The Making of a Hero: How Spiderman 2 Shows Writers How to Create True Heroes

One of the smartest comic book movies ever written has some great lessons for us writers. What better way to pick up some writing tips than by watching movies?

In Spiderman 2 (2004), director Sam Raimi employed a technique with his main character that great writers have long used, but which, sadly, many writers today fail to employ. That is the method of pounding your MC into the ground. Blast him with bad news. Take everything he has from him and then kick his feet out from under him. (Ali of aliventures wrote a nice little post about this, here.)

George RR Martin has perfected this method. He beats the crap out of his characters. In fact, it is through his extreme use of this method that Martin is able to manipulate readers into sympathizing with formerly despicable characters. (But that is a more advanced writing technique for another post for another time.)

We watch, mesmerized, as Peter Parker is fired from his job, discovers that the love of his life is engaged to another man; he is mistreated and abused and disregarded by everyone (except his anorexic female neighbor), loses his self-confidence and his web-slinging ability by association, and finally is forced to endure a public slapping from his best friend. And that’s not even mentioning his main problem: a vengeful scientist with four mechanical arms welded to his body.

It’s one thing after another, beating poor Peter into the ground.

In novels and movies this makes us feel for the MC. But beneath the surface, it also creates wonderful opportunities for character arcs.

When you hurt your darlings—just as with real people in real life—they become vulnerable and open to deep emotional states. Peter eventually chooses the right path, that of a hero. That’s the story crux of Spiderman 2. He learns to become the hero, not because he can, but because that is who he wants to be for his city, no matter its negative effects on his own personal life.

But if you watch the movie and pay close attention, and think about it, you will realize that all these terrible events in his life could just as easily have resulted in creating a villain out of Peter Parker.

In fact, those events are, when you get right down to it, basically the origin story of many villains. They are basically the same things (or worse) that happened to Adrian Toomes in Spiderman: Homecoming.

The difference is that Toomes handled the situation poorly. His decision was driven by selfish impulses. Instead of reflecting on what the city needed, he considered only his own desires. Peter Parker considered his desires, but he also weighed them against the needs of his hometown, and he was wise enough to recognize and confess that his wants and needs—as always—paled in comparison to the needs of New York.

Mythcreants offers a useful little guide for villain origin stories (and even uses movies as examples, which is always cool.)

Does it seem strange that a hero and a villain origin story might be found in the same circumstances?

When I think about it, I must admit that it does not seem strange, after all.

Heroism and villainy are two sides of the same coin. It should come as no surprise that the basis for both might be similar; circumstances (should) shape each of your characters. It is their response to their situation that determines their personality and, ultimately, their destiny.

There are few things more rewarding to read about than characters in dire straits coming to terms with their stations and resolving how to respond.

How do your characters respond to their situations?

It is a vital question you must consider if you want to create a compelling narrative and bold characters. Indecisive characters are annoying. Those who know who they are, or who know who that want to be, make for the greatest, most entertaining characters. They are the sort of people your readers want to read about.

When Peter Parker decides to be the hero the city (and he himself) needs, we are treated to a character with a resolute mind. He knows who he is—and so what follows is pure entertainment.

When you sit down to write your characters, remember to pound them into the ground, force them into making tough decisions. By the end, they should know who they are, and happily embrace who they are—like you. You are a writer. Embrace that fact. Rejoice in it! Educate yourself in the art and joy of writing, by reading and writing. And don’t forget to look for tips in your favorite movies, or right here.

Misdirection in Your Writing: Samwise Gamgee was the Real Hero of Lord of the Rings

Let’s be frank: Frodo was kind of a whiny turd who failed his mission and betrayed the most loyal character in literature.

Tolkien, in his brilliance, befuddled us into believing that Frodo Baggins was the hero of LOTR, when in reality it was his gardener who accomplished the greatest act of the Third Age.

MISDIRECTION. The old Oxford professor of languages understood this subtle, difficult-to-master writing art.

While many writers will mislead their readers through unreliable narrators, or narrators who are uninformed or misinformed, Tolkien took another route—a longer, winding path—to misdirecting his readers. He chose to share his tale in Third Person, following primarily Frodo, and secondarily a few supporting characters, when all along it was the sidekick we should’ve been focusing on.

