Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Villains Make the Best Heroes

Photo credit: Axxaxxin |

More complex, introspective, and satisfying to watch, the "bad guy" is about to become your new favorite character.  ♦
The dichotomy of hero versus villain exists in some way or form in nearly every book, every comic, every movie, every television show. We’ve been socialized to root for the “good guy” and to hope for the defeat of the “bad guy.” We’ve been socialized to stereotype heroes as simply “good” and villains as simply “bad.” Why does a hero do the right thing? Because it's the right thing to do, and that's what they're supposed to do. But happens when these lines of “good” and “bad” become blurred and convoluted? Why would a hero do the wrong thing? That's the real question. Why would a hero kill thousands of innocent people, steal millions of dollars, or fight for an evil superpower? That's the real question. Making a good hero who does the right thing is easy. Explaining why someone fights against evil is simple. Why a hero would commit an evil act is much more complex difficult to explain.
   So perhaps “hero” isn't quite the correct word. In many cases, the villain is still the hero of the story in their own eyes, but there are plenty of stories where the villain is viewed as a hero by other characters. It's tiring to watch the same stories unfold time and time again, where the hero fights the big bad villain and everyone lives happily ever after. Stories are more compelling when the character that we, the audience, are supposed to root for is not objectively the “good guy” of the story. Oftentimes, villains make much better heroes than archetypal heroes, because villains have to justify themselves much more than your typical protagonist. George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series (that's Game of Thrones for you TV people) said, “Nobody is a villain in their own story.” Yet, so often we see villains as nothing more than evil caricatures. Great villains always view themselves as truly doing what is right, if not what is good.
   It seems that just about every villain fits into at least one of four categories: Evil, Justified, Fallen, or Hero. There is overlap between the groups, and the best of villains will often fit into more than one category. The things that put a villain in each group are their main motivations and ideals.

The Evil Villain
Examples: Scarface, Four Lions, Pain and Gain
Motivation: Power, money, because they want to

   Evil villains are the hardest characters for authors to write in such a way that audiences will relate to or make a connection with them. At best, the audience can enjoy these villains getting punished at the end, or marvel at the inhumanity they've achieved. The Evil villain knows what they're doing isn't good, but they don't care about what's right or what's wrong. They care about what they want and try to get it by any means necessary. Evil villains are often, but not always, written as either insane or stupid, giving some sort of explanation as to their behavior.
   What really makes the Evil villain interesting is seeing how they act against a world in such opposition to them. An Evil villain often inspires loyal followers that ultimately mean little or nothing to them. The audience gets to watch these deplorable actions and the rise (and often fall) of an individual who truly believes that “nice guys finish last.” If the villain succeeds, the audience is left with mixed emotions of happiness that the archetypal “hero” won as well as the frustration that the villain got away with it. If the villain falls, the audience is again met with the mixed emotions, though this time with happiness that good prevailed and the sadness that their villain was defeated.
   Take a look at Scarface. Tony Montana starts at the bottom, and works his way to the top of the coke empire. He lets friends die, betrays those who have helped him, and kills countless people. Yet, after everything he does, the audience still watches him with fascinated adoration. People don't think of Tony as the evil, ruthless villain he was, but as the underdog hero they saw him as.

The Justified Villain
Examples: Watchmen, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones
Motivation: To better the world, to save themselves or a loved one

   The Justified villain is the villain who would most likely argue against their status as a villain. Whether they're trying to save the world, someone they love, or just themselves, the Justified villain isn't actually evil, it's just that everyone else doesn't understand what needs to be done, or doesn't have the ability to do it. A justified villain has good intentions, but they will probably have to hurt a lot of people on the way.
   This type of villain is probably the easiest type of villain with whom the audience can identify. These villains usually do not take pride in their actions or enjoy them; instead, the Justified villain almost always sees their crimes as simply “what has to be done.” Justified villains can be entirely self-obsessed or completely the opposite, but they would never identify themselves as a villain.
   Breaking Bad's Walter White would often argue that he is a genuinely good man that just wants the best for his family. In the process of providing for them, he, much like Tony Montana, betrays those who help him, kills (either directly or indirectly) many people, and ruins the lives of others. The entire time Walt does this, he professes over and over about taking care of and loving his family. In his mind, Walt is doing the best thing possible in his situation. He may be hurting others, but the goal is worth the cost.

