In stories we often see a character known as the “half-man.” This character may or may not be person, but I always think of a man sitting on the ground with his legs cut off. The purpose of this character is to give strength to the villain. The half-man does this by telling the protagonist about how he faced the villain and was defeated. The stronger the half-man appears to be the more powerful the villain and the greater the challenge the protagonist faces when he must test his own strength against the villain. One of my favorite half-men is Rock Biter in The Neverending Story. This character is a mountain of a character who causes the earth to quake when he walks, but the protagonist finds him sitting on the ground looking at his powerful hands because they weren’t strong enough to keep The Nothing from snatching his friends away.
But a half-man can be as simple as an image or a symbol. Suppose our protagonist is walking through a forest and he finds a human skull on a stake. We know nothing of the half-man this skull belongs to other than he was human. What purpose does this image serve? Without saying the words, the message to all who reach this spot is “Turn back, now!” That is the message of all half-men. “You cannot defeat the villain, so don’t even try.”
The thing about protagonists is that they don’t listen. You will never find a story in which the protagonist doesn’t face the villain because he was warned away by the half-man. Perhaps it is because he doesn’t trust the half-man. Perhaps it is because the cost of turning back is too great. If we remove the fourth wall, we know that the real reason is because that would be the end of the story. We have ninety more pages to write, we can’t let the protagonist give up just because he encountered a half-man.
So, why are half-men such important story elements and why do they strengthen the villain so much? Because in real life we encounter half-men all the time and unlike the protagonists in our stories we take their advice and we give up. For example, you might encounter someone who says, “I’ve tried to lose weight, but nothing works. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve heard that 90% of the people who lose weight gain it all back anyway.” Their words discourage you and you may find yourself giving up your own attempt to lose weight. Giving up is a realistic option for the protagonist even though we know he won’t.
Though the half-man is important in stories, we don’t want to be a half-man in real life. Unfortunately, that tends to be our default. We face the villain. We fail. We give up and then begin to tell other people why they will be defeated as well. By doing this, we give strength to the enemy that defeated us. But not all defeated characters are half-men. When we see a character gathering forces for a second attempt at defeating the villain, he is not a half-man (unless it is obvious his attempts will fail). In life, we will be defeated more times than we care to admit, but what are we going to do? Are we going to sit on the ground telling everyone we can that we failed and they will too? Or are we going to assess the situation and gather resources to break through the armor of the villain?