Today I want to talk a little about heroes and villains, and our perceptions of them as readers. We look at the antagonist of the story as the bad guy, and the hero as the one who saves the day, right? Well, did you ever hear the saying, "The victor writes the history books"?
Think of it this way: Each antagonist is the hero of his or her own story, and the hero is the villain. It's all subjective to perspective. It's been said that you can never create a truly rounded bad guy until you've considered this.
We tend to forgive the hero of a little more than we should - he is "forced" to kill, to steal, to destroy, but we sympathize with him because it took such a huge toll on him, right? But the villain does the exact same and it's an excuse for us to condemn him a little more. We distinguish between the two by their motivations, their conscience, and their actions.
But like I said, it's a well-known fact that the victor writes the history books.
So before you pick up a pencil and draw evil eyes and a swirling mustache, think about it from his perspective. If you can bring out the hero in the antagonist and the villain in the protagonist, you've created characters - and by proxy, conflict - that will stay with the reader long after they've closed the book.
Readers, what are your thoughts? Writers, what are your experiences with the hero and the villain?
Lisa: I have never thought of a villain in that way, being the hero in their own story. I have considered motivations for what they do, etc., just never considered just how justified they feel when they're creating havoc. My problem is that I feel like I create a well-rounded villain in my character study, but those details never find a way into the story. Hopefully, readers get a sense of their justification...but who knows?
Caitlin: I have a hard time accepting a story where the villain isn't at least a little good. Maybe I'm too pollyanish, but I just don't believe that anyone is 100% bad. Even the absolute worst people in our societies often have severe psychological problems and rough environmental factors that contribute to what they do. Does this mean they should be absolved of all crimes? I definitely don't think so, but realizing that they are human too, and trying to understand them, is interesting to me. And, ultimately, I think that's why I read and write, because I enjoy trying to understand various aspects of humanity. So, yes, heroes need some villainous traits and villains need some heroic traits.
Dan: I'm certainly a fan of certain anti-heroes -- like Locke Lamora and House M.D. -- whose status as the protagonist lets us forgive them for acts for which we'd curse a villain's name. I certainly do love villains whose complexity and moral ambiguity makes them unpredictable. I almost enjoy the unexpected heroic moment of a villain more than I enjoy it for the protagonist.
Another reality of the modern world is that there's not always a right or wrong: gray areas (in law, in ethics, etc.) can encompass a lot. Not everything is black and white, and as Karlie pointed out, much of history was told by one side (often in their own favor).