such as her smear campaign, along with targeted deaths or criminal acts), then Tris and the heroes would have to develop their own plan to stop her in general. This is also why Tris doesn’t take proactive measures against Jeanine until the end of the story; because that’s when she realizes exactly what Jeanine’s plan is, and how to stop it.

If your hero is responding to the villain’s actions, then they need to know what they are before they can respond, and their plan will be a specific response to those specific actions. If your hero wants to stop the villain in their general villainy, then they will need to develop their own plan to do so, and the goal of the plan is whatever sort of “defeat” makes sense for your villain and your story. Neither one is inherently better than the other, so choose whatever makes sense for your story.

And, to be thorough, this is not the case for stories where the hero has their own goal—and the villain is trying to stop them. This can easily fall into a loop of who started it, but my point is that if your hero’s goal is to win the singing competition to fulfill their dreams, then that has nothing to do with any villain. Basically, if your hero’s goal is completely removed from any villain (or, as another test, is “purely” for themselves), then… that’s not what I’m talking about. If your hero’s goal is to do something to stop the villain, and then the villain wants to stop them (which I’m sure they would), then that’s just a reverse loop of cause and effect, and that is what I’m talking about.

I think. 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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