Character and Acting

The heroes and villains we love and why we love them

Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2002) uses presentation of foil characters alongside each other to expose their simultaneous flaws (image copyrighted under New Line Cinema) Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2002) uses presentation of foil characters alongside each other to expose their simultaneous flaws (image copyrighted under New Line Cinema)

Introduction To Character

One of the most exciting, and perhaps most memorable, aspects of the movies we love are the characters within them. The mind-blowing plot twists, heart-wrenching moments, and intense action are made more powerful when experienced by characters that we as audience members care about. 

Character is a pivotal aspect of the plot of a film and is a dimension of filmmaking that brings soul and relatability to a piece of art. Just like other aspects of cinema, making the audience relate to a character or fall in love with or even fear them is a careful balance of art and creativity combined with carefully cultivated techniques. 

So why do we care about the characters on screen the way we do and why don’t we care for others? Why do we root for the hero instead of the villain?

How we relate to the characters onscreen depends on the archetypal role that character plays and how they react when obstacles are put in the way of their desires or motivations.

Introduction To Archetypes

The word ‘archetype’ is a combination of ancient Greek words meaning ‘original’ or ‘old’ and ‘pattern.’ When analyzing movies, it is pivotal to understand how the characters on the screen either relate to the audience or alienate them. While the audience roots for the hero, they are supposed to be scared of the villain. 

But why do the characters we love mean so much to us?

Storytelling is an ancient art, one of humanity’s oldest forms. Stories have been used to pass down histories and lessons from the dawn of time, but they also demonstrate aspects of our own nature and help us understand ourselves. Through these stories, certain types of characters have emerged consistently across time and culture. These are archetypal characters. 

By viewing movies with a critical lens and an understanding of how the characters on the screen actually reveal something about our own psyches, you’ll be able to understand the importance of cinema not only as a popular or influential form of entertainment but as a continuation of an ancient art form that is meant to teach us about the world and ourselves.

The Hero Needs No Introduction

Joseph Campbell, a writer and professor who studied the archetypes present in literature and art, defined a hero as ‘someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.’ 

An aspect of movies that captivates and draws audiences in is the plight of the hero on the big screen who believes so much in a cause or purpose that they are willing to sacrifice their own comfort, safety, or even sense of self. 

But why does this story speak so much to us? Why are superhero movies so popular and why have Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter not lost any traction in pop culture?

According to Campbell, this is because we all love, and even need, the hero’s journey or hero myth in our lives. The hero’s journey is a specific story structure that speaks to something within the audience that they are looking for. We each have obstacles in our own lives that must be overcome, whether they are internal or external. 

Watching the hero’s journey play out in film helps us to not only relate with the hero facing similar challenges but also gives us a roadmap to dealing with our own obstacles and facing our own villains.

Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, attempts to define and detail what he coined as a ‘monomyth,’ a single story that is articulated over and over again across time and cultures, even though the specific characters and circumstances would change. He was intrigued that this one story had so thoroughly captured audiences of so many varying walks of life. 

He called this monomyth the Hero’s Journey and determined that this single story, reiterated across time, culture, and even religion, is not just a story we innately love and don’t get bored with, it also speaks to something deeper in humanity’s psyche.

Every wonder why Star Wars has impressed generations? What about Harry Potter? Would you say he’s the same as Frodo or Luke Skywalker? Would you believe that Captain America and Neo from The Matrix share the same story? 

All of these characters follow the hero’s journey and, according to Campbell, it is because this story and the plight of these heroes speaks to something deep within our unconscious mind so that we will never tire of watching these movies or rooting for these characters.

The Stages Of The Monomyth

According to J Campbell, there are certain archetypes in art that reflect our psyches. What he coined as the Hero’s Journey is the quintessential archetypal plot. It is one of the oldest stories to be told and is seen in many different cultures and time periods. 

Campbell identified 3 main parts to this ‘monomyth’ or archetypal Hero’s Journey.  The first part is ‘The Departure’. Here, the hero is introduced to their journey to come although the full extent of the conflict hasn’t been revealed, just like when Gandalf asks Frodo to bring the Ring to Mordor in The Lord of The Rings but the full dangers of that journey aren’t yet known. 

The second part is the ‘Initiation’. This is where the hero has faced such transformative obstacles and no longer has the ability to return home, forcing them to continue with their quest or purpose. The final state Campbell identified is ‘The Return’ where the hero has accomplished their goals and returns to a new, although hopefully improved world.

The Antihero

While the Hero myth and character is recognized not only across varying films and genres but across cultures, time, and religion, the antihero is a fairly modern character archetype, but one you’ll probably recognize. 

