Commonalities Between Heroes and Villains

From Writers Helping Writers, this post: Five Commonalities Between Heroes and Villains

I am immediately suspicious, as you might imagine. Not that I think there aren’t commonalities. Both hero and villain are probably human. I mean, I can think of exceptions, but that seems likely. I expect both hero and villain have some sort of past that involves, probably, good days and bad days. Possibly both hero and villain might pause to pat a puppy, who can say?

But a post title like this means I suspect the post is going to say something like, “Villains are the heroes of their own stories! We should have sympathy for the villain. Poor guy has a tragic past! You should make your reader feel your villain is understandable. The best villains are just one step away from heroes!”

And so on. I do not agree, or at least I agree only around the edges of this kind of notion, so I’m prepared to be quite critical of this post. But I haven’t read it yet, so maybe I should do that. Here’s how it starts:

It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story. 

Bold and link from the original, and yep, there we go, the villain is the hero of his own story. Well, I don’t care. I’m not interested in the ins and outs of the villain’s twisted moral code. I don’t care about the traumatic childhood that made the villain into the person he is today, and I most certainly do not want to be forced into the villain’s pov to explore any of that.

Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of.

The statement above draws on both the “villains should be sympathetic” and “the villain is just a step away from the hero” ideas, but actually depends primarily on a ridiculous strawman argument. I mean, you can write a villain who is sympathetic and pats puppies, I’m not saying that can’t work or is a bad thing to do. Like everything else, if you do it well, it’s fine. But there’s little excuse for the strawman above. Good guys aren’t all good, really! Wow, there’s a revelation! Unlike ALL THE BOOKS where the good guy is ALL GOOD, you should take care to write a sophisticated story where the good guys have FLAWS. That would be so different!

Look, there is no need to state a strawman premise like this. You can just say: Your villain will be most persuasive/engaging/complex/human/interesting if he has good traits as well as bad traits. I would still disagree with that — I mean, I would disagree that it’s necessary to strive to make the villain complex, though you can do that if you want to. But at least that kind of statement wouldn’t be based on an assumption that lots of authors haven’t noticed that heroes can have negative traits or villains can have positive traits.

Well, I did mention that the post title put me in critical mode. Maybe I’m being unfair. Let me see where this post is going …

Why are [villains] the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy?

Wow, this was a predictable post. That’s not me being hypercritical, it’s just true. I honestly did not read this post before predicting what points it would make, but there they all are.

Fine, you know what, let’s go in a different direction. Not Five Commonalities, but instead:

Five Types of Villains, Some Of Whom Are Not At All Like The Hero:

1) The villain who is the hero of his own story, because sure, sometimes that happens. His priorities are iffy. This would be … hmm. It would be like the villain in Sharon Shinn’s recent book, The Shuddering City. The villain is the sort who’s all about the greatest good for the greatest number, and a spot of human sacrifice here or there is a price he’s willing to pay. Or it would be like the King of Casmantium in The Griffin Mage trilogy, who’s decided that a small war that nets Casmantium a decent harbor is a fine idea if he can pull it off.

2) The villain who is all about getting rich or self-aggrandizement or whatever, and doesn’t care about the mayhem he commits on his way to his goal. The sociopathic type, I guess. This is a villain who won’t go out of his way to torture puppies, but doesn’t care if puppies are getting tortured. Let me think. Okay, I haven’t read these for years, but this is like Edward in the Anita Blake series by Laurel Hamilton. Who isn’t a villain, incidentally, but he’s definitely a sociopath. Who else? Oh, Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. Little kid sees you involved incestuously with your sister? Throw the child off a roof, problem solved. (Or it was supposed to be solved, I grant it didn’t work out that way.) Throwing that child off the roof was Jamie’s defining moment, though he certainly got worse from there.

3) The villain who has been forced into evil and has been too weak to prevent that from happening. This may be my very least favorite type of villain. We’re often supposed to sympathize with this villain. I don’t. Worst of all if this is the protagonist, or a protagonist. The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee offers a character like this: Jarrett, one of the two protagonists, begins the story passive, ineffectual, and callous; but at the end, he is evil. It’s a horrific character arc, a grimdark character arc, and I will never read a novel where this happens except by accident. Extreme Ugh.

4) The creepy villain you don’t understand at all. This is like Lilienne from The City in the Lake or the Wyvern King from The Keeper of the Mist. This kind of villain can work great! You get an uncanny valley feel from this villain, who is not sympathetic, not understandable, has no revealed backstory, and does not resemble the hero or, indeed, any normal person.

5) The sadistic, vicious villain who would torture puppies except he has human playthings instead. This is like Lorellan, obviously. It doesn’t matter that this is arguably not his fault. It doesn’t matter that the curse of sorcery flattened his personality and turned him into this kind of villain. He is not a bit sympathetic and he isn’t mean to be, his backstory is totally unimportant, and look at that, we have a bad guy with no good traits and does that ruin the story? No, it does not. This kind of flat villain is perfectly fine in some stories, and TUYO demonstrates that. In my admittedly biased opinion, but still.

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9 thoughts on “Commonalities Between Heroes and Villains”

  1. Most criminals think of themselves not as the heroes of their story, but the smart guys. Their victims are the suckers.

    Partly because they are very good in compartmentalizing the evil they suffer vs. the practical stuff they do. (Sociopaths are particularly good at it because it’s all rhetoric to them.)

