During a recent discussion with a fellow writer concerning character traits, we talked a bit about heroes and villains and how most villains don’t go around calling themselves the villain in their head. Some villains do, like in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, but I think that’s a rather unique example. This really got me thinking about different perspectives on heroes and villains.
For me, the biggest defining feature of a hero versus a villain is sacrifice. And by hero, I don’t just mean some poor schmuck who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and doing everything possible just to keep themselves alive during the zombie-pocalypse. I guess I am talking about heroes as defined by their villains. Kind of like Superman and Lex Luthor. Without a super villain to define his own heroics, would Superman have really been considered that much of a hero? But that might either be a topic for later or another post entirely.
A hero is always willing to sacrifice everything, including their own life, to save the lives of innocent people. A hero generally fights because they feel as though they have a responsibility to do so, as though they were granted either certain powers or a certain skill set that ought to be used to help people who lack the ability to protect themselves from aliens, monsters (both of the human and inhuman variety), thieves, criminals, murderers, etc. The villain is always intent on personal gain, usually in the form of profit, power, world domination, special influence, or other nefarious gains, but they tend to do so with the intention of making the world a more structured or better organized place.
So where is the boundary between the self-sacrifice the hero willing assumes responsibility for and the sacrifices the villain forces upon the hero? The villain almost always finds a way to manipulate the hero by using those the hero loves against them. Family, friends, loved ones. They all wind up as pawns for the villains and their schemes. Most of the heroes find ways to foil the villainous plot by saving the world and the person they love, but every now and then, the hero is forced to choose the fate of the world or the fate of the one person they love, be it a family member or a romantic interest. The hero is screwed no matter what decision they make because there are always going to be people on either side, outsiders looking in, who will chastise them for making the choice they did, for choosing to save one side instead of the other.
From the view of the public, every action a hero takes will be criticized and demonized. There will always be people who will watch every step a hero takes and castigate them for everything. Take the example of Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson, where Spider-Man saves the city all the time, but J. Jonah Jameson always puts a negative spin on Spider-Man’s actions. Most of the time, those who criticize the most would make the worst heroes and make more mistakes than the heroes they criticize.
But then the interesting point comes up about property and what happens to the cities that are destroyed during the conflicts between the heroes and the villains? Do the heroes have a responsibility to stay and use their superpowers to clean up the mess? Can you imagine how much faster the debris would be cleaned up and the city rebuilt if people with superhuman speed and strength stuck around to repair the damages? Or would allowing them to use their unique skills in that manner then take work and jobs away from the average working citizen and cause harm to the local economy? That’s just more proof that heroes really won’t be able to get anything right, no matter how many people they save. It’s all just a matter of perspective. One person’s hero is another person’s villain.
So how do we, as writers, convince the readers to view our characters as the heroes, or get the audience to cheer for our villains? I would say the key is sacrifice. Your characters have to give something up. Personal freedom, money, glory, something that would matter greatly to them if it was lost. In most cases, the hero gives up their very identity – their sense of self. Peter Parker has to watch his actions be ridiculed every day by the man he works for and say nothing. If the audience builds strong emotional attachments to the characters, even when they do something that could be morally wrong, the audience forgives them or makes excuses for them almost immediately. I can think of a recent example from the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, but I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to include anything for people who may not have finished reading the books. There is definitely a time in those books where Katniss takes some actions that could be seen as morally wrong, but by that time and everything Katniss has been through, I know I was willing to pretty much overlook some of the less moral actions she took.
Hero or villain, as the writer, build emotional attachments between your audience and your character so the audience forgives your characters for their trespasses.