Flawed Heroes And Heroic Villains

Flawed Heroes And Heroic Villains

“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.

Except, perhaps, while tap dancing.

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.]

20 thoughts on “Flawed Heroes And Heroic Villains

  1. F*ck yeah! Very well said. I love morally grey heroes and villains myself I’m intrigued about Plugged, and I love all the other villains/heroes you mention for these reasons.

  2. Okay two things, wait, no, three. 1. I LOOVED the gifs, 2. I LOOOVED the AVPM one especially, and finally 3. I’ve always written poorly developed characters. Hey, what can I say, I’m just starting out. And I’ve always known that good characters always have some bad flaws, and bad characters always have some good flaws. But your post just, kind of, made that character development more clear in a weird-way-that-only-makes-sense-to-me kind of thing. And I alway have problems having my characters have bad traits and vice versa, but reading this, was just a fantastic to make my characters not so black and white anymore. So thanks for a fantastic post! :)

    1. Thanks for reading and leaving a lovely comment! I’ve had a few nice responses on Tumblr as well, but it makes my day when people comment here. Just trying to be helpful, you know, so I like it when I know people are actually reading it :-)
      I must say I don’t think I can claim to always follow my own advice. I just don’t have bad guys, just good guys who want something different, so I avoid a lot of the villain issues. Meh, I need to work on challenging my readers’ morals a little more!

  3. Question: Why has Nevillegirl STILL not finished Camp NaNo?!

    Answer: Because she was on YouTube to find something to listen to and ended up looking for Miriam Joy’s vlog, which is BRILLIANT and HIGHLY AMUSING. And she loves the part in Vlog All Of The Days about, “Oh, yes, I inject cocaine on a regular basis!”

  4. Why did i not write this post? My sheer OHMYGOSHTHAT’SSOTRUEOHMYGOSHOHMYGOSH is actually hurting my chest. To be honest, I loved The Master from the beginning, mainly because I have a horrible soft spot for crazy demented villains, but after The End of Time . . . he’s my favourite. I think he should come back into the new series. I miss his crazy bonkers-ness.

    Completely agree on all other counts – especially Jaime Lannister, deviating slightly. You can tell if a fan has read up to Feast by their views on Jaime. Weird how we’re always told how evil Aerys was right from the start, but we never accredit his death to Jaime because we think he’s even worse, in a way. Complicated dude. Complicated with some awesome lines. “I will scream loudly” has to be the best way to refuse anaesthetic drugging ever.

    Sorry, essay comment over now. Crazy agreeing rant-ness canned *grins*

    1. Er… so I take it you liked the post, then? :D

      I’m only halfway through Feast for Crows, and it’s been about three weeks since I read any of it (I was ill the whole time you were gone, it was tragic because you weren’t there to cheer me up), so I’ve kind of lost the plot. Literally. I need to finish it but I don’t know what’s happening any more or who is where or what I should know and what I shouldn’t know and agh. This is why I read books in one sitting, generally.

      As I said in my latest post, it’s only more recently that I’ve begun to understand villains more. I used to take things at face value as being very black and white and only in the last few years have I really sat down and thought, “You know, people have a reason for doing what they do. Why?” And that’s partly due to writing and creating antagonists and stuff.

      1. Hehe, Feast untangles eventually – just as well ,as Dance takes place at the same time!

        I suppose loving the nasties has made me examine their motives and backgrounds so that I have an explanation for when people ask me why I like them so much, but for some reason that never happened with Jaime . . . I blame the fact that I still dream of murdering Freys in my sleep after RW. Is that wrong? xD

          1. Dance takes place with different characters (the ones we’re missing; Jon, Arya, Tyrion etc) but the second half of it (published in that black book thingie on Kindle) carries onwards in time. GRRM explains it all in the introductions and epilogues, in a rather amusing manner. It’s complicated, but apparently he’s trying to get everyone back together into the same books for the next ones. In his words he wants them “all shiverring together”.
            I’m worried.

          2. Oh, that’s why we’re hearing nothing of Arya. Okay.
            So why isn’t book one of Dance called book two of Feast, then? That would make more sense, right?

  5. Great post! I love villains who have some humane qualities about them, because then the reader ends up feeling conflicted about what should happen to them. A perfect hero is a Mary Sue (or a Gary Stu), and they are annoying, plain and simple. However, one thing that should be taken into consideration when writing the hero’s flaws is to make sure they don’t seem too forced, otherwise he becomes an Anti-Sue (so many terms!)

    Also, that picture of dancing Voldy is priceless. xD

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