If you've paid attention behind the scenes, you've probably heard me talk a lot about the mechanics of Diamond In The Rough
and its antithesis Wrath of the Amanojaku
. I've also been really emphasizing lately there is no single way to write: that everyone will develop their own style and series of techniques. Of course, some folks love to say, "Write like Spaztique says or he'll come to get you!," but that completely ignores the disclaimer at the start of my guides saying, "Hey, I don't have all of the answers, this is just me adding my two cents."
So, I want to talk about the myriad ways of writing heroes and villains.
This post came about from, as I said at the start, comparing and contrasting two of my feature-length projects, the self-insert-fic-deconstruction Diamond In The Rough
and the celebration-of-all-things-Touhou comic Wrath of the Amanojaku.
In one, the characters fall into a dark-grey territory where it's no longer clear who's really the villains or the heroes, and in the other, there is a clear villain and clear heroes. In the fics I've either critiqued in the past or helped folks out with, they've spanned from anti-heroes and anti-villains to straight-up heroes to straight-up villains. I'm not going to tell you "what makes a good hero" or "what makes a good villain", because that falls on your ability to plot. As I've said before, a good plot brings out the best in even the most poorly-written characters, and a bad plot destroys good characters.
Rather, this post is about your options
for creating heroes and villains.
Your options for villains.First, obviously, what is their motivation?
Some of what we deem "villains" are just normal people. An antagonist does not need to be a twirly-mustached Snidely Whiplash type whose hobbies include tying damsels in distress to railroad tracks and armed robbery: it can be as simple as a rival love interest in a romance comedy, a rival in a sport movie, or even two friends competing over the same goal. Of course, you can
do Snidely Whiplash types if the story calls for it: otherwise, we wouldn't have "obvious villain" villains like Harry Potter
's Voldemort, Lord of the Rings
' Sauron, or, to some extent, Hans Gruber from Die Hard
. The pitfall of writing an "obvious villain" villain is that it's too easy to fall into the trap of not fleshing out their motives, other than, "They're evil! Why do I need an explanation?" And sometimes, this can be done well: if a villain does it merely for what appears to be the sheer thrill of it, like The Joker from The Dark Knight,
or simply out of animal instincts, like the shark from Jaws,
it can be quite scary.How do they achieve their motivation in a way that makes them villainous?
A common writing adage is that villains could often be heroes if they just went about achieving their goals different. Most war stories or battles of wide-scale conflict often have both sides saying they're fighting for peace, but one side believes in freedom and the rights of all, while the other believes in power and crushing those who get in their way. Both sides have the same resources, same setting, same really everything, but their ideologies split them between heroes and villains. Compare Star Wars
' rebels (peace and freedom) to the Empire (power and oppression), Transformers'
Autobots (peace and freedom) to the Decepticons (power and oppression), or even Command and Conquer'
s GDI (peace and freedom) to NOD (power and oppression). Historically, that's been that appeal of WW2 fiction, at least the European Theater: you had the Allies (peace and freedom) vs. the Nazis (power and oppression). Interestingly, the Pacific Theater, and the war stories it derives, focus on another dynamic: what if both
parties both say they're fighting for peace and freedom, and both parties also use some pretty underhanded tactics? As a result, stories of the Japan-US conflict of WW2 tend to be more pessimistic, dark, and sober (Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Tora! Tora! Tora!, etc.)
than their gun-ho adventurous European counterparts (The Longest Day,
the original Medal of Honor
and Call of Duty
games, and even Saving Private Ryan
has a "quest-like" feel to it).
Continuing with this idea of motivation, let's look at this on a smaller scale with individual characters. Watchmen
is a great example of how not every hero is heroic (such as the cold and tenacious Rorschach, who's not above torturing his enemies) and not every villain is villainous (the big bad's main goal is to end the Cold War and bring world peace). Of course, it's also great to have a hero who loves doing good, fighting an enemy who's obviously evil: look at any Marvel movie, or the campaigns of Starcraft 2
, which feature truly heroic characters saving the universe for nightmarish villains. Plus, as I said in the first point, not every antagonist needs to go out of their way to be bad: most sports stories have teams fairly competing, and the only real conflict is, "Side A wants to win, but so does Side B." In the first three Rocky
movies, Rocky challenges his opponents to a fair fight: Apollo Creed is obviously just an ordinary boxer who plays by the rules, as is Clubber Lang (if slightly more aggressive), and Rocky is just another match to them, but the conflict stems from how Rocky is hopelessly outmatched and must train like crazy just to survive, let alone win. The Rocky series took a turn for the campy when in Rocky IV
, we're introduced to Ivan Drago, who doesn't
play by the rules, even outright killing Apollo Creed in the ring, and rather than being a conventional sports movie, it becomes revenge story amid Cold War-era politics. Of course, this doesn't stop people from liking
Drago: iMockery even made a game
in homage to Ivan Drago's over-the-top character. So, there you have it: even if the plot doesn't work, an entertaining villain is still
an entertaining villain.Do they actually know they're villainous?