This was misleading, because Frodo possesses few of the qualities of a hero. Sure, his journey is tragic, and he chooses to take the hard road, but he is, for the most part, a reactive character that rarely seems to put himself out there for others, and indeed never seems interested in the well-being of others. The fact that he takes on a quest may seem noble, but as Tolkien makes clear through some clever phrasing, the Shire-folks’ decision was made almost without his heart and will:

‘At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.’

Frodo’s decision seems almost guided by a higher power (perhaps by one of the Power’s of which Tolkien was frustratingly vague and evasive in the LOTR.)

All throughout his journey, Frodo depends entirely on Sam. Sam cooks, comforts, hunts and fights for Frodo, without complaining. It is Sam who tries to protect Frodo from the deceptions of Gollum/Smeagol. And finally it is Sam who fights off Shelob in what might be the most moving scene in the entire Trilogy. Sam displays the courage of Strider without the training and muscles. He shows the loyalty of a true friend, one who would die for another.

Do we need even mention that moment on Mount Doom? (Tolkien had a knack for character names, but seriously, Mount Doom?)

‘I can’t carry it for you—’ even though he had done just that after poking Shelob ‘—but I can carry you!’

I still get writer tingles just thinking of that scene.

If all these actions of Sam ‘the Gardener’ Gamgee are not enough to convince us that he is the true hero and main protagonist of the tale, Tolkien brings this truth home by concluding the entire series with Sam. He returns home from seeing Frodo off to the Havens, and then settles into his chair by the fire, puts his feet up on a stool and declares: “Well, I’m back.”

It’s as if Tolkien is finally admitting that it was Sam we were following through Middle-Earth all along. There and Back Again: a Hobbits Tale may tell of the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo, but it is Sam who finishes it, Sam who comes back again.

Frodo never really returned home. He was too damaged, too emotionally broken to have psychologically survived the Fellowship’s horrorshow of a quest. Sam, on the other hand, improves his life on returning to the Shire. After facing off against orcs and giant spiders, proposing to Rose Cottonwood proves to be an easy and enjoyable privilege. He becomes mayor of Hobbiton, produces a brood of happy healthy children, and, when he is good and ready, is honored by being allowed to cross over to the Havens—having been, for a brief but noble time, a ring-bearer.

Misdirection. Tolkien knew that if Sam were directly shown to be the main character, we would:

  • Quickly grow weary of his unshakable loyalty to a lesser character
  • View Frodo as a poor friend and borderline antagonist
  • Wonder why Frodo was even going on the Quest

Frodo’s journey and struggles were intriguing because we were led to believe he was the hero of the tale, and so when he struggled and grew too weak and weary to continue, we felt his weariness. And it was Sam who picked us up. Sam’s energy never seemed to flag. He never wavered in his devotion. Placing him as the clear protagonist would not have worked, because he is almost too good of a person be taken seriously. Frodo is very much affected by the stories’ events; he has weaknesses, and so we can easily identify with him. We understand heavy burdens. Frodo is the everyman. Sam is the almost-un-relatable hero we both aspire to and have a hard time believing could exist for real.

The brilliance of misdirection—when done skillfully in a novel—is that it adds an element of unpredictability to the narrative. If you cannot rely on the narrator, or if the author is intentionally misleading you, the epic finale will come as a pleasant surprise. No spoilers spelled out for you the way amateur writers would have done.

In my YA fantasy W.A.N.D. I incorporate misdirection (SPOILER ALERT!) by leading readers to believe that the Mythics are the main antagonists, when it is something altogether darker and even more threatening lurking behind the scenes which forces Nick into making certain decisions. The need of a wand is even more important because of this lurking menace. By misdirecting readers, I add an unstable unpredictable element. This–I believe–adds depth and intrigue to the book.

When you go to practice your own misdirection remember what Tolkien said: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Don’t be afraid to be swept off by your writing. You never know where it might take you.

The 5 Secrets of Marley and Scrooge

You may think you know all about those two fuddy-buddies in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But behind the scenes and squeezed between the lines of this holiday tale lie 5 shocking secrets. These secrets, once revealed, illuminate a darkness that lurked inside the counting house of Marley and Scrooge. Discover for yourself the truths behind their mysterious relationship, and why Marley was finally allowed to come out of death to haunt that old clutching sinner, Ebenezer Scrooge.

