Scriptwriting: Hero Vs Opponent Relationship

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by Charlie Burroughs


 “One mistake new writers make is placing their hero alone without relationships with the other characters. This results in a weak hero, cardboard cut out opponents, and uninteresting minor characters.”

– Write and Sell the Hot Screenplay by Elliot Grove

With this snip-it from Elliot’s book in mind how then do you create compelling, original, interesting main characters for your feature film? The answer from the book is making sure your hero has a strong relationship with the opponent. My answer is a case study of the four characters in the movies Dirty Harry (1971) and The Dark Knight (2008).
 
I don’t want to summarize the movies so go and rent them first or read the scripts then see if this article fills your need to learn about The Hero and The Opponent relationship.

I don’t like to start an article from the beginning of the story but I think both these movies have excellent introductions. Most important thing to note about the movies is that they both highlight the opponent’s destructive nature first. In Dirty Harry the villain is a sniper terrorizing the rooftops of San Francisco searching for unspecified victims, the first one being a beautiful defenseless woman swimming. In The Dark Knight the Joker leads a team of clowns on a sophisticated bank robbery, the twist being only the Joker will make it out alive. Instead of starting with the hero’s triumphs such as Batman’s garage drug-bust scene or Detective Callahan’s shoot-em-up bank heist bust, these writers understand the opponent’s actions develop the story and eventually hero better.

“The opponent will be stronger, smarter, more cunning, better looking (depending on the story) than the hero.” Write and Sell the Hot Screenplay

How often do you root for the Cowboys to beat the little Giants in the family film about pee-wee football. The Cowboys are clearly stronger than the nerd pre-pubescent Giants, they have a history of championships and matching uniforms. The point is, if you haven’t already jumped forward in the article, the opponent trumps the hero in every intangible way. In The Dark Knight the Joker is much smarter than Batman and the cops. He is always one step ahead and playing the game outside the traditional rules. (More on rules in a bit). From a writer’s perspective the Joker is more compelling in a few ways; his costume is custom made, his scars have different back stories, and he is given better dialogue. The audience has already had time to learn about Batman’s past from previous movies, so instead the writer or director spends plenty of time on the Joker’s character. In Dirty Harry the bad guy known as Scorpio from his letters takes time to develop, but by the climax the audience is convinced of his ability to make the hero squirm.

Side Note: Try this out. Ask a few of your friends who they like more Batman or Superman. Chances are they would say Batman because of his human qualities. Now ask them who would they rather be? You might get more people saying Superman, because he can look through walls, stop a bullet, and fly. This is why Batman movies are more compelling than Superman movies; it’s hard to fear for a superhero.


Write and Sell the Hot Script by Elliot Grove “A good opponent is a double of the hero. Which means that the opponent is human too - human with weakness, failing and strengths, just like the hero.”

"The opponent is the most under-developed character in most screenplays."

– Raindance Writer's Lab: Write and Sell the HOT Script
by Elliot Grove

Available at fine film book stores world wide or through Focal Press
(for a 20% discount)


There are a few ways you can show the hero and opponent are similar. One way is subtle visual cues. On the night of District Attorney Harvey Dent’s fundraiser Bruce Wayne gives a heartfelt toast to the “white knight.” Wayne is distraught and before drinking the glass of champagne he exits the pent house for some air. Outside Wayne tosses the champagne over the balcony without taking a sip. Moments later the Joker crashes the party looking for Harvey Dent, “You seen Harvey Dent?” The Joker explains he is the night’s entertainment and grabs a glass of champagne. He tosses the beverage over his shoulder and takes a drink from the empty glass. Why would the director want to waste alcohol like this unless he wanted to point out these characters are similar. Of course you don’t have to be so subtle the opponent can come right out and say he is similar to the hero. “I don’t want to kill you,” The Joker says when being interrogated by the Batman. “You complete me.”


Visually Dirty Harry does something similar to The Dark Knight. This visual cue is a little more harmful than wasting alcohol. In Harry’s first dirty job he cleans up on a failed bank robbery. He snaps off six shots leveling the get-away car and crippling the bad guys. However, Harry didn’t leave unscathed after getting shot in the leg by a robber. The placement of this shot on Harry’s leg is the same spot Scorpio is stabbed at by Harry later in the movie. This is a physical weakness both characters share. 

