Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Turning a "light" hero dark

Someone recently asked me how to turn a light hero dark, which is cool, because I'm all about dark heroes. In many ways it’s a matter of feel. What make a hero feel lighter? What makes him feel dark? One word.


The dark hero has a lot of personal baggage, and going back to my theory of core events-—baggage usually comes from something that happened to the hero which causes such a stain it colors everything the hero does from that point on.

Although, imho—there are two kinds of dark heroes. Reluctant dark heroes, and the brooding, dangerous kind with angst.


Maybe John (our reluctant hero) is former military and he’s got skills. “But” he doesn’t want to use them. He’s happily settled into a nice job working for the post office and all he wants is to be left alone.

The potential for being “lighter” is there if the core event didn’t create much of an impact. And by that I mean it doesn’t drive the story.

The best way to explain it would be to put it in context. If John was in a story where the plot was a little more dominant, making John more dominant would be a bad thing. There would need to be “less” of John, so John could be moved around according to the needs of the plot.

If his core event was a sister’s drug overdose, and his anger and motivation were centered on the need to stop the illegal drug trade, that’s “light” motivation, because it’s abstract. He “feels” his sister’s death, but he wants to stop the drug trade. This kind of motivation creates a hero that is motivated, but not to the point of fighting the plot. In other words, he’s fairly open to whatever needs to be done.

In a “dark” hero, the core event—his sister’s drug overdose—would need to sync up close and personal with events unfolding in the story.

Maybe his sister didn’t die of a drug overdose but was involved with someone in a particular drug cartel, and after he jacked a shipment of drugs, was tortured to death as incentive for him to talk. It wasn’t even her fault. She died, and no one could prove a thing.

Now a drug task force is trying to take down that very same cartel, and John is the only one with the right skills. Maybe they know about his sister and can hand him the man responsible for skinning her alive.

That’s dark motivation. Something up close and personal that will eat at, drive, and obsess John to the point where falling in love is a problem, not a pleasure—because it gets in the way of his goal, which is taking down the man responsible for killing his sister.

And that’s a good example of the transformative arc, because to become the person who can “be” with the heroine, John needs to change. And while the easiest solution would be to have him kill the villain and live happily ever after, a story where John meets a girl, kills the villain, kisses the girl and they ride off into the sunset has no depth. In other words, it’s “light”, although it would work for a lighter story. Romancing the Stone versus Casablanca. Plot-driven versus character-driven.

Giving John an impossible choice creates depth. Accomplishing his goal, or saving the woman he loves? How much does he love her? How much did he love his sister? Is saving Jane a betrayal of Susan’s memory? Can he live with himself if Jane dies? Can he live with himself if she dies because of him?

When Rick lets Elsa go at the end of Casablanca, I’m right there yelling, “Tell her you love her!” He’s real. He made a real choice that I don’t agree with, but it’s true to his character and it hurts. But when Jack leaves Joan to go after la Corazon, I’m pretty sure he’ll show up again.

How can you show it?

By showing choices, their impact, and careful use of deep pov, along with some throwaway lines.


When Jack first realizes he’s falling in love with Joan, he might look shell-shocked. Maybe he goes blank.

When Rick sees Elsa again, for the first time in years, he stops dead, goes white, looks like he might throw up and visibly gathers himself.

A written translation of the same scene would probably go like this:

Jack stopped short. She was beautiful, he realized. And he was falling in love with her.

Very surface. Not much depth.

Rick gathered a deep breath and couldn’t let it out. Bile choked him to the point where if he spoke, even so much as twitched—he’d be puking his guts out all over the woman talking to Louie. Elsa. As beautiful as a star, and still unreachable.

She was supposed to be dead.

..let’s give John a choice.

Susan’s face hung in front of him. He’d had to identify her, down in the morgue; two days after the bastard had worked her over. She’d been dead and rotting for days, and the rancid smell had worked up his nose like a curse, turning him into a bastard like the one who’d killed her.

The minute he walked through that door and left Jane, it’d be the final end game. He’d be no better than Rodrigo. It took a bastard to kill a bastard. She was a fool to believe in him.

Does he walk or does he stay? Motivation meets the transformative arc.


deanna said...

What a great explanation. I get this. At the risk of school-girl gushing, OMG, Ms. Jodi. You're good.

jodi said...

lol, Deanna. I'm starting to have the sneaking feeling my non-fiction "voice" has changed over the years. I feel different writing it, like it's not so much fumbling anymore. s'weird. Really.

Mayfi said...

So you use a terrible choice for the catalyst of a hero turning bad? But he has to have motive to be put into that situation? Or did I just completely not understtand this?

Jodi Henley said...

hmm, I had to go back and look at this post--it's been a very long time since I did.

No, that's not what I meant. I'm not trying to "turn a hero bad", I'm trying to give him weight. I'm pretty sure the example was someone who was talking to me about their special operative. The story felt light, and he felt light because the weight of his emotional structure was off.

something up close and horribly traumatic with a specific focus will create "heavier" emotions which = heavier motivation and a heavier story. Light emotional structure--as in choosing to be mad--not at the people who killed his sister, but the forces that lead to her killing (the drug trade vs. a couple of specific individuals or a group) =lighter motivation and a lighter story.

Angst versus a popcorn thriller, you know?

so to answer your question? No, I'm not trying to turn a good guy bad, I'm trying to turn a light (emotional) hero dark (emotionally), there's a world of difference.

Trying to turn a hero bad depends on how you set up his back story, and what he needs to accomplish in your current story arc.

want to tell me what you're trying to do? No guarantees I can help, but it can't hurt.

Mayfi said...

I'm not really trying to do anything yet. The idea is there, but it needs weight, like your advice in the original post.

Protagonist to antagonist between two very close friends is what I am trying to create. The friends don't fall out as such, though one has a different view of the World to the other as they get older. Never would they wish to do harm to each other. Is this possible?

I think this may well just be wasting your time. If so, I do apologise.

Jodi Henley said...

sure it's possible. It's also a good source of conflict, since the need to do no harm probably runs counter to whatever is going on in your story.


Two Germans. Very good friends as children, growing up in pre-Nazi Germany. One grows up to join the military, one takes charge of his dad's business. Then the war machine comes along, and the military officer is suddenly part of the Nazi party. He might see the world differently from his friend--but his conflict is that Ben is still his friend, and he knows the people sent to Auschwitz don't come back.

And Ben? What does his believe? His heart telling him his friend Hans is actually his friend, or his head telling him not to believe anything a Nazi tells him?

strong conflict on both sides, time is running out, what does Hans does, and what does Ben do? What about Ben's family--his parents and little sister? Can Hans divide his emotions to the point where he sends away a little girl he actually considered a sister, who does he save, and does he save any of them--what's the fall out, and what if Ben resists?

It's not that either of them are antagonists in a classic villain sense, but they're antagonists to each other, because they block each other.

It can also be light or dark, depending on how you handle the weight. There's a big difference between The Sound of Music and Schindler's List.

Casual friends versus kids who went everywhere together and ate at each others houses.