To quote my favorite writing teacher Robert McKee, "Most villains don't even know what they're doing is bad, but it's often the people who believe they are completely good who end up being the most evil." As mentioned in the previous point, a villain can be a hero if they just changed their ways, but why change them if they already think they're "good" to begin with? Every evil empire thinks, "Well, we have to
oppress people. Freedom is dangerous in the hands of idiots. Power means order, after all!" The person who yells at us in line, the car that honks at us for not running a red light, the cook who gets mad at you when they
order wrong, all these people see themselves as in the right. Heck, I'm sure we can all remember a time we ourselves thought we were in the right, only to look back and think, "Crap, I really acted a jerk to that person." Everyone, no matter how good, acts in their own self-interest; not in a "selfish" kind of way, but I mean we view morality from our own point of view, do things to ensure our own survival, and so on. To put this into perspective, altruism, kindness, and humility in themselves are forms of self-interest: we put the interests of others before our own because we believe it'll be better for us in the long run, and that selfishness, bullying, and greed will hurt us rather than help us. However, not everyone believes that: some folks really do think that lying, cheating, hurting others to get ahead, taking advantage of others, and being a jerk is acceptable because "that's the way of the world." They justify doing horrible things by saying, "Well, everyone else is doing it, so I might as well do it, too!" So we end up with cynical characters like Tyler Durden from Fight Club
, who decides the only way to defeat the corrupt exploitative establishment is to replace it with his own corrupt exploitative establishment. The same can be said of tragic anti-heroes such as William Foster from Falling Down,
Paul Kersey from Death Wish
, or Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver
, who are so fed up with the corruption of society that they decide to fight back just as brutally. To them, it's an eye for an eye, and their rampages feel perfectly justified. In the minds of many villains, they don't really see themselves as villains: they see themselves as "anti-heroes," justifying their hideous, reprehensible actions by saying the ends justify the means. Of course, we'll cover real
anti-heroes (and not just self-glorifying villains) later in this.
But sometimes villains know they're doing evil. Then comes the next question, do they care that what they're doing is wrong?
In the case where it's a simple rivalry, you don't really need this question, but if the villain really is doing some bad stuff to get what they want, how do they feel about it? Are they like Mr. Freeze from Batman
, who only commits crimes so he can find a cure for his dying wife, and it's obvious his life of crime is merely out of desperation? Or are they like The Joker, who sees it all as one big joke? To Vincent from Collateral
, murdering people is just a job. Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street
and Pennywise from IT
both have an absolute blast torturing kids. On the comedic side of things, Dr. Evil from Austin Powers
literally attended "evil medical school" for his title, and when his #2 man "Number Two" calls him out for the fact his evil schemes make less
money than their business front, Dr. Evil simply kills him in cold blood. The Grinch of How the Grinch Stole Christmas
gleefully steals all the Who's Christmas stuff to end their yearly Christmas racket, reveling in how they'll react once they find out he stole Christmas (of course, the fact the Who's still celebrate Christmas anyway gives him a change of heart, which I'll cover shortly). The same can be said of the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine
, who gleefully destroy all the joy and goodness of Pepperland simply because they like being mean, and it's up to the Beatles to save everyone through the power of music (and, like the Grinch, they have a change of heart). While not every villain needs to be a "card-carrying villain," they are possible and often very, very enjoyable.
Lastly, do they have a moral limit?
In a classic scene in Scarface
(which, with a violence and language warning, you can see here
), just when it seems like Tony Montana couldn't hit a moral rock bottom after stealing, lying, abusing drugs, and insulting his wife for "having a womb so polluted she can't even had a child," he's called to do another assassination by his drug dealer. Everything seems normal until the target gets into a car with his wife and children.
Tony relents, but is forced to follow the car, knowing that if he refuses, his dealer will obviously kill him right back. The assassin driving with arms a bomb planted under the targets car, and Tony tells him, "You don't have the guts to look them in the eye when you kill them!" In that moment, we recall all the other previous scenes with how close he was to his family, his sister, and how just only a few minutes ago, despite insulting his wife before she left him, he wanted to have kids of his own. The other assassins tell him to do his job, but instead of destroying the car, Tony Montana shoots them
, leaving the target and his kids to drive off safely. Unfortunately, this action leads to his eventual demise when said dealer sends an army to assassinate Tony (but not before taking as many of them with him as possible
), but for a moment, we remember that Tony, despite being a mafia kingpin, has a conscience, unlike his fellow criminal masterminds.