  2. Of the list you provided I really enjoy villains that fall in category #4. I Also, off the top of my head, the only villains whose backstories I’ve ever been particularly interested in are Batman villains (except the Joker, who I don’t really care for much anyway). I think it’s because for a lot of them, their backstory is more about informing their villainous “gimmic” i.e. Scarecrow researched the psychology of fear, Poison Ivy was a plant researcher and environmentalist, etc. Their past is never really used as an excuse for villainry, just an explanation that adds interest. I’ve found that beyond that, most “villains” I genuinely sympathize with, enjoy, and care about the history of are more properly categorized as antagonists.

  3. Hmm. My favorite villain of all time is the Carrion King from “Steles of the Sky,” by Elizabeth Bear. He is a little bit 2, and a little bit 4, but neither really covers his overall villainy. Nor does the secondary villain fit well in this scheme; her problem is monomania, which is a little bit #1 and a little bit #2.

  4. I think my favorite villain was the Mayor from Buffy, just a really fun contrast between the villainy and his squeaky clean “nice guy” persona.

  5. Elaine T’s Teen here:
    The Emperor from Star Wars (Return of the Jedi) is still one of the oldest and most compelling villains I’ve ever met. It’s how utterly, unshakably certain he is in his designs that does this for me, how he has arranged things so that he cannot lose, and how for all the buildup Vader has had until that point, both Yoda and Vader are cautious of crossing the emperor. The man only has maybe three scenes, but they deliver on the promises made by the narrative about him.
    And then some. Here he is a feeble, unarmed old man, slow and decrepit, and yet every word he speaks, every face he makes, they all say clearly that he’s not arrogant; he is In Control.

    I think he’s type 4.

    I don’t tend to read things with villains at all, but I think the mastermind behind the catastrophe dogging the plot of Pandora Hearts (manga series) probably qualifies. By the time you learn his true motives, you’ve gotten used to him being the somewhat helpful ghost in the story, who history backs up as having thwarted a great tragedy in his lifetime.
    … Well, he did stop the massacre. He is also the reason it was ordered. Explaining further is too complicated and I wouldn’t do it justice. He’s arguably type one, in that he was not in it to destroy the world, but for the sake of the woman who was a goddess to him. She’s dead. So he’ll just bring the whole world that she loved, to her.

    There’s also the villainous bystander- a man in a position in which he could do a great deal to change the course of the story, but who utterly refuses to act, or even acknowledge that something is wrong, unless pressed very hard. Lan Xichen of Modao Zushi/grandmaster of demonic cultivation, and Grand Cleric Elthina from Dragon Age Two both fit this. I’m sure there are more, but I don’t tend to remember them.

    And the man who isn’t head villain, but has decided for inscrutable reasons of his own that he’s going to be on this side, and heaven help anyone who crosses him. The best example of this that I have ever seen is Kimblee from Fullmetal Achemist Brotherhood. Fascinating and terrifying demolitionist, who sides with the bad guys just to see who will win. And who killed his commanding officer and then willingly accepted the consequences for this by siting in prison for it. He was capable of getting out the whole time, we learn partway through, but wasn’t willing to even think about it. He’d picked this by committing that murder and getting caught. He was actually annoyed when the villain’s hauled him out of prison to use him, because it meant someone was going back on the standards that said ‘do that and you’re court martialed’. But as Pride the Arrogant learned in the end, Kimblee determined the victor by which side could keep to their own standard. When it became apparent that Pride was betraying his own standard, and Edward Elric was keeping to his, Kimblee’s last act in the narrative is to restrain Pride, allowing Edward to gain the upper hand.

    There are also some hybrid types out there. Hydra, from the Marvel movies back when they were interesting, fell somewhere between one, two, and five. Makoto Shishio from Rurouni Kenshin (Movies and Manga series) was motivated by personal gain, but not self aggrandizement. He just liked killing, and wanted to bring back the era of turmoil that allowed people like himself to exist.

    My Teen wrote most of that, I came around and found said Teen typing away and added a few suggestions. I also have one more, that I have not been able to categorize – Prince Schneizel from Code Geass. He may be a type one. He may be a type something else. He’s inscrutable, and about the only time we see him (possibly) being readable it’s about his father dumping all the statecraft off on him. But even that’s an act. He’s very well done, and amazingly inscrutable especially considering how much screen time and narrative importance he has.

    Where does the queen from DEERSKIN fall?

    The Teen just asked: are we talking about people who are evil or people who fill the narrative function of villain while being evil?

  6. A lot of villains seem to fall into the category of “ruler” in some way. It’s a combination of power and pride and self-interest. Too stubborn and proud to admit a mistake, and afraid of loosing power. Not enough outside constraints on them to force them to be change or be considerate of others. They are not heroes in their own minds, but not necessarily worse than other people on the inside either. Victims of the principle “all power corrupts”.

    I just finished reading the Pheonix Feather series by Sherwood Smith, and in the first 3 books, the Emperor definitely fits this category. There are many more.

  7. Melanie, it’s interesting you mention the Phoenix Feather series, because actually the Inda series leaped instantly to mind when you started describing how rulers can go wrong. This, everything you said, is exactly what the young king in the Inda series struggles with for most of the book, and this is the exact struggle he wins with himself at the end. It’s a great character arc, one of the few that really shows a good person struggling with the temptation to use power in corrupt ways and then not doing so.

  8. Elaine T and Teen, I was specifically thinking of characters who fill the narrative role of “villain,” and I certainly have a soft spot for inscrutable characters, but I strongly prefer that they turn out not to be evil at the end!

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