So, what is Hero Theory?
Hero Theory is ratio of power differential between the protagonist and the antagonist of a story. Specifically, it is the conceit, that when the antagonist, villain or opposing negative force is stronger than the protagonist, hero, or positive opposing force that it provides a more satisfying, more engaging, more exciting storytelling experience. How much stronger or more powerful?
This is the rub. An antagonist that is too powerful robs the story of feasibility. Generally in such cases, when the protagonist defeats or overcomes this antagonistic force it is done via hackneyed methods such as Deus Ex Machina or something simply too outlandish to sustain the suspension of disbelief. The ratio between two forces must be close enough that the protagonist is given room to “rise to the occasion”. This falls in line with the storytelling mantra that something should be learned from the story, generally by the protagonist (and the audience). In essence, the protagonists’ character should be expanded, enriched by the events in the tale. This growth is what should give the protagonist the necessary power to thwart their enemy. It should be believable, it should be organic.
The ratio I worked out is that the antagonist should be 1/3 (33.33%) more powerful than the protagonist.
Yes, yes, I can already hear the arguments. Why not 50%? or 40%? Such an arbitrary number is nonsense and has no bearing on the excitement of the story at all!
All are welcome to their opinion. But I stand by that number. It is the ratio that adds the right amount of tension to the proceedings. The antagonist is powerful, but you can still see the boundaries of that power. These boundaries give the protagonist the one thing they require when a situation seems dire, hope.
So how does it work? How does the hero manage to defeat a more powerful opponent?
It is here where the writer of the story has their moment to shine. To devise a means of success, to intertwine it with a lesson to learn, to tap into their intellect and solve the puzzle box. Hero Theory is not only beneficial to the audience, but also the storyteller.
It is important to reiterate that Hero Theory is not relegated to just two beings. While the theory originated from the development of super-hero stories I quickly realized this ratio was applicable to all manner of protagonist struggles. In the end, it is quite simply the ratio of power between the task and the obstacle, negative and the positive, good versus evil.
A boy trying to get an apple from a tree.
A woman battling her drug addiction.
A man participating in an arm wrestling contest.
The most compelling stories are those that implement this theory. The protagonist encounters the antagonist ( with a ratio of 1/3). In order to defeat or overcome the antagonist, the protagonist must grow/learn/expand in the story. This growth usually also incorporates an important lesson. These components together allow the protagonist to defeat the antagonist and become a more developed character as a result.
I challenge all to test this theory. Revisit old films, old novels, old comics. See which ones unwittingly apply the theory and which ones do not. See which stories are more compelling as a result.
I wager that invariably those that most closely implement Hero Theory will largely be the most entertaining and memorable.