Another week, another Meditative Monday which means another hopefully thought-provoking question.
And this one has been nagging me so much lately that I feel it’s finally time to actually take a stab at it.
1. Heroes And Villains Don’t Exist
Growing up, I’ve always been drawn to fantasy books and your standard fantasy RPGs where some bright-eyed hero goes gallivanting from home, stealing some poor NPC’s stuff, and charges off to fight some huge world-ending evil with your obligatory tank, healer, and rogue cardboard cut-out (but don’t worry this applies to other genres as well).
But one thing that I’ve noticed across movies, games, and books is the world of difference made when a writer approaches their story with the hero vs. villain mentality compared to a protagonist vs antagonist mentality.
Now you might be wondering, don’t they boil down to the same thing?
Yes and no.
When you look at a situation from someone’s perspective for so long and if that character seems to be doing the right thing in our eyes, (assuming their personality isn’t written poorly), you identify with them and will naturally cheer for them. We see their thought processes and logic reasoning, and therefore when a character does something morally sketchy, we don’t think it’s so bad and will still happily call them a hero.
On the other hand, “villains” usually get much less screen time with a reader. When they appear, it’s usually to be a butt-hole to the hero, or a butt-hole to everyone in general. We don’t always see what they’re like when they’re not “evilling” (because we’re not expected to) and have a much harder time identifying with them (unless of course the “hero” manages to bore us to tears.)
But the real problem with breaking people down into heroes and villains is that people:
- Generally believe themselves to be good, even if others don’t
- Generally do what they think is right or okay
- Are self-interested, meaning that they are not against you, they are for themselves
- Generally do not accept blame, even if they are wrong
To TL;DR this all nicely…
Others are only “evil” because they want something that we think gets in our way or wrongs us.
An old lady that picks a watermelon in the store would never get more than a glance from the average person. An old lady that goes out of her way to chastise you about the way you pick your melons is now the temporary villain of our life story! For all we know, she could genuinely be passionate about the way people pick melons and really care about helping you so you can pick good melons for the rest of your life or maybe someone in her life died because they picked the wrong melon at the store.
But of course how many of us would actually think that? For our fight or flight brains much easier to dismiss someone as a snob that’s out to get us than it is to give the benefit of the doubt.
This is the biggest problem with the hero vs villain idea. It ignores that people (even good ones) are usually just minding their own business until that’s no longer an option.
And that leads quite nicely into our next topic!
2. Overlooking How Much Effort/ Emotional Cost It Takes To Be A “Hero” And A “Villain”
In fiction, heroes just jump out of bed ready to kick monster butt like it’s a cool thing to do. Now don’t get me wrong, some people out there feel like fighting a world-ending evil is their life’s calling.
But most people don’t.
Most people have this feeling called fear. Fear is so powerful in some that they can’t even use the bathroom around other human beings. Fear is what often pressures us to make “safe” choices, shoot below our potential, and ignore our dreams for things that we think makes sense. Fear forces us into self-preservation mode and many of us would rather sit somewhere safe than stick our necks out to die if we can help it.
It’s a big responsibility and a risk, therefore inaction is more common than we writers think. People tend to ignore what they don’t want to see or hear if it means trouble and when there are others around, they are actually less likely to help (called the Bystander Effect). This is likely why military bootcamps have to break their recruits down mentally, so they act when the need arises.
Now on the other side of the spectrum, the other thing that I see underestimated is how much effort it actually takes to be a “villain”.
To be an (good) antagonist you:
- Can’t be lazy in anyway, if you are lazy, the protagonist will exploit your blindspots easily
- Have to be very good at getting your resources (Including people)!
- Should be charismatic to some extent, or have some nice benefits to offer, especially if you expect people or any living creature with a free will to follow them willingly
- Have to expend a lot of energy to fight, stress out, and plan what to do next. Hence why I find it hard to rationalize why someone just “happens” to want to take over the world. Fighting an adversary takes a lot of time and effort that can be spent doing other more enjoyable things.
- Have to have an inner drive strong enough to make you want to initiate action and persevere in the face of setbacks
Even if you are an all-powerful wizard that can destroy the planet, that level of time wastage has to be justified. It’s hard risky work like a business startup, and taking over the world doesn’t happen overnight so there has to be something about it that interests and motivates them on a deep-level.
Same thing applies to protagonists, being a hero is hard work. Why does this person in particular want to save the world/ town/ galaxy as opposed to sitting back, being practical, and turning a blind eye like a normal human being would? To be a good protagonist you:
- Have to have a drive strong enough to put up with the antagonist’s nonsense.
- Have to not have any easy way out (otherwise you would naturally take it by default)
- Have to be able to overcome natural inhibitions like fear and giving up.
- Also be charismatic to some extent if their role involves getting help from others
- Can’t be too lazy, lest your laziness be exploited by the antagonist
- Have to expend a lot of energy and mental resources to deal with the antagonist which results in a lot of stress
TL;DR: Why these people can’t just pack up and go home to watch football or the Witches Brewing Network? Why do they have to save/ take over the world right this moment? Why can’t someone else do it? Why are others willing to throw their life away in the name of a campaign that could fail? What keeps them in the game when an entire world might think they’re crazy? The actions will always ring hollow if everyone’s wants don’t line up, or they’re only going through the motions.
And most importantly, it’s a lot to ask of a character to be a “hero” or a “villain”.
Making a change in a world is a hard thing to do, guys. Look at how hard it is to make lasting change in our own world. Most people usually don’t do this stuff for the fun of it!