Posted by: Alastair Rosie | September 16, 2012

TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES

TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES

After our hero has crossed the threshold they are in the extraordinary world, which could be a truly different world or time, planet, but it could merely be something as mundane as Birdee in Hope Floats, returning to her old hometown after being humiliated publicly by her husband in Chicago. This is usually seen as Act Two in a theatre setting and in a novel represents the guts of the book, the bit between crossing the threshold and the approach to the inmost cave. Here our hero goes through a series of tests, meets allies and enemies. It is at this stage that we pay attention to the character arc, which should show a gradual curve as they battle through tests and do things they never thought possible.
Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, compares it to going to college where we have the entrance exam followed by a series of tests before the big exam at the end and it’s actually a very good analogy because this process separates the wheat from the chaff. Those students who have what it takes to become lawyers or writers, have to undertake the tests that will give them the necessary skills and information needed to pass the final test.
Thus the tests you throw at your hero should be sufficient to cause doubt in the hero’s and reader’s mind. Darby Shaw in The Pelican Brief finally gets to meet Gray Grantham, who has been on his own hero’s journey. The two of them join forces and begin to unravel the murky ties between Fletcher Coal’s and Victor Mattiece’s people. They are up against the US government and big business, after all, Mattiece is the richest man in America. We tend to side with the underdog most of the time so we’re naturally drawn to to their side. In Pretty Woman, Julia Robert’s character meets Barney, her mentor and her nemesis, Stuckey, (Edward’s attorney). In this extraordinary world she experiences Edward’s high flying world of glitz and glamour, and he conversely learns about the shallowness and emptiness of his world. In Twilight, Bella has finally gotten Edward to admit to his true nature and is drawn into his strange magically and terrifying world. She meets more allies in the Cullens, and enemies in the form of Victoria’s clan, there are tests that range from simply surviving a meal at the Cullens’ house to the final confrontation in Phoenix. Science fiction and fantasy novels and movies have our hero go through a series of tests or battles. Frodo and his companions have to escape the Nazgul and Orcs, Lyra in The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, has to escape the clutches of the Magisterium, (I’m referring to the book version rather than the drastically cut film version).
This stage is usually where an alliance between different heroes might form a team as in The Dirty Dozen and other war movies like Platoon. One hero might rise to become the principal hero who has to battle other allies to drive the team forward to achieve their objective. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
There is a tendency amongst writers to up the ante and bring about impossible situations that will overshadow the final confrontation. The general rule of thumb is to gradually up the ante, make each test harder and harder. This is to prepare your hero for the final confrontation. Think of an athlete who wants to compete in the Olympics. If you have her competing in Olympic type events at Olympic standard then there’s no surprise when she wins the race at the end. But if she has to run road races in local events, perhaps turn down an opportunity for love and marriage, which is a test, run a few national events, suffer from injuries, doubts, pleas from family and friends and finally she reaches the arena where she will face her final test, then her journey is far more exciting.
I’ve noticed over the last few years an annoying tendency for writers to make their hero a former Navy SEAL, who is now living a rather mundane life until they are called upon to save the world. It appears as if the writer has created a truly heroic character but the hero has more than enough strength of character, and firepower to totally blitz the opposition. Every Navy SEAL is the result of millions of dollars worth of training. While having a former SEAL go back to a mundane life or one that doesn’t involve drawing on their training isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, to have it happen ALL the time is to be frank, unrealistic.
This fatal flaw comes about from one of two reasons I believe. The first is creating a hero who can face the ultimate challenge and win. The second is fear that your hero may not survive the tests immediately preceding the final confrontation. And here is where we sort the wheat from the chaff. We identify with a hero much like ourselves, who may not have what it takes to survive the smaller tests but a truly magnificent, highly trained hero is almost godlike. We admire them but we cannot identify with them and so I would caution writers to go back and look at their original hero. Is she someone we can identify with or would we bow when she enters a room? Is he someone you would have a drink with after it’s all over or would you ask for their autograph?
