Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV by Jeffrey Hirschberg (Michael Wiese Press)

As the title indicates, this book focuses on creating powerful and memorable protagonists and antagonists. Jeffrey Hirschberg starts off with analyzing what makes a hero and a villain, and then illustrates his findings with portraits of ten unforgettable heroes and villains. Heroes include Peter Parker, Rick Blaine, Atticus Finch and Indiana Jones among others, while the villains count Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, nurse Ratched and the Joker in his most recent screen outing among their lot.

The second part of the book starts off with a number of shortish but excellent interviews with screenwriters David Koepp, Steven de Souza, David Franzoni and James Dearden about their heroic and villainous creations. Hirschberg then offers help in developing your own villains and heroes and proposes his Persona-tool to aid with the job (a character-building list of questions). He then compares the 'treks' of the hero and the villain in a couple of films, applying their development to the three-act structure, and his finishes off (somewhat incongruously) with his 11 Laws of Storytelling which obviously cover a far wider range of topics.

Hirschberg writes in a very accessible style, and this book can also be read and enjoyed by film buffs who want to know more about how movies are put together. There are some interesting analyses to be found here, and Hirschberg's definition of what constitutes a villain and a hero can be applied practically to any script development process. His concept that villains are basically outsiders who want to belong but are inherently unable to is well supported by the examples he gives here, though there have also been villains who are part of society and authority and who find their power base there (the Emperor from Star Wars is a good example).

I must single out the description of Indiana Jones as a great hero though, as Hirschberg doesn't mention one of Jones' most important aspects: he is extremely unlucky and extremely lucky at the same time, rarely wins a fight by himself, and at times he's more of a parody of the idealized square-jawed hero rather than the real deal. Personally, I think that James Bond is a far more interesting hero figure to examine than Indiana Jones, but even so, I was disappointed that this apparent dichotomy in the character was simply ignored.

Steven De Souza in his interview mentions something which turns conventional screenwriting wisdom on its head: he claims that in genre screenwriting, the villain is the protagonist (the active character) whereas the hero, who generally reacts to the misdeeds of the villain, is actually the antagonist! Later on in the book, Hirschberg follows this train of thought in a couple of the three-act analyses he does. I'm going to write a blog post about this, as it definitely bears looking into; but no matter whether you agree with this or not, it does point out that in a good genre film, the villain must be active throughout the script.

I feel that Reflections of the Shadow is best suited to screenwriting students and beginning writers overall, as the concepts discussed here will be most valuable to people still learning the screenwriting ropes and coming to terms with some of the basic concepts of storytelling and development. The interview section is valuable for any writer regardless of level - it is for me without a doubt the highlight of the book.

You can get it here:

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