Many stories have moments like this where the seemingly bad character realizes maybe what they're doing isn't worth it: the Grinch's heart growing three sizes after witnessing the Who's aren't as materialistic as he thought they were and celebrating Christmas anyway, the cynical capitalist Oscar Schindler of Schindler's List
witnessing the extermination of the Jews firsthand and deciding from there to save as many as he can, even Darth Vader of Star Wars
, who was willing to commit genocide for decades, finally put his foot down when the Emperor threatened to kill his son. If a villain can eventually reach his limit and put his foot down, the results are often memorable and moving.
But not every villain has a moral limit: some remain defiant to the end. In the finale of Star Trek (2009)
, the crew of the Enterprise offer to show the villainous Nero, who had already committed genocide and many other crimes, mercy and save him when it's clear he won't survive. Spock questions why they'd save him, and Kirk says showing compassion would probably work on a Romulan. Instead, Nero replies he'd rather suffer in agony than accept help from the Enterprise. Knowing there is literally nothing in the universe that will ever change Nero's mind at this point, Kirk simply replies, "You got it," and not only leaves him to die, but fires everything they have left at his already-imploding ship: a truly badass moment as the Enterprise give the villain a death he both wants and deserves. Many James Bond villains go out in similar ways: it looks like they have Bond on the ropes, taunt him for not understanding how the world "really" works and how he's such a naive optimist, only for Bond to outsmart his enemies, kill them, and save the world. In some cases, the villain simply does not have a moral limit: the shark in Jaws
just wants to eat, the Terminator
just wants to kill his target, and in the case of comic horror, the villains aren't even aware the humans exist, or at least don't even consider them to be alive, such as the titular Hellstar of Hellstar Remina,
or in a more comedic example, the humans in Sausage Party.
So, these are just some of your choices you have to work with. And, as always, it's not black or white: this runs along a sliding scale for each variable. In summary, think of these as sliders:
- Is the villain's motivation concrete, abstract, or unknown? Another way of putting it, is it simple, complex, or hidden?
- Is the villain moral, immoral, or amoral? Another way of putting it, do they want to do the right thing, are they willingly doing bad things, or do they change their morality depending on the situation? What are their methods of achieving what they want?
- Does the villain willingly and knowingly do bad things? Do they know they're a villain, or do they think they're good and oblivious to their wrongdoings?
- If they know they're villainous, do they feel bad about it, neutral, or good about it?
- Does the villain have a moral limit? And if so, what is it?
From this, we can make a template to analyze villains. Compare the villains below:
Has complex motivation: wants to save the world and bring world peace.
Is Amoral: has an "ends justify the means" attitude and commits atrocities knowing it'll be worth it in the end.
Knowingly does bad things, feels only slightly bad about them.
Does have a moral limit, but avoids crossing it.
Has simple motivation: destroy their enemies.
Is Immoral: knowingly lies, cheats, steals, and stabs people in the back to get what they want.
Does not see themselves as a villain, but an all-loving anti-hero fighting "the true villains."
Has no moral limit.
Has simple motivation: to beat out their competition.
Is Moral: will not cheat, lie, or steal. Uses only the power of hard work and determination.
Does not see themselves as a villain, mainly for not doing anything villainous.
Obviously has moral limits.
Has no known motivation, but appears to be destroying/eating everything it comes into contact with.
Is Amoral: does not operate on human logic. Simply uses brute force.
Does not see themselves as a villain.
Has no moral limit.
Wildly different antagonists, huh? Villain A would be your classic "anti-villain" archetype, who's heart might be in the right place, but the way they go about it turns them into a villainous person. It's easier to sympathize with Villain A than Villain B, the self-righteous hypocrite villain like Borderlands 2's Handsome Jack or the less-funny Voldemort from Harry Potter. Then you have the honest rival, who'd be your Apollo Creed from Rocky, Iceman from Top Gun, or Miles Edgeworth from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Villain D is the animalistic antagonist, ranging from the Xenomorph from Alien to the cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft's works.
Again, these variables are not exhaustive, so I'm sure you can find more.
Your options for heroes.
Many of the choices for villains are similar for heroes, but due to narrative focus, i.e. more screentime, some choices will be different.
