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The secrets to make a story unforgettable – part 2

Previously on Zanna Garrick, we talked about what I believe to be one of a good story’s cornerstones. Villains are the ones who throw challenges at the hero, and the most compelling villains are the ones who have a deep and sound motivation for their actions. We want to see what made them who they are and we’re fascinated by their care in crafting the perfect evil master plan.

But, since they’re bad guys, we can’t let them win so easily: we need a hero.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist

I want to stop everyone’s enthusiasm and hopes before they get too high. Sorry, Bonnie Tyler, this holds for you too.

I know, when we think about a hero we imagine them to be perfect: gorgeous, righteous, so gracious inside their shiny armor they wear as they sit on top of a blindingly white horse. This kind of hero has a big problem: it gets boring pretty fast.

Perfection is predictable: there is usually THE right way to deal with things, or a way clearly better than the others, and as an audience, we’re pretty good at spotting them. This means that when following the journey of a perfect hero, we know exactly what they’re going to do.

Conversely, there are countless different ways of screwing up and scrambling to make up for it. Variety is one of the most important elements when it comes to keeping the audience engaged. And flaws and mistakes are what make a character real. (They make them relatable too, but I want to insist on real first). Having “real” characters helps the audience identifying with them because as much as humans want to use the hero as an example, they also want them to be somehow “reachable” and makes it easy to see them as “one of us”.

This is not to say the hero must be a bad person: we still want good to triumph over evil. It comes a point in each story when the hero must make the most important decision, and it has to be the right one. They can screw up any other decision, but at least one must be good because that decision is exactly what makes them a hero. If they chose the wrong one, they could very well become villains.

One of the books I take as an inspiration when it comes to storytelling1 poses this interesting question to the reader: Who’s cooler: Superman or Batman? For sure everyone has their own opinion on the matter, but if we take it out of the realm of personal preference, Batman wins it hands down. He’s quite the example for the category of flawed characters, as he’s a loner and a bit of a psychopath (understandable because of the trauma he went through as a child). Superman, on the other hand, is the example of a perfect hero: he has such a high moral compass and he seems unable to make the wrong decision. He was so perfect they also had to invent kryptonite in a second moment to put some uncertainty in his stories.

The word “journey” I used a few lines earlier was not referred to an actual journey as in moving physically between different location: it’s often used to describe the evolution of the character as the story unfolds. We’ll see it more in details in the next post, but the things happening in a story cause the hero to grow. This change happens more on the inside than on the outside, and it’s not possible if the hero has nothing that can be improved.

In the beginning, the hero usually couldn’t defeat the villain if they had to face them. They might be too weak, inexperienced, or naive, or maybe all those things together. It’s the journey they made before facing their antagonist that makes them fit to defeat the bad guys, similar to the way levels in a videogame prepare the player to face the boss.

And this is for the best: if the hero was already able to destroy the villain since the beginning of the story, what would be the point of spending so many words to tell the whole story?


  1. Bryant, Robert Denton and Giglio, Keith. Slay the dragon: Writing Great Video Games
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