The 5 Secrets inside A Christmas Carol

  1. As small-hearted and penny-pinching a miser as Scrooge was, he was merely exercising the penurious business practices he had learned at the coattails of old Jacob T Marley. (As we will see, this explains why Scrooge was given his Second Chance, when so many others were not)
  2. Marley never regretted living the way he had lived. Oh, he certainly bemoaned his chained state by the time we see his crotchety buggered bum floating around in Scrooge’s bedchambers, but his regrets lie not in his mode of living but in the nature of his suffering. Had he known he was forging chains in life, he would have forged heavier ones, so that he would not be able to move in death, thus saving himself from an eternity of having to watch his old partner ‘bah humbug’ his way through life in his (Marley’s) office and house
  3. Scrooge not only practiced business the way Marley had taught him, but everything he owned came from his former partner, from the business (which, once upon a happier time, had been called Marley and Marley) to his house, to the very bed curtains which an old grasping woman stole from dead Scrooge in a ‘shadow of things that May be.’ Scrooge owed everything to Marley—his life and eternity included. This would seem to make Marley the more potent of the two characters
  4. Scrooge became the legendary crotchety miser we meet in the opening lines of A Christmas Carol only because of Marley. As shown by the Ghost of Christmases Past, a young Ebenezer always had the talent to accrue wealth. But it wasn’t until he met Marley that he decided the accumulation of wealth would be his heart’s desire, seeing it (because Marley showed it to him) as the means by which he might win a lady’s heart. But it was this very single-minded devotion which lost him the lady’s hand in marriage
  5. And finally, the big reveal: Scrooge may have decided in the end to ‘keep Christmas in his heart all the year round’ but that is not because he felt any sort of reinvigorated love for his fellow man. On the contrary, his ‘change’ is due to an overwhelming fear of suffering the fate that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had shown him. Because he did not wish to die alone and unloved, Scrooge decided, on waking that Christmas morning (THERE HAS NEVER BEEN SUCH A DAY!), to keep Christmas because he did not wish to die alone.

Marley Did It All in One Night

As Marley explains when Scrooge asks him why he is troubling him, ‘It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide, and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth—and turned to happiness!’

It is fear which drives Scrooge to his knees before Death (the final Spirit, the Phantom). It is fear which compels him to change his ways and go out to walk among his fellowmen at the end of the tale.

It is the fear of becoming what he saw in his old partner, Jacob Marley, when his apparition made its ghostly appearance.

Believe what you want—for it is the season of believing

I would rather not believe this. I prefer to believe—as millions of readers have happily believed over the decades—that Scrooge truly did have a change of heart, that his spirit came alive on finding that ‘the spirits did it all in one night.’

It pleases us to imagine that the former miser could experience a change of heart. It is inspiring, and suggests that anyone, no matter how miserable or depressed, can be shown the way back to a merry and wonderful life.

Of course, Dickens in his brilliance knew this was what his readers would want to believe. He says in his preface: ‘I wish to raise the ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly and no one wish to lay it.’

That idea, of course, is that anyone might change, if they allow their eyes to be opened and confess to themselves that they are in need of change.

Did the miser remain deep inside, merely concealed behind a carefully crafted façade of good humor and a heaping application of the Christmas Spirit?

This open-endedness, this potential for multiple beliefs to the ending of a story, is the mark of a truly clever writer.

If this technique is something that can be learned, it must be learned by reading—much and often.

It was said of him ever afterward, that Scrooge knew how to keep Christmas well, if anyone possessed the knowledge.

Whether we believe or not, Dickens clearly believed, and it revived his career. It is clearly a writer’s joy to write about hope and change; let us learn from the masters and craft our own tales of hope and secrets and masterly thought-out character arcs. (See my previous post covering this vital writing subject, here.)

You might like to check out The Man Who Invented Christmas, a movie about the events which led to Dickens writing his classic carol of Christmas. Also, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, by Samantha Silva. This little book follows Mr. Dickens through London in a fictional account of the real life story about how he found the inspiration for Scrooge and Marley. Silva employs a similar style of writing as Dickens himself, with delightfully long paragraphs covering much and detailing the grimy side and mood of the ancient city and times of Scrooge and Dickens and Tiny Tim.