Hero vs. Villain

Chevalier d'Eon








In a spin-off discussion I had with another writer after last week’s post about Authorized Cruelty, the question came up about how heroes and villains relate to each other. What do good stories need from heroes and villains?

First thing to get out of the way is acknowledging how differently people will define “good.”

I think most of us (but not all, if you look at sales records) want to avoid Dark Lord vs. Mary Sue. The Dark Lord wants to take over the kingdom/world/megaverse. Why? Because that’s what Dark Lords do! His life is dedicated to accumulating the resources for conquering, while he lurks in his ugly castle full of torture devices and evil stenches. Marty Stu or his sister Mary, who may have mysteriously inherited or found a Sword of Destiny, will fight the Dark Lord because that’s what heroes do. Their reward will be mega-powers and a throne or two, and everybody will be in love with them because nobody else in the kingdom talks about anyone else.

I think most of us work pretty hard to avoid this sort of central conflict. On the other hand, a story in which both sides are a collection of petty neuroses, motivated by a dreary combination of greed and expedience, going nowhere over 300 excruciating pages, might make a grittily realistic tale, but that’s not what a lot of readers come to fantasy for. Villains with heroic traits, and heroes struggling against villainous impulses…those make good drama for most readers, from what I’ve seen.

My feeling is that if we reach far enough back for villainous heroes and heroic villains, we start off with Beowulf, who struggled between the cultural dictates of the hero and his Christian beliefs. Shakespeare’s magnificent hero/villains, Macbeth—Richard III—Hamlet are brilliant characters who fascinate us with their complexities. I think Shakespeare invented the modern hero and villain, pole stars of dramatic tension. Milton’s great Satan—Byron’s tortured corsairs and outsiders—so many later poets and playwrights and writers inspired by one another, reaching back to the Bard. Well, that’s my theory, anyway.

What keeps me reading is a balancing act between hero and villain, especially if I can’t outguess the direction of the action. The tension escalates when there is a match of intelligence, as the balance of power caroms back and forth, and as motivations and emotions conflict.

My own reading preference is to see a struggle to define and achieve a moral balance, even if the entire story is about the struggle as much as it is about the conflict. My personal preference is for at least a note of hope, if there is little resolution. I don’t stay interested in a story in which both sides are equally amoral; I won’t care if I find I cannot trust either side. Others of course might prefer the story to be a pure battle of wits, everything based on logic and or skill, ethics and morals gray.

I lose interest if the hero or villain have a single motivation. If there are conflicting personal, emotional, economic, inspirational, religious, as well as political motivations, I am interested in the characters…(and if they display wit and panache, I’m hooked)

Sherwood Smith’s ebooks (that include heroes and villains) at Book View Cafe



Hero vs. Villain — 21 Comments

  1. I don’t stay interested in a story in which both sides are equally amoral; I won’t care if I find I cannot trust either side.

    So antiheroes and shades-of-gray villains are not that interesting to you as heroes and villains which are heroes and villains but have multiple and complex motivations?

    • To me?

      If both sides are equally amoral, I usually can’t maintain enough interest to pursue, unless something is really, really funny. I am more interested in a struggle toward defining morals, but then I have to confess a weakness for redemption, too.

    • Yeah, equally amoral at best means I don’t care who wins.

      At worst, it means I really wish that neither of them could win.

  2. Personally, I like heroes who struggle, who are reluctant heroes, preferring anonymity or to retain their status quo, but who rise to the occasion and perform what’s required of them. I like my villains tragic and, while what they’re doing might be evil, there’s a reason behind it that might not be evil at all.

  3. Since I believe that Right exists and try to be on that side myself, I want to read about a character who believes the same. That character can be mistaken or confused–or even screw up in a major way, but they should sincerely be striving for justice of some sort. Like Sherwood I find amorality dull. I also don’t have a lot of time for neurotic self doubt and long bouts of angst. I can visit my head when I’m in the mood for those things! But in stories they appear to me to be merely dreary.

    • Hear hear! I like reading about people who are trying to Do the Right Thing. If I can’t respect a character then it’s hard to care what they do and how their story turns out.