First, what is their level of motivation for getting what they want? Some heroes want to jump right into the fray, such as most shonen protagonists, or like any hero of the Star Wars franchise: Anakin, Luke, and Rey all want to jump head-first into adventure and already have minoring adventuring experience beforehand, almost practicing for the real deal. Harry Potter jumps at his chance to go to Hogwarts, Bill & Ted see their time-traveling adventure as a godsend for their history assignment, Shirou of Fate/Stay Night dives in headfirst when he finds out he has no choice but to fight in the Holy Grail War, Neo of The Matrix is sick of his boring life and joins the Zion rebels to fight the Machines, and in a darker example, Ishmael jumps at the chance to go on a whaling adventure in Moby Dick, in a time where sea creatures were considered kaiju. In some cases, the hero just rolls with it because they don't have a choice: Gordon Freeman of Half Life finds himself at ground zero for intergalactic disaster, and has no choice but to pick up a crowbar and fight for survival, as is the case for the hero of Doom. In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is minding his own business when his house gets demolished to make way for a new highway, and just when things can't get any worse, it turns out Earth is going to be demolished for an intergalactic highway, so Arthur hitches a ride with Ford Prefect through space because he has no choice. Some heroes want to go on the journey, but not every hero does.
Naturally, this ties into the next question: what is their goal? This is pretty basic storytelling stuff. Do they want a physical goal or an internal goal? Physical goals include stuff like win the contest, get the love interest, defeat the villain, and so on. Internal goals include stuff like maturity/growth, peace of mind, coping with a past upset, and so on. Of course, neither is mutually exclusive: as I've written about in the past, many journeys require characters to achieve the internal goal before getting the external goal, and in some cases, the external goal to achieve in the internal (though, this materialist twist on things is less common). And again, not every story needs both: sometimes you can only have an external goal if the characters' arcs are solidified, or an internal goal if the story is more laid back. To illustrate this, I offer two examples:
First, a serious example. In Mr. Holland's Opus, Mr. Holland wants to be a famous composer, so he decides he's going to be a music teacher: he's got all summers and evenings off and decent pay, so of course he'll have time to write, right? Turns out the school wants him to host some after-school stuff, tutor kids, and to spend more time at work. Not only that, his wife is pregnant, and when the son is born, it turns out he's deaf. Now Mr. Holland has to balance his family life and work life, and the story progresses over multiple decades as he focuses more on getting closer to his deaf son and saving the school's music program than writing his opus. Finally, the school shuts down the music program, Mr. Holland is about to retire, and he never finished his opus. However, just as he's about to leave, he's led to the school auditorium, where all of the students he influenced fill the crowd, and his son and wife wait in the crowd, and he gives one final performance before all of them. So, despite not getting to fulfill his dreams to become a rich and famous composer, he got something more important: the love of the people he most cares about and who care about him.
Second, a not-so-serious example: in Kingpin, Roy Munson is a former champion bowler who gets screwed over by rival Ernie McCracken, resulting in the loss of his hand and the end of his career. Cut to several years later: Roy now has a prosthetic hand, living in a rundown apartment where he's forced to have sex with the hideous and ill-tempered landlady to pay the rent, clearly having given up on life. The rest of the plot follows him as he tries to climb out of the gutter (pun only slightly intended) and get revenge on Ernie in the latest tournament, joined by Ishmael, a young Amish man learning how to bowl to save his family via tournament prize money, and Claudia, a woman escaped a relationship with an abusive bowler herself. Things go well for a while, as Roy nearly beats Ernie after all these years, but Ernie still wins, much to Roy's horror, and Ernie seems to get off scot-free for his crimes. But despite losing, Roy's efforts pay off: Roy gets an endorsement from Trojan for his nickname "Rubber Man" for his prosthetic rubber hand, and Ishmael is forgiven for secretly bowling after Roy and Claudia explain the whole thing. In the end, Roy donates his money to Ishmael's family to save his farm, and he and Claudia drive off into the sunset. He didn't get the money, but at least he got a new chance at life.
Both films are classic examples that not every goal can be achieved, but the journey to maturity is often more important.
