“The wonderful thing about Marvel is that they make their heroes flawed, and their villains heroic.” (Tom Hiddleston, ‘Loki’)
Warning: this post contains lots of gifs (and also spoilers but only for mostly old stuff) so if you’re reading in an email, you may need to click through to see them. I’m not sure. Maybe they work.)
I was reading a couple of handouts from online and real-life writing classes the other day, because I was bored and that’s what I do, and I was reading a post about character development and story arcs. They went over the hero’s arc first: they have to be normal, they have to be relatable, and then suddenly they are forced to overcome their normality and become a hero and do something extraordinary. But because they were relatable in the first place, we like them and can sympathise with them.
(By the way, am I spelling ‘relatable’ wrong? Because Google Chrome seems to think so but it’s not giving me any suggestions for how to actually spell it, and now I’m getting paranoid.)
Then they talked about villains and the two examples used were Darth Vader and Sauron, probably because they’re ones everyone has heard of. The guy mentions the fact that even though we hate Darth Vader for three movies, by the end we kind of feel for him, because we find out who he is and how terrible his life has become, etc. (Yeah, I know, the prequels changed all that, but I’m not going to get into a detailed Star Wars essay here, because I haven’t eaten yet today and that’s effort.)
And then there’s Sauron. I agree with the guy who wrote these worksheets (whose name I have forgotten and URL I have lost, so unfortunately I can’t link you directly) – Sauron’s not a great villain. We can’t sympathise with him at all. We don’t even really see him all that much. There’s nothing human we can relate to, and he doesn’t grow as a person. He’s a giant scary eye for most of the books, yay! Erm, not. Personally, I love Lord of the Rings, but it has its weaknesses, and that’s one of them.
The thing is, if everything is black and white and it’s clear who is on which side, it’s less interesting.
It’s something I intended to teach my younger cousin, who is starting out as a promising writer. We’ve been writing a story together for a few, um, years, now. (I guess it’s my fault it went slowly. I wasn’t enjoying it. She was young when we started and it wasn’t that good.) She recently announced she wanted to rewrite it and though I was initially apprehensive, I actually started enjoying myself as we planned and got started and made changes etc.
And I said to her, “Perhaps we should give the Ice Woman [the main villain] some good features, to that it’s more interesting and people sympathise with her.”
To my surprise, Isa replied, “I was thinking about something that’s sort of the opposite of that. Perhaps we should give Alickai [one of the heroines] some bad features, because she’s too perfect at the moment.”
She knows that perfect isn’t what people want from a character, but as far as I know, she’s never been taught it.
In Marvel’s Avengers, we can sympathise with the villain, Loki – partly because he’s so damn attractive, but mainly because we’ve seen his story arc through Thor where he becomes disillusioned, heartbroken, and finally tries to end his life. By doing so he falls through a wormhole, probably goes through a hell of a lot of pain in the hands of the Chitauri, and is being controlled at least partly by the tesseract. We care about him, even though we know he’s the bad guy.
I’ll use a contrasting example. I recently read a book called ‘Plugged’ by Eoin Colfer which was really rather good. Towards the beginning of the book, the narrator kills a guy by stabbing him in the neck with a key. He then has to pull the key out in order to lock the building, which is kind of gross.
He’s an ex-army doorman who is willing to kill to defend himself. He gets caught up in a web of murder and drug trafficking, and yet we still care about him.
Why? Because he’s the hero and while he does bad things, it’s mainly due to his ‘protective’ instinct. We’re inside his head and we know what’s going on.
Harry Potter. Harry is remarkably selfless, as Dumbledore tells him, but he’s also a teenage boy who is occasionally arrogant, refuses to let other people help, gets angry, and fails his History of Magic exams. He’s someone we can relate to – he isn’t a perfect hero. Voldemort, at first, seems like a total villain.
But Harry begins to understand him. He knows there’ll be a horcrux in Hogwarts because it’s the only place Voldemort felt at home. One of the others (quoting from memory here) says to him, “Harry, this is Voldemort we’re talking about, not you.”
Because Harry can empathise with him, even while planning to destroy him, we can kind of see the human in Voldemort as well. We can still see Tom Riddle behind the noseless mask. He still has enough qualities that we can see him develop and change as a character.
In Doctor Who, the Doctor has his dark moments. The Time Lord Victorious who tries to change fixed points in time. The Doctor who was almost ready to let Caecilius and family die, even though they could have been saved. He needs his companions to tell him when to stop and to convince him to do the right thing. He’s definitely the good guy, but at the same time, he’s the oncoming storm. He’s like fire and ice and rage. He is flawed and he hates himself.
Then there’s the Master, and at first? Textbook evil guy. Completely bonkers. I don’t know if I was the only one, but when it came to the double episode The End Of Time, I started to feel for him. The Time Lords tricked him. They drove him mad by sending the drumbeat signal in order to pull themselves into the present day, out of the Time War. They drove him mad. What was he supposed to do, extend the loving hand of forgiveness after intensive psychiatric help? They ruined his life. Of course he’s going to have issues.
I’m not even going to start on Game of Thrones. There are so many characters I liked when I started that I hate now (I’m on Feast For Crows) and so many that I never thought I’d like that I’m totally sympathising with (Jaime Lannister, for example). No one in that is completely good or completely bad. They just all want different things.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: black and white is boring. Paint everything in shades of good and shades of evil until your reader isn’t really sure who is the hero and who is the villain until the climax when it’s clear that one of them will sacrifice other people, and one of them will sacrifice themself.
After all, no one is born inherently good or inherently evil. Every man must choose his path.
[Oops, seriously long post today. Not going to apologise, though. I had to get this off my chest.]