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The Understudy Hero

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, April 18, 2024

There's nothing more shocking than when the hero dies …at the beginning.

Don't worry, Banes isn't dead! I'm just standing in for him this week, he will return! This is only about fictional main characters that didn't get the memo they should reserve their death for the end, not the beginning of the story.

(It's even more shocking if the death is at the end of the first act, rather than its middle, but I get ahead of myself)

No matter how well the setup in a story is, as audiences we go in with a conviction that even in a sincerely “anyone can die” scenario, the main character won't. They may not have plot armor, but the creator will have crafted the story in such a way that the main character will avoid situations that would result in their death.

So when that doesn't happen, we are shocked. If the lead does, who will get the story to carry on? Usually, the main character doesn't die because they're our agent through whom we follow and engage with the story. Our lifeline to that world if you like. So if that lifeline is cut off, we're left momentarily as stranded as the rest of the characters are, and the story feels- for a moment- like it might end before it's begun.

Until an up-to-then-secondary character picks up the sword the main character dropped, the mantle that was torn from their shoulders, and with that the story itself to continue it. That second character that steps up to take the position of protagonist/main character is the understudy- but also the real main character, the one who was meant to be the lead all along.

If done right, the story will have established a ton of things in one fell swoop: anyone can die, even the main character. The stakes are suddenly twice as high, the drama more intense, and the emotional engagement a lot stronger.

We root for the understudy hero to succeed even more than we did for the fallen hero. The fallen hero's legacy imbues the whole story, and we want their death avenged, or vindicated, or made meaningful.

The personality and motivations of the understudy hero are shown in high relief as they step up to carry on where the fallen hero left off. A lot of things are shown rather than told. Also, it's highly likely that this second character will have a lot more to work for, because the reason they weren't already the main hero is likely that they weren't as skilled, as experienced, or as mature as the fallen hero. They're now called to task to face a situation that eliminated someone with more skills and chances of success than they do. So now they need to rush to learn with terrible stakes. And they do- and we cheer.

This works best when it's not telegraphed a mile away that who appears to be the main hero is totally going to die to make room for the new guy. A convincing decoy main character should be built legitimately, in a way that they would be able to remain the main hero and carry the story through if not for sudden death: they must have a character arc (it may be left unfinished), they must have flaws, dreams, ambitions, and goals. They must be relied on by the others. The understudy must not come across as able to handle the main problem. They have potential, but they don't have the capacity to perform right now. They need the decoy main character to help them through- and suddenly that help, that protection, is snatched away.

Having a decoy main character is potentially going to be tough on the creator too, if the creator attaches themselves to their own characters. Main characters are fleshed out brain children. Killing your darlings is painful, not just hard. But the more it hurts, the more successful it's likely to be. And the more motivation it'll give to your actual main character, the understudy.

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EssayBee at 6:27AM, April 19, 2024

Adding to PaulEberhardt's "playing with audience expectation" variation of this (and Once Upon a Time in the West is a classic!): Scream did the same thing by killing of Drew Barrymore's character in the opening scene. She was arguably the biggest name in the movie (at the time), and the audience expectation going into the movie was that she'd either be the Final Girl or have a bigger part (although a strong argument can be made that her opening death is one of the most iconic horror scenes of all time, so you really can't belittle her part).

EssayBee at 6:20AM, April 19, 2024

At the time, Alien was considered to have a false hero in Tom Skerrit's Dallas. At the time, everyone expected the male leader to be the hero, and Ripley was played as a supporting character for the most part. And then Dallas gets killed (or transformed into an egg--which is such a brillianly disturbing alien concept) and Ripley steadily moved toward the hero character. As a side note: Kudos for already pointing out Mask of Zorro--one of the best adventures from the 90s.

bravo1102 at 1:29AM, April 19, 2024

Zorro the Gay Blade has Zorro getting injured and his place taken by his brother Bunny Wigglesworth of the Royal Navy. Fun movie that sends it all up.

Ozoneocean at 6:59PM, April 18, 2024

The Mask of Zorro also does this, with the famous Zorro being defeated and imprisoned at the start of the film and the rest of it is about a new guy learning to take on the role.