Of course, how do they go about getting what they want? Same case with the villains, and here lies the sliding scale of heroes to anti-heroes. True heroes are paragons (read: high examples) of morality and goodness. They don't cheat, lie, steal, or hurt others. On one end of the scale, we got the truly heroic heroes who refuse to kill people (ala The Lone Ranger, Batman), who use their powers to make the world a better place (despite his snarky exterior, like Tony Stark, aka Iron Man), and use their influence to unite people (Jim Raynor from Starcraft, the titular Harry Potter, Optimus Prime from Transformers). Going down the scale, you got the classic anti-hero, i.e. a hero with not-so-heroic traits: Tony Stark has all of the classic heroic qualities, from his ideals to use his technology for peace, willingness to sacrifice himself to save humanity, and never giving up in the face of adversity, but he's also rude, ill-tempered, doesn't play well with others, cynical, and when he's not battling alcoholism, he's facing anxiety attacks. The same can be said of Star Wars' Han Solo or Dameron Poe: both loose cannons who don't play by the rules, but also willing to set that aside to save the galaxy. Deadpool is a self-aware example: he describes himself as "a bad guy who beats up the worse guys," and is willing to murder villains with no remorse (and plenty of quips), but is still a compassionate and protective person past all his snark and comedic sociopathy. Some heroes aren't above lying or trickery to save the day: they can be as harmless as Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop or the Doctor of Doctor Who, or the Chaotic Neutral of Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean. Going further down the line, we have the previously-mention tragic heroes, who do pretty terrible things to worse people. At the furthest end of the spectrum, you have the villain protagonist, who blurs the line between hero and villain: folks like Light from Death Note or Captain Walker from Spec Ops: The Line. At this point, the only thing that makes them a "hero" is that they're the protagonist, but looked at objectively, they're really just villains in denial.
And lastly, is there a moral line the heroes are willing to cross to get what they want? On Nickelodeon, there have been numerous episodes on every series dedicated to this: the episode of Rocko's Modern Life where Rocko becomes a megalomaniac boss, one episode where Doug pawns off somebody's stuff (albeit unknowingly) for extra cash, an episode of Aaah! Real Monsters! where Ickis decides to exploit people's phobias than be naturally scary like his school is teaching him to do, and so on. Of course, in the end, they're always punished for it (most famously with Ickis having to clean the bathroom floors with a toothbrush). The majority of heroes won't stay over the morally ambiguous line forever, often always having a "WHAT AM I DOING?!," reaction before stepping back. But when they stay over the line, they often become villains, and such moments are both heartbreaking but oh-so-amazing: Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face in Batman, or Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII transforming from the stoic badass leader into the maniacal harbinger of doom.
Again, this list is not exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of your choices when it comes to heroes. In short:
- What is their willingness to go along with the story? Do they want to go on an adventure, don't want, or don't care either way?
- What is their goal? Is it internal, external, or both?
- Are they moral, immoral, or amoral? What do they do to get what they want?
- Is there a moral line they're willing to cross to get what they want?
Compare and contrast these heroes. The template is a little simpler, as answering one will answer another:
Wants to save the world, is completely willing to go on the journey.
Tries to be Moral, but can be Amoral. Does the right thing for the most part, but is willing to compromise their values if desperate.
Does have a moral limit, only crosses it out of desperation, feels regretful if doing so.
Wants to save the world, doesn't have a choice, but goes through with it anyway.
Is Moral: will not lie, cheat, or do anything to compromise their values.
Does have a moral limit and will not cross it.
Just wants to get stronger, uses external goal as a crucible for change.
Is Moral: will not cheat, lie, or steal. Uses only the power of hard work and determination.
Obviously has moral limits.
Wants to destroy their enemies at any cost.
Is Immoral: Uses the tactics of the very people they're fighting, simply because the villains will "do it first."
Has no moral limits, willing to do hideous things in the name of "good."
Hero A would be your classic hero typical of a Hero's Journey arc. They want to do good, but certain traits hold them back until they finish their character arc. Hero B is the reluctant hero: they don't want to go on the journey, but since they have to, they're going to play the hero to the best of their ability. Hero C is the foil to Villain C: two rivals in fair competition. Hero D is the "Hero in name only": depending on the story, they can either be "the bad guy who beats of the worse guys," such as Michael Corleone from The Godfather
or Tony Montana from Scarface
, or just a plain villain protagonist.
I'm going to keep repeating this: this list is not exhaustive
. The lesson here is that there are several
choices that go into making a hero or a villain, all on sliding scales. The next time you're wondering what makes a "good" hero or a "good" villain, remember that each one of these heroes and villains have been pulled off correctly. There are 100% good heroes, 100% evil villains, villains with good intentions, heroes with bad intentions, heroes with complex motivations, heroes with no motivation, villains with complex motivations, villains with no motivation, and so on and so forth.
And remember, there is no "one" way to write anything,
P.S. Actually, take a stab at who those villains/heroes in the examples are based on, and if you're right, you get a llama badge! Hint: the examples are all in this blog post.