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)