Heroes and villains

“To work it out I let them in
All the good guys and the bad guys that I’ve been
All the devils that disturbed me
And the angels that defeated them
–Paul Williams, “The Phantom’s Theme”

I don’t really believe in heroes and villains.  The whole concept of “good guys” and “bad guys” strikes me as overly simplistic.  Instead in my work I try to keep in mind what a character’s overall goals are, and what means that character is willing to employ to reach them.

Sometimes the greatest harm is caused by people who have goals that are basically good.  Repressive governments generally start out with progressive ideals–it becomes easy to justify tyranny when  you’re working for “the good of the people”.

On the other hand, people with quite selfish goals just as frequently do a lot of good, simply because they believe it is their best interests to do so.

A case in point is the film Schindler’s List.  Oskar Schindler was a greedy capitalist and a war profiteer, the Nazi government was working to create a worker’s paradise.   The Nazis were willing to do things to advance their altruistic ideals that Schindler couldn’t justify supporting.

When creating fiction characters I think it’s important that each character’s goals make sense from the character’s viewpoint, and that they are able to justify their actions to themselves.  No one does evil just for the sake of doing evil, somehow the most heinous acts are justified.

(As an aside, I think this applies to non-human characters as well.  The goals of a devil or an ogre may be entirely antithetical to human beings, but they are still positive from the creature’s own perspective.)

Rather than a binary “good vs. evil” conflict, I see conflicts arising from characters who have disparate goals, or who favorite disparate methods for achieving their own goals.  This yields four different possibilities for character interaction.

  • Same goals, same methods: These are teammates, people who are working together for a common goal.  There is the least possibility for conflict here, these relationships are mostly supportive.  “All for one, one for all!”
  • Same goals, different methods: The classic good cop/bad cop dynamic.  This is a source for interesting conflict, when character A has a line that he will not cross, but character B has no problem doing whatever it takes to reach the shared goal.  “We have to follow the law!” “Why?  They don’t.”
  • Different goals, same methods: Usually a short term situation, when former enemies team up against a shared threat.  If, for example, a cop wants to arrest a criminal she might enlist the aid of another criminal who wants to expand his territory, and plan on dealing with the resultant fallout later.  “If we both survive this, the truce is over.” 
  • Different goals, different methods: The classic protagonist/antagonist relationship.  There is no common ground between the characters, each is out to defeat the other.  “There is nothing that we share–it is either Valjean or Javert.”

Obviously, characters have more than one goal, and will have different limits.  For example, in the television program Fringe (the fourth season of which I have just finished watching)  the “evil twin” version of Walter Bishop forbids his scientists from experimenting on children, while the “good” version used child drug trials as a matter of course.  On the other hand, the alternate Bishop’s plan is to annihilate an entire universe.

The point to all this is that, in my opinion, conflict between characters is more interesting when all of them have good and bad qualities.  Readers will still chose who they want to win in a conflict, and generally the author makes it clear who is the hero of the work, but an antagonist with whom I can not relate at all makes for a dull story, in my opinion.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Heroes and villains

  1. Guess it’s the genre and the reader. I like villains to have motivation, but I do love a good monster. I mean, there are remorseless monsters out there like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and the like.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Yes, but people who lack motivation do not lack goals. John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy both killed for sexual pleasure–a goal that most people can appreciate. It was how they got it that was monstrous.

      • Isn’t that what differs a villain from a hero? A hero uses the noble and morally right methods to reach their goals. A villain can go for the same goals, but use monstrous methods. For example, a hero who wants sexual pleasure will romance to get it in a story and in real life. A villain would use rape.

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    An antagonist with an accessible motivation can also add strength to a narrative where all readers want the protagonist to win.

    Which is more scary: a vampire climbing into bedrooms to steal blood to survive, or a geneticist climbing into bedrooms to steal blood so he can be first to map the genome? Logic would say that the vampire is more of a threat as it is immortal and powerful, but emotionally many people will fear the scientist more because it is an evil they could conceive of doing, so can feel as well as know.

  3. C.Hill says:

    Reading the comments, now I’m looking for a book that switches the protagonist/antagonist roles once. Don’t know why The Gap Cycle is popping into my head.

    And now I’m jealous. Still need to watch Season 4 of Fringe. 😀

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