Ozoneocean at 6:57PM, April 18, 2024

This is a very effectiove technique when done right. I saw an anime about this not long ago- the legendary hero comes back to his home town before undertaking his fated mission to defeat the dark lord... bu while there he tries to eat a pie that's cooling on a person's window sill... and falls into a spike filled pit trap and dies! The person who set that pie to cool had been protecting it from demons... He's a guy known for his ability to set traps and to be really good at running away and hiding. But now he's killed the hero who is to defeat the dark lord and give hope to the land? Well he hero had a necromancer friend who puts the guy's soul into the dead hero's dead body so now HE is the legendary hero... sort of. And he basically has to fake his way in disguise of the dead hero's decaying body.

Ozoneocean at 6:47PM, April 18, 2024

Ahhhh, Basil :( RIP

Banes at 1:46PM, April 18, 2024

@used books - haha, actually I thought about Captain Amazing from Mystery Men as well xD

PaulEberhardt at 11:19AM, April 18, 2024

Having the hero die is something I very much tend to connect with sequels, too. That way you don't have to put that much effort into creating a sacrificial protagonist character from scratch. It might have to be done with delicacy, though, so it doesn't seem like a stale run-of-the-mill story that's only about revenge or coming-of-age and nothing else.

PaulEberhardt at 11:13AM, April 18, 2024

There's a lot of potential for having some fun in this. It's all about playing with readers'/audience's expectations again. A more subtle variant can be seen in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, although it'll generally be lost on modern non-Western-freak audiences: Jack Elam was cast as one of the three guys who get shot in the famous opening scene. Since Elam was at the peak of his acting career back then, he'd be expected to have a major speaking part at least, and that gets twisted around, too, by giving him exactly one line (if memory serves). The memorable tension-building part with close-ups and a fly instead of words still gives him opportunity to showcase his immense talent and flesh out his character.

usedbooks at 11:06AM, April 18, 2024

Btw, the first example that came to mind was Mystery Men. The most replacement feeling replacement heroes who accidentally melted the city's beloved superhero in their rescue attempt.

usedbooks at 11:04AM, April 18, 2024

I see something similar in rpg games a lot. You get introduced to game mechanics via one character but end up playing someone else for the duration of the game. I see great variations on this.The hero doesn't die, he goes missing -- a bad guy kidnaps him or he goes into hiding or he's just jaded, is sick of answering "the call," and retires. Or maybe he decided evil is more fun, so now the more capable guy is yet another antagonist. In JRPGs sometimes the more capable hero returns later in the story to join the team and upstage the new main character. But now you like the new guy better, so he's become a rival or a sidekick.

Tantz_Aerine at 10:34AM, April 18, 2024

@Banes well I thought of it! Yeah I don't see it often in fiction either. The more frequent spin on the idea in general is the mentor-hero dies and the student-hero steps up. But that's only one way to do it!

bravo1102 at 10:08AM, April 18, 2024

This actually can work in parody. There's the "too good to be true" protagonist hero who gets killed and the burden of the story falls to Joe Everyman. In a movie rather than actually killing the intended protagonist you can suddenly pan over them and have the narrator say the story isn't about them. Monty Python used this in their science fiction sketch with the added twist that the two panned over actually were the heroes the whole time and the protagonist was a total failure. A wimriter can have fun with this like if the uber hero just gets incapacitated as opposed to killed and Joe Everyman has to keep reporting back his lack of progress.

Banes at 7:55AM, April 18, 2024

I guess setting up some character stuff - hopes and flaws and all that - with the Understudy character in the beginning, but in a subtle way, would help us know that person a bit before they step into the Hero role? Either way, this would be a hard one to pull off, especially if there's a compelling Protagonist who dies and then we need to get invested in another main character. But it'd be so cool to see it done well! So unexpected!

Banes at 7:53AM, April 18, 2024

Thanks again for stepping in, Tantz! I'm quite sure that not a single person, when reading "when a hero dies...", not one person thought it was about Banes xDDD -- this is a very interesting article, wow! And it's pretty rare to see this kind of thing in stories I'd say! At least, not many examples come to my mind. The main one that comes to my mind is Psycho. It has some clever switching of Protagonists going on.

mks_monsters at 7:52AM, April 18, 2024

I find that Telltale The Walking Dead games did this best with Lee Everett. I will always feel bad that he did not go one to be the main character, but I really appreciate how his arc began and ended, and how he gave Clementine all the tools she needed to be her own hero.

Ozoneocean at 2:55AM, April 18, 2024

Hello Bantanz!!!!

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