The Hero of Their Own Story
I feel like this rant is half-baked, but I’m going to go off on it anyway and I suppose we’ll all see where we end up.
There’s a sort of conventional wisdom for writers that originated apparently in 1992 that villain is the hero of their own story, an idea that has become corrupt over time.
It seems as though people think this means there is a kind of moral relativism in every story where the villain thinks they are doing a “good thing,” the only problem is that the villain’s morals just don’t happen to coincide with the protagonist’s sense of morality. You know, if we were reading the other book where the villain was switched to the protagonist, we would find they were perfectly reasonable and would read a fun and enjoyable story.
Nope. Wrong. Total BS.
Maleficent cursed a baby out of spite. There’s nothing heroic about that. There’s no world where that is a good and honorable choice. That’s why she’s a bad guy. In order to make a live-action Maleficent work, in order to make her a protagonist, Disney completely rewrote the story to justify the villain’s actions. She’s not the Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, she’s a brand new character who just happens to share the name.
Sauron wanted to commit genocide and rule over Middle-Earth. What did the hobbits ever do to him? Nothing. Literally, hobbits have been living in the Shire completely detached from the larger world until Gandalf started sticking his nose into things. And, when they came back after Sauron is defeated (in the books), nothing has changed. The Shire is untouched by the greater conflict.
Even if you think Thanos is making a moral decision to wipe out half of all life in the universe in order to promote sustainability, his brutal tactics are enough to show you that he’s not a hero at all. (Double the number of habitable planets? Dramatically increase the output of resources? You have the Infinity Gauntlet. You are basically God.)
I’m going to steer this rant in a more positive direction, though, and talk about how rare it is to have a character that does the right thing for seemingly no gain.
SPOILERS AHEAD PROBABLY
In Netflix’s The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia comes across a farmer who is in the woods trying to either bury or burn the bodies of a camp of Cintra refugees who were butchered by Nilfgaardians. The Witcher takes place in such a brutal setting that Geralt’s first assumption is that the farmer is grave-robbing.
Nope. He’s just trying to give the bodies a final resting place. Some kind of monster attacks, Geralt, who is designed to face such a creature, warns off the farmer and attