The most successful stories are those where the main character becomes the hero by the climax of the film. The hero walks through a path of change and growth that the audience can follow. The process itself creates a bond between the character and the audience, which develops into emotional support through the second act and emerges with some form of the audience cheering on the rising hero by the climax.
Avatar’s simple hero story structure was key in integrating the incredible effects and new technologies into a motion picture worthy of $2.78B (at the time this article was written) in box office receipts. Due to its huge success and the rising buzz of Avatar 2 due out next year, I thought I’d review the hero portion of the film’s story structure.
The hero starts out as a non-hero who lives a straightforward innocent life. He lives in a mundane world where he functions in a typical fashion that might make the average person yawn. This soon to be hero has a desire to be or experience something more, but continues to live his mundane day-to-day life.
In Avatar, Jake lives a non-adventurous life due to a spinal injury that restricts him to a wheel chair. His legs were well atrophied, yet the desire of his heart was for adventure.
Toss in a Catalyst: Before the audience gets too turned off by the non-hero’s life, the writer adds a catalyst to the mix. This ingredient can come in many forms, but always pushes the hero into an extraordinary adventure. It breaks the mold of the mundane and sets the hero on a path that will continue to escalate until the climax.
Jake learns that his identical twin brother Tommy, who was set to be an avatar user, was murdered for the paper in his wallet. Since avatars are based on exact DNA matches, Tommy’s avatar becomes available for use by Jake.
Reveals His Hesitation: Many films die during the second act because the audience doesn’t understand the growth the hero must accomplish in order to face his adversary in act three. To set up the contrast in act one, the writer reveals the hero’s uncertainty, fears, or any other form of reluctance that could hold him back.
Jake finds himself in a terrifying set of circumstances during his first visit to the rainforest. He encounters many new and weird creatures, but all fear breaks lose when he finds himself in between a six-legged Hammerhead Titanothere and a Thanator with an ear splitting roar. Within a few minutes, Jake realizes that he is not cut out for the adventure and wants out.
Introduce the Mentor: The Archetype or hero’s mentor is introduced to share a few wise words, give perspective or a little nudge to get the hero moving into the adventure. The initial movement sends the hero into a sort of training that develops what he will need to win or overcome by the climax of the film.
In Avatar, this role is split up between Grace and Neytiri. Grace helps Jake to appreciate the scientific perspective on the Na’vi culture and Neytiri teaches him the ways of her people.
Turning Point Sends Hero into Obstacles: At the end of act one, the hero is catapulted into act two through a twist in the plot that sends him in a new and unexpected direction from his goals. He finds himself in a new world that is the antithesis of his mundane world. This transition kicks off the hero’s transformation into whom he needs to become in order to fight the eminent battle in act three.
Jake is captured by the Na’vi and is brought to Mo’at who wants to observe him. She determines that Neytiri will train him in their ways. Colonel Quaritch agrees to Jake participating in the program in hopes of learning how to control the natives. Jake finds himself with numerous obstacles to overcome in learning how to live like a Na’vi.
Plagued by Obstacles: The hero is inundated by a series of obstacles that get worse with each mini-victory and forces the hero to step up to another level, eventually bringing him to a place of confidence with the higher skills needed for the final battle just before the climax.
Jake must learn archery, tracking, riding, language skills and how to bond and tame a banshee. Jake must fulfill the Na’vi warrior’s required right of passage – Bonding with a banshee and becoming an Ikran Makto (One who rides mountain banshees).
A Night of Despair: The obstacles rise to the point where the hero faces a dark night of the soul and desires to give up – All hope seems lost.
By the time Jake’s love interest grows with Neytiri and he has been accepted into the tribe after accomplishing his right of passage, he plays a unique role that brings death and destruction to the people he learned to love. He loses everything and is not welcome among the humans or the Na’vi.
Resurrected Hope: The third act kicks off with a redemptive moment, as the hero’s soul rises to the ultimate challenge. He decides to step up to seize the moment and capture the prize. He enters battle with a cheering audience spurring him on.
Jake turns to Grace and his other human friends to help him get back to the Na’vi in his Avatar. They mobilize the chambers and take one up into the heights where radio signals and tracking devices won’t work. Jake gets another chance and warns the Na’vi of the pending battle. To get their attention, Jake realizes that he will have to do something that only a few Na’vi had ever attempted throughout history; capturing and bonding with the Leonopteryx, the king of the mountain banshees.
The Enemy Rises: The moment the hero’s enemy realizes that he is stepping up, the chase begins and the enemy sets out to destroy the hero in a full out battle.
Colonel Quaritch deems Jake as a traitor and orders a full out attack on the Na’vi and their sacred grounds.
The Hero Wins: The hero uses all he learned in act two to overcome the enemy and win the prize. The enemy is destroyed or sent away until the sequel and the hero returns home to his once mundane life, but no longer as a frustrated person – He is now a full fledged hero.
Jake leads the army of the Na’vi and several other clans into battle against the humans. He uses his knowledge of both cultures and tools to win the battle.