I. It Begins with a Goal
Every character starts with a goal, usually a desire to change things. This goal takes the form of 4 distinct roles; adventurer, achiever, victim, and leader.
Adventurers are minor characters who are unsatisfied with their lot in life. Essentially, they’re bored. Their goal is to have fun, usually through new experiences. Bilbo Baggins, from The Hobbit, is an example of an adventurer. He could continue living his life as before, but instead he chooses to leave with the dwarves.
Achievers are industrious characters who want to be challenged. They believe in self-improvement and the value of personal excellence. Tarzan of the Apes is a strong example, constantly struggling to reach his full potential.
Victims are characters who suffer. Their goal is to escape their fate, and they are desperate to achieve it. Ender Wiggin, from Ender’s Game, is a victim. He is repeatedly cornered and manipulated by those with more power.
Leaders are characters who perceive the problems of others. Their goal is to take control of their environment so that they can “fix it”. Sherlock Holmes is an example of a leader, someone who consistently assumes he knows how to fix the problems faced by other characters.
Of course it is possible for a single character to shift roles, or represent multiple roles simultaneously. But that doesn’t make them a hero or villain. Everyone imagines themselves to be the hero of their own story, but what really sets the two apart is how they respond to complications.
Once characters have a goal in mind they set out to achieve it. Some plan out their steps, while others improvise. In both cases the character has a concept, a set of expectations. Inevitably the character is confronted with a crisis, which takes the form of either a complication or a setback. A complication is when something unexpected creates additional steps. A setback is when a character fails to complete a step, or loses the opportunity to complete it. As the task gets harder, the characters are confronted with a choice; where to compromise, and what to sacrifice?
The hero’s choice is to stay within the moral rules that govern the story and take on the burden themselves; to work harder, to go without food or sleep, to “suffer” in some form for the sake of the goal.
The villain’s choice is to disregard the moral rules that govern the story. Instead of working harder, the villain cheats, steals, or literally forces others to do their work for them.
Occasionally the heroic choice may be to sacrifice someone else, but only if the sacrifice prevents an even greater tragedy.
III. Crisis, Epiphany, and Resolution
At first the crises are small, but over time they build in magnitude, pushing the character closer to the breaking point, where the stakes are at their highest, and the character is at their lowest. In the grip of anger or despair, the character is torn between the call to be a hero, and the temptation to be a villain. In a moment of clarity the character resolves the inner conflict, makes their choice, and achieves either success or failure, cementing their role as either hero or villain.
Of course characters are always changing, gradually. A villain can be redeemed, and a hero can be corrupted, but it requires a series of crises that bring the character back to a moment of intense emotion, and doubt.
A Fork in the Road