The Fallen Villain
Examples: X-Men: First Class, Count of Monte Cristo, Star Wars (the prequels)
Motivation: Revenge, recognition, safety

   If villains make the best heroes, then one could make the argument that heroes make the best villains. Other people are the real villains, the money was just too good—these are the trademarks of the Fallen villain. The Fallen villain started out on the good path: fighting against the forces of evil, trying to help those weaker than they, but the universe didn't quite agree with their ideals. Despite their good actions, the Fallen villain didn't get the recognition they deserved, or the world still fears and persecutes them. Eventually, the hero had enough and became a villain.
   No one understands evil better than someone who has fought it. This villain understands their actions and that the outcome is less than good. They're not trying to do what is best for the greater good; they're trying to do what is best for them. The difference between the Fallen villain and the Justified villain is that the Justified villain believes that their actions will ultimately result in good, as opposed to the Fallen villain, who has come to recognize that they are the villain in the minds of the many. Audiences can see the full progression from the character's status as hero to their change of heart. They understand the villain's actions, even if they don't agree with them. This makes the Fallen villain a popular character among audiences.
   Magneto is, by far, the best example of a fallen villain. In X-men: First Class Magneto starts the film as a child during the Nazi occupation of Poland, where he witnesses the fullest persecution of people possible. At first, Magneto buys into Xavier's idea that mutants and humans can live in peace; however, after seeing the fear that mutants create in mankind and the drastic measures they'll take to destroy mutants, he turns away from peaceful coexistence. Fearing a mass genocide like he witness during his childhood, Magneto turns against mankind and becomes a villain.

The Hero
Examples: I Am Legend, Fight Club, Shutter Island
Motivation: Safety, coercion, ignorance

   The Hero is the most unique type of villain. Really, the Hero is not the villain at all; they're a “good-guy” who was forced or tricked into committing evil. Perhaps the real villain is hiding behind the curtains, holding a loved one hostage, or the Hero doesn't know enough about the situation. Somehow, a person who would normally be trying to save the day (or maybe just try to go about their day) ended up as a villain. Heroes search for a way out of their situation if they can, or are distraught when they learn of their villain status.
   The best thing about watching a Hero-type villain is that they see no redemption or good in their actions. Heroes struggle within themselves to try and complete their tasks while still doing as little evil as possible. They are reluctant to do any more than they absolutely have to, and even the bare minimum of evil eats away at their soul. The audience gets to watch the unknowing villain realize what they are and what they've done. The character doesn't wish to be a villain is what makes them so interesting.
   In I Am Legend, human society collapses after a virus transforms the world's population into marauding vampire-like monsters. They come out at night and attack Dr. Robert Neville, who is trapped in New York City with a horde of the infected. He struggles to stay alive, and captures some of the monsters. He experiments on them in an attempt to find a cure for the virus. What Dr. Neville is unaware of is that the creatures have modeled their own tribes and society after humanity. Dr. Neville has been their boogeyman, coming out in the daylight and stealing their people. Though he didn't know it, the hero, who struggled to survive every day, was really the villain of the story.

   Audiences like complexity. Audiences like abnormal characters. Villains inherently need complexity to explain their actions, which rarely seem logical from an outside perspective. Their actions and motivations are unique and well-reasoned, even if only to them. Like a fine wine, a well-written villain is something to truly be savored and appreciated. Villains' successes send us on wild rides of jubilation and worry, and their defeats are just as intense. A good villain is better than a “good-guy” any day.
  • About the Author
    Joy Snow is a senior creative writing student at Miami University. She enjoys playing in Magic: The Gathering tournaments and dressing up in costumes and going to anime conventions with all her nerd friends. She lives with a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan, who she claims is the best roommate she's ever had.

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