Look at Alexa in the movie AVP. She’s a highly trained climber with extensive experience in Arctic and Antarctic, who ultimately has to pick up weapons and face terrifying aliens. One of her tests involves putting Sebastian out of his misery when he is infected. Her hand shakes as she aims the gun and after she kills him she drops it. This kind of hero and the tests she faces are believable, we can put ourselves in her place and experience the terror and the wonder. She didn’t have any combat experience at all but at the end of the movie she receives the ultimate accolade when one of the Predators gives her Scar’s lance as his comrades carry the body to the ship. Each test she faces leads to the final test when she confronts ‘mother.’ The movie did contain a lot of wooden dialogue and it was a take your brain out movie, but it followed the hero cycle faithfully and so you forgive the little flaws along the way and just sit back and enjoy it.
When introducing allies and enemies you’re refining your hero, showing how they interact with others who are trying to help and those who oppose them. If your hero ultimately doesn’t need these pesky helpers then we begin to lose interest. Your helpers should be crucial to the plot. Try taking out the other three hobbits and see how far Frodo makes it. Take out Barney from Pretty Woman and Vivian will flounder, or the unsinkable Molly from Titanic and Jack will turn up to dinner and be ultimately disgraced. This part of your novel is where you must put in the hard yards to earn your living. Many writers I’ve read over the years maintain a rigid discipline, forcing their hero and the other characters into position and while it’s necessary to have some discipline, no one likes a tyrant. So play around with your hero. Throw a challenge at her that isn’t in the playbook just for fun, move a minor player up to the role of major character or even mentor. I’ve found some of my best character development has come about from merely letting go of the character and seeing how they cope with the challenges.
Going back to AVP for a moment, if some of the dialogue and interactions between characters hadn’t been so forced and clichéd, it would have been a better movie. Likewise with Titanic, the character Cal was too evil. Rose would have to be naïve to the point of stupidity to even contemplate marriage to such a monster. Making him a little more human would have introduced a crisis of choice for Rose and made Jack work harder to gain her love. Be careful when creating your allies and enemies, don’t make them too good or too evil. I refer often to the fact that the ultimate villain of the Twentieth Century, Adolf Hitler loved his dogs. So even someone as evil as Hitler shared some of our human qualities. Villains never see themselves as being totally evil, they see themselves as misunderstood and I’m not saying that with tongue in cheek. Terrorists who commit an act of terror usually see themselves as fighting the good fight even if it involves killing hundreds of people.
Your allies don’t have to be perfect either. In the Robert Zemeckis movie, Contact S.R Haddon has his own agenda for helping Ellie break the code. He wants to leave his mark on humanity even as he’s dying. Your hero will sit around and have what is termed the ‘fireside chat’ with allies and mentors to learn more about the challenges and tests. There’s a lot to go through with this part of your book. Your extraordinary world is revealed in all its wonder or terror. Your hero must learn the rules as they face greater and greater challenges. This is where the adventure really begins and rather than rushing through it you need to take time to flesh out the work, draw the characters together or introduce critical wedges that will force people to take sides. Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring will fall for the power of the Ring while Aragorn senses its power and rightly fears it and so Boromir will fall and Aragorn goes on.
In summary we want to see your hero prove themselves worthy of the ultimate prize. We are drawn into their struggles as they move through this extraordinary world and it is this place where you will ultimately win your reader or lose them. So what are you waiting for? You’ve issued the Call to Adventure, enticed your hero over the threshold and now they’re off an another adventure.
Other examples of tests, allies, and enemies.

The crew of Serenity in the film of the same name, who must help River escape the clutches of the Alliance and discover the meaning of the word Miranda. In this example the crew are all heroes who must discover the reason for River’s fractured personality and psychic abilities.
The tests Louis must face in Interview With a Vampire.
The arrival of the gunfighters at the village in The Magnificent Seven.
Luke and Obi Wan’s flight from Tatooine in Star Wars: A New Hope.

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