As opposed to the traditional hero who is moral, just, humble, and brave, the antihero is a character without these traditionally heroic characteristics. Usually morally ambiguous, reluctant to fight for a cause beyond their own intentions, and lacking some of the core virtues the hero embodies, the antihero is a complex character that’s ripe for analysis. 

While heroes are beloved and model behaviors and virtues we all wish we could embody, the reality is we’re all neither heroes nor villains. We’re somewhere in between, just like the antihero is.

Understanding The Antihero

The antihero is a complex character filled with conflicting motivations and desires that audiences usually relate to because they see that same battle warring inside themselves. Unlike the hero, who is resolved in their motivations and firm in their virtue, the antihero is usually not as easy to understand. 

Some great examples from television and movies of these antiheroes are Han Solo from Star Wars, Captain Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean, and Walter White from Breaking Bad. Each of these characters are morally ambiguous and self-serving in many ways, but, despite their flaws, they manage to pull off heroism when the situation demands it, and that’s why we love them. 

While the hero is determined to fight the villain, the hero maintains a code of conduct or rules that they will not stoop below in order to win, in other words, the hero fights fair and it is exactly their just and noble cause that helps them win. 

The antihero, on the other hand, is not driven by the same code of conduct. Whether past traumas haunt them or the desire to simply survive, they do not have the same nobility or justice that the hero does and must overcome these obstacles within themselves just as they must fight off or overcome the external conflict.

Understanding Opposing Forces

As much as audiences across time love and appreciate the hero of the story, without a great villain to match the hero, there really is no story. The villain of most stories is the antagonist or the character who stands in the way of the protagonist. 

This antagonistic force has motivations, desires, and goals that oppose those of the protagonist and they usually fight just as hard, if not harder, to stop the protagonist from interrupting their goals or reaching their own. 

Without conflict, there is no plot. There is nothing for the hero to overcome or defeat. Without a villain, there’s no plot and there’s not even a real hero. 

As Roger Ebert, film critic and author, writes, ‘Each film is only as good as its villain…only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.’

Villain Versus Antagonist

When analyzing movies through the lens of their characters, it’s important to distinguish between the villains of the plot and the antagonists. The villain of a plot is the character who stands in fundamental distinction from the Hero. This villain is ‘evil’ in that their very existence in some way threatens the existence or reality of the hero, or perhaps the whole world. 

While evil is subjective, the evil of the villain in a plot is that their actions are so heinous that they cannot coexist with the hero – the character we care about and root for. 

The antagonist of a story is a force of character that stands in opposition to the hero. While they may stand in opposition to the hero, that doesn’t mean they’re evil or cannot coexist with the hero. For example, in Top Gun, Ice Man stands in opposition to Maverick and presents him with many obstacles, but he doesn’t threaten his existence nor is he evil or malicious. 

In some cases, the villain and the antagonist are one and the same, but to really hone your analytical skills when it comes to films, practice recognizing these differences.

The Foil; Another Side To The Hero

One of the most important and memorable aspects of cinema is the characters in the movies we love. The history of movies and television is full of iconic duos. Some of these duos are a specific type of character set called foils. Foil characters are 2 characters, one of which usually being the hero or protagonist, that are meant to teach the audience something about the story’s main character. 

The term foil character comes from the many works of Shakespeare, who commonly used this character duo, but it is a common way writers and directors explore the protagonist from different angles. 

A foil is the opposite of the main character. Think of a piece of aluminium foil that is reflective and malleable. This reflection is exactly what a foil character does, reflects the opposite traits of the protagonists. 

Some famous examples of antagonistic foil characters are Frodo Baggins and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. The role of Gollum’s character is to emphasize the danger that Frodo is in as well as highlight the virtue that Frodo possesses that Gollum does not.

Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2002) uses presentation of foil characters alongside each other to expose their simultaneous flaws (image copyrighted under New Line Cinema) Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2002) uses presentation of foil characters alongside each other to expose their simultaneous flaws (image copyrighted under New Line Cinema)

The Purpose Of  The Foil; Opposites Attract

Shadows tend to look darker when compared to light, and that is exactly what the foil character is meant to do to the protagonist, cast them in a new light. 

While most character foils are antagonistic duos, such as Frodo and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings or Clarice and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, foils don’t have to be contrary. In fact, some examples of foil characters demonstrate companionship. 

While Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy serve as a contrast of each other’s traits, Harry and Hermione complement each other. Harry is rash and decides to act based on his intuition. However, Hermione plans each step out and it’s this careful consideration that helps Harry through his trials while also demonstrating his recklessness. 

Another complementary set of foils is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sherlock is arrogant and cold but Watson is practical and sympathetic. Their verbal sparring and mutual annoyance are entertaining and demonstrate the flaws in one another’s character, but they always come to each other’s rescue.

The Character Study

It is the characters onscreen that we relate to the most. Their obstacles, traumas, triumphs, and relationships are what draw us into a plot and heighten the emotional impact a film can have on us. 

A character study is a popular type of film that focuses intently on the motivations, desires, and struggles of a character. It is their internal conflict and their reactions to the events of the plot that becomes the movie’s central focus. A character study film is meant to give the audience an intimate glimpse into the character’s experience and perspective and watch as they change and grow throughout the plot of the film. 

Some examples of character studies are Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Todd Phillip’s Joker. In each of these films, it is the single character that drives the emotion and action of the plot and we as audience members get an intimate glimpse into their lives, desires, and struggles.

Introduction To Other Character Types

Oftentimes, filmmakers will utilize tropes or types, which are common elements in plots despite the uniqueness of the plot itself.  A character type specifically is a formulaic character with distinct traits and roles that remain the same despite the film.

When analyzing films, learning to recognize if a film utilizes character types is important in discovering the filmmaker’s message. Similar to a film’s genre, a character type is easily recognized and sets an expectation with the audience. 

If I asked you to name a movie with a ‘dumb jock’ or a ‘mad scientist’ in it, you could probably come up with a whole list. That’s because, despite the story, there are specific types of characters that are easily recognizable. 

These character types are based on character archetypes or a character representing a universal pattern. Character types are more specific than simply the hero and the villain. The ‘mad scientist’ type may be the villain of the movie, but the character is more widely recognized for their traits that represent a universal pattern or theme. 

Character types, just like a film’s genre or other film tropes, can be used by directors to let the audience know what to expect. But while they provide a set of expectations for the audience, those expectations can either be upheld or carefully subverted.

Character Types In Film: The Chosen One 

Joseph Campbell famously articulated a specific, universal narrative called the ‘Hero’s Journey.’ While the story the hero tells is usually the same, what about the hero themselves?

One of the most easily recognizable character types is The Chosen One. This character is recognized as being meant for a greater purpose, specifically the hero’s journey. They are charged with the responsibility of saving their world and facing the antagonist. 

Some notable examples of the Chosen One are Harry Potter, Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, and Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. Each of these characters is the same type and, while their individual journeys may be the same, they share very specific characteristics. 

Some specific traits of the Chosen One are that they are known for their virtue and intuition and are the only ones able to fulfill a specific duty. Interestingly, the Chosen One usually doesn’t have parents, they are commonly orphans or being raised by someone other than their parents. 

The type of the Chosen One brings a set of expectations with it. The audience expects them to be capable and virtuous. They also expect that they are going to fulfill a role they are destined for. However, these expectations can be subverted.

In Blade Runner 2049, the protagonist, Officer K, begins to meet the audience’s expectations for the Chosen One. The audience begins to believe through the use of character types that Officer K fits this type, until the film subverts this expectation. The film points out that through the use of these types;  the audience has expected Officer K to fulfill this role and specific journey and they are left as disappointed as Officer K is to learn that they were wrong.

Examples Of Character Types In Film

In film, there are specific character types or characters based on a universal pattern that the audience comes to recognize as possessing specific traits. 

A common example of a character type seen in film is the Mentor who works closely with the protagonist, usually the hero of the story, to train them and prepare them for the responsibility of being the protagonist. The Mentor usually possesses knowledge and skill that the protagonists need in order to face their antagonist or villain. 

Some examples of the Mentor type in film are Yoda from Star Wars, Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid, and Dumbledore from Harry Potter

Another notable example of a character type is the Mad Scientist. Usually cast in the role of an antagonist, the Mad Scientist is a recognizable character with distinct traits. They are usually brilliant and passionate, willing to put the pursuit of science before all else and push the limits of human knowledge and ability to a dangerous extent. 

This character is a universal pattern in that it touches on fears or hopes that most people experience, namely the desire to eradicate death and disease or the hope that humanity can evolve or find a new state that is more adapted to their environment. 

Examples of the Mad Scientist are Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau from The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Nathan Bateman from Ex Machina.

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Visual and auditory techniques used on film to create a story for our senses.

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How to analyze the atmosphere of a film and its impact on the audience.

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Genre/Setting;

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Theme;

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