The hero is the good guy and the villain is the bad guy, everyone knows this little bit of standard fiction theory. But then we get into anti-heroes and sympathetic villains and the roles that those two fit into begin to blur. What if the hero is a total jerk? What if the villain is simply misguided? These are the kinds of questions that break the characters out of their preset molds and tear away the preconceptions inherent in the roles they fill.
These roles have always fascinated me, the idea that the hero is not wholly good and the villain is not wholly evil. Many times in fiction, the two fit their roles quite well. I’m not against that sort of thing, as those roles do serve a purpose and adhering to them can still lead to interesting entertainment, but it’s also true that breaking out of the roles can lead to something even more interesting.
I’ve played with this idea since way back in the days of the Martin Empire Trilogy, setting up a villain who appeared as a mustache-twirling bad guy who just simply loved being evil for evil’s sake. But as the plot went along it was revealed that the villain’s intentions were actually more pure, despite the fact that his methods produced violence and chaos. In his mind he believed he was doing good. Whether he is or isn’t may ultimately fall to the reader to decide. It is in this way that the work becomes more challenging. It forces the reader to consider the actions of the character and the outcomes of those actions and wonder whether it’s worth all the downsides if the ultimate outcome is a good one. Kill one to save two. A hard thing to accept, without a doubt.
I’ve also played with the idea of heroes who are not actually heroes in the traditional sense. While far from anti-heroes, I like the idea of a character who is just a regular person, no one special and with no special skills, who must someone navigate through a dangerous situation and come away victorious. After all, skills and ranks do not make a hero, only what a person does is what makes them a hero or not.
“No heroes on villains, only men.”
It would be safe to say that this is a motto I return to rather often, though certainly not exclusively. Doing my own writing has allowed me to explore these two roles, digging deeply into what makes them work and how readers might respond to them. It’s been an interesting exercise on my part, that’s for sure, but I feel like there’s still a great deal more for me to learn.