What can we learn from a documentary about creating heroic heroes and villainous villians? Quite a lot, it turns out, if that documentary is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
If you have not yet seen this movie, which examines two men's quest to prove themselves as all-time champions at Donkey Kong and which achieved a near-perfect rating at Rotten Tomatoes, please go out and rent it this weekend. You'll be glad you did. (Though you will begin to question what is wrong with Hollywood and the American public and the whole darn world that we are spending millions of dollars producing and watching utter crap when movies like this are out there just waiting to be made and seen, but that's a rant for a whole 'nother post.)
So, anyway ... back to the topic of drawing sympathetic heroes and hiss-worthy villains. Here are some lessons learned from this small masterpiece of the big screen:
Paint your hero as an underdog and your villain as an, er, overdog. The directors spend most of the first 10 minutes of the movie regaling us with tales of Billy's accomplishments at Donkey Kong and his renown among classic video fanatics. (Note: At this point, we don't know enough to dislike Billy. We don't know much about him at all, other than the fact that he can play some serious Kong.)
Then, the directors key the mournful music and switch to a profile of Steve, a down-and-out husband and father of two who was recently laid off from his job and has never quite reached the pinnacle of any of his exploits, whether they be athletic, musical or professional. As he takes stock of his life, Steve seizes upon one simple yet challenging goal: to beat the all-time high score in Donkey Kong set by Billy 25 years earlier.
Do not make your hero perfect. However, do make sure the reader can understand, relate to and sympathize with his or her flaws. We root for Steve in part because of his weaknesses. His brother tells us he has "social hangups," his wife says he is obsessive-compulsive and his mother surmises that he may suffer from a mild form of autism. Each of these traits serve dual purposes in this film: They help us understand why Steve is so competitive at Donkey Kong and they make us care about him.
Give your villain an unfair advantage. A major theme that keeps reappearing in this movie is the fact that Steve's every score and every game are scrutinized to the nth degree, while Billy gets a free pass and literally "mails them in." At one point, the video game "referee" comes right out and admits it is to his organization's advantage to have Billy as reigning champ because of his fame among the gamers' subculture and his supposed charisma.
It also helps if your villain is a megalomaniac. Why not have your villain compare himself, his skills and his reputation to, say, God, Helen of Troy, the United States of America, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Red Baron and even the abortion issue? Right, right, that would be way over the top. No one would believe someone could have such an overblown opinion of himself. Only....
Now, before all you Billy fans out there (are there any Billy fans out there, cuz if there are, I'd like to meet you) comment with complaints, I do recognize that the directors of the movie edited this a la "Survivor" and some other reality shows so as to make one character come across as sympathic as possible and the other to appear, well, as big an idiot as possible.
But it sure makes for some great entertainment and some masterful storytelling. Let's hope we can do half as well in our fiction.