  4. there’s CSL’s Dr. Weston in PERELANDRA where he undergoes change in calling “the force” ;’] into him. he was trying to shortcut his evolution by doing this, iirc. after that, as full villain, he’s debased — i guess as Lewis sees it the only route/way left to a devil. (except as this devil is able to rouse himself to greatness for the purpose of deceiving/debasing the green lady), greatness does not long prevail/appear and grossness takes over. CSL seems to mean greatness is in the service of grossness. i was engrossed 🙂 …and surprised by the way Ransom dealt with it/him/the threat to her. i expected a different ending … so all to the good there!

  5. I just finished a great book that seemed to have as its prompting question (well, one prompting question), What would it be like to look at the development of an evil mage from the inside? And of course, if you follow a person–the protagonist–and see all their hopes and dreams, and all their cares and worries, and their struggles with decisions, then you, like they themselves, are unlikely to find them entirely (or, depending on the character’s personality, even mainly) bad. It was a tour de force! I hope it gets some readers to reconsider good-versus-evil judgments.

  6. I am drawn to writing antiheroes. I love exploring the varying shades of grey, and people are often not what they seem on the surface. This doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy reading books that are more clearly defined between light and dark–but they rarely intrigue me enough to want to write in that kind of world and about those kinds of characters for the months or years I would spend doing so.

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  8. I tend to like the clever and manipulative villains who appear charming on the surface and intrigue and murder their way to the top, e.g. The Mule from Asimov’s Foundation trilogy or Jim Jaspers from the old Captain Britain comics. These guys scared me in a way that Darth Vader or Sauron or Ming the Merciless (though I like Ming, because he is simply so deliciously evil) never did. I also have a soft spot for characters like Richard III or Tyrion Lannister (okay, so they are basically the same character), who are clearly villains but still likable enough that you hope they’ll somehow escape alive, even though you know that they won’t.

    As for heroes, they can have flaws, but in the end they should still be heroic. I don’t care for antiheroes who have so many shades of grey that they might just as well be the villain. I like intelligence in my heroes and have no time for heroes who are so stupid that they only win because the game is rigged in their favour. I like reluctant heroes who’d rather be somewhere else, but still fight the good fight, because it’s the right thing to do.

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  10. I like to understand the villain, but not to empathize so much that I’m sad when they lose. Clever and witty is good.

    As far as heroes, they need to interest me enough that I care about them. Morally I need to feel that they’re good people, or trying to be. Internal struggle is good: either to find the right choice, or to make it after it’s been identified. So is external struggle not directly related to the main villain-plot. Actually, I like clever and witty in everyone.

    In one notable occasion, I stopped reading a fantasy series when a minor villain was defeated and I realized that she’d been my favorite character, because while she could be nasty, she’d had to fight every inch of the path to get to where she was, and I could understand why she was that way and admired those qualities, even if I didn’t approve of her conduct — whereas the protagonists were boringly good, bland, and milquetoast, and the only real struggle they’d ever had was the plot of Book 1.

  11. The most important difference between the hero be he antihero or scumbag and the villain is the goal he must achieve.

    If the goal is worthy, most readers can forgive the character’s shortcomings.

    Years ago, I read an historical mystery whose main character was Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty as the detective. He was trying to catch Jack the Ripper, not because he was murdering women, but because he was drawing so many police into the slums of London that Moriarty’s illegal business was hampered. The book worked because the main character had a worthy goal, if not a noble motive.

  12. It is notoriously a writer’s conundrum, that villains can be perilously more interesting than heroes. If care is not taken (John Milton, you wanna hold up PARADISE LOST here?) the villain can run away with the entire work. Cheap tricks can be resorted to, to make the villain repellent — puppy kicking, chain-smoking, ranting, and so on — but it is better to address these issues on a deeper level.

    • Yeah. I suspect it’s because sometimes the villain has a bigger story arc, whereas the hero starts in one place and ends in the same place, only with more rewards.

      I thought this was true of the otherwise admirable cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender: likable as Aang was, it was really Zuko’s story.

      • The second and third seasons (ahem, “books”) did make Zuko much more interesting, and that undoubtedly saved the series. Zuko was just so whiny at first! Although his choices in the middle (the betrayal that led to Aang getting lightning-struck) didn’t make sense to me. But I have to admit I looked forward to his flashbacks, and whenever he made strides towards becoming a better person, I rejoiced much more than when Team Avatar won the latest victory over silly-challenge-of-the-week. I still want to know what happened to his mother, Princess Ursa.