Side Note: Make the opponent impervious to physical pain. In Dirty Harry Scorpio pays a man to beat him to a bloody pulp. Then Scorpio tells the media it was Harry who beat him up. Harry’s response to the police chief? “He looks to good for me to have done that.” In The Dark Knight the Joker is physically abused by Batman, but for all his strength Batman can do nothing to crack him.

What about the structure of these movies? I already noted the introductions were similar, that isn’t all these two movies share structurally. The Hero has to overcome a societal problem. In both Dirty Harry and The Dark Knight the hero struggles with appearance in the public’s eye. Is Batman running around with a mask a vigilante and a menace? Are Dirty Harry’s tactics considered police brutality even though he gets the job done? The media and the law make a complicated third variable both heroes’ have to overcome. Batman prides himself as an advocate of justice; this is why he believes Gotham City can be handed over to Harvey Dent and no longer need him. This is why he doesn’t kill the Joker at the end. Dirty Harry doesn’t find solace with the judges and lawmakers either. In the mayor’s office Harry is warned to not let this case turn into another death. The mayor is talking about how Harry shot a man who was chasing a woman. The mayor hisses at Harry how he could possible know the man had the intent to rape the woman. Harry says when you see a man running naked after a woman with a knife and a hard on you can assume what he is up to. The mayor is ignorant and probably just read the media’s twist on the story. And you can’t say hard on in a news article. Hard on.

In both movies the hero is in opposition with society to the point where they have to break society’s rules. Batman breaks societal rules when implementing a city-wide surveillance device for catching the Joker. Both opponents force the hero to break their own personal codes to complete their task. Similarly, both opponents play by no rules in these movies.

Side Note: Give the characters theme music and make the opponents a bit more suspicious.

Finally, finish the movie with a memorable line of dialogue that has already been said early in the movie. Here is the dialogue from Dirty Harry just before he blows away Scorpio. The same line he shot toward the failed robber earlier in the movie.

“I know what you're thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

This is the reverse of how Pulp Fiction (1994) played out its memorable line of dialogue. In that movie Jules repeats Ezekiel 25:17 which afterwards he says, “I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a coldblooded thing to say to a motherfucker 'fore you popped a cap in his ass.” So I guess you can teach the hero a lesson with the repeated dialogue or if your Dirty Harry you can blow away the opponent.

In The Dark Knight the Joker just has to tell one more person about how he got his scars. Pride comes before the fall. In this ending between the hero and opponent both dialogue, ‘Did I ever tell you about how I got these scars,” and technology (Batman’s new suit equipped with a ninja-esque stars) complete the scene. You can bring technology like this in if you introduced it early in the movie. This is also seen in the movie Aliens (1986) when Sigourney Weaver’s character defeats the queen alien wearing a robotic work suit shown early in the movie.

Other Notes:

Because there are so many small clues and similarities in these two movies I couldn’t fit them into this article. Here are some more fun notes.

1.  Make the opponent drive a yellow school bus. Both the Joker and Scorpio drive a yellow bus at some point. Something about a maniacal character driving an innocent symbol of education.

2.  Haircuts. The hero always has a clean cut. The opponent is closer to shoulder length and never conditions.

3. The opponent has facial scars. Both the Joker (obviously) and Scorpio have scars on their face. Only movie where a hero wears a scar that I can think of is Chinatown where Jake Gittes wears a nose patch.

4. Both movies have a pro-hero cop friend that almost dies then saves the life of the hero.

5. Both Hero’s have to establish their importance to the city by busting non-opponent related crimes. These normally happen at the beginning of the movie.

6. The Opponent’s crimes escalate throughout the movie. Meaning they don’t start with the big bang (blowing up ferries or kidnapping a school bus of kids). Instead they start with a sniper shot and a bank robbery eventually getting more twisted down the line.

The Dark Knight IMDB page
Dirty Harry IMDB page
Dark Knight script

Dirty Harry: Scorpio on the roof video  
Dirty Harry: Ending video 
The Dark Knight: Joker Party Crashing after tonight's entertainment

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About The Author


Charlie BurroughsCharlie Burroughs is a graduating senior at Purdue University in the United States. His experience consist of sports journalism for the Big Ten's Boilermaker (Purdue's nickname not the drink) football, basketball, soccer, and track teams.

His passion is in creating original pieces of work using a camera and computer editing software. He had some success creating videos for the college paper website, but would rather venture into larger projects.

This is one reason he is thrilled to be interning at Raindance and traveling around Europe before graduation. 

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Scriptwriting: Hero Vs Opponent Relationship

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