Dark Mirror – Arcs and the advantages of hero and villain sharing the same flaw.

QUESTION:  In Big Hero 6, and I was surprised to see that the protagonist’s flaw (Hiro coping with the loss of his brother) and the antagonist’s flaw (Professor Robert Callaghan coping with the death of his wife) were essentially the same. Are a lot of movies like this?

It actually may help to pretend that all movies were written this way. They’re not, obviously, but it’ll help you model a certain archetypal structure: the antagonist as a dark mirror of the protagonist.

Act one:
Hero introduced:
 flaw introduced, goal introduced. Let’s say the hero is selfish.
Antagonist introduced: more powerful than the hero. Also selfish, though possibly not overtly so (you can maintain some mystery here).

Act two:

Hero struggles for goal in some genre-specific way. Learns incremental lessons from each struggle. Every time he is selfish, he gets punished by the author/universe. He is resistant to this lesson.

The antagonist opposes heroes and succeeds. His success despite his evil seems like a karmic imbalance, but…

Hero begins to change in the direction of the theme. In this example, he realizes selfishness may be costing him. He becomes less selfish, but for selfish reasons (pretending to be unselfish gets him more stuff!).

Act two B:
The hero uses his new approach successfully. He starts to win victories (major or minor. It seems he may even be more powerful than the antagonist. But he’s faking it till he makes it, and in a crucial challenge he fails, creating the lowest moment/dark night of the soul/false death or whatever other structural nonsense you prefer.

Act three:
The hero learns a lesson for real, and becomes unselfish for unselfishness’s sake. Before he was pretending to change, now he’s changed for real. In the final showdown the antagonist seems unbeatable, but the hero’s change coupled with his former self allows him insight.

He sees that the antagonist’s greed, and, relating to it, is able to exploit that, bringing down the bad guy once and for all. The moral is charismatically reaffirmed: the hero changed and won, the bad guy didn’t and was consumed by his greed (or whatever else).

Hero learns for real, embodies the change. He sees antagonist (powerful, evil) but realizes antagonist is a dark mirror of himself and by some (genre specific) way, exploits that and wins. Story becomes thematic propaganda for whatever lesson you want. By doing X, hero stops being Y and wins. By being Y, antagonist was always vulnerable, and despite the clear power advantage, was beaten by the power of change and the theme.

Closing Thoughts
The dark mirror antagonist may seem reductive, but it’s actually more common than you might think.

The advantage of this approach is that it forces you to include a theme and an arc, if that’s what you’re going for. It also unifies the protagonist and the antagonist, preventing harmfully random choices. It also gives you an immediate take on how the final showdown/climax/catharsis is going to go. Once you know the arc, it’s easier to write a big finish.

The disadvantage is that it’s a little pat, and has a tendency to feel moralistic and kiddish. That said, it can be tweaked to suit a highbrow script as well as a lowbrow one.

While not every script can or should apply to this formula, it’s a useful addition to your toolbox. If you’re ever stuck on a script, try applying it. It will generate some ideas whether you end up using it in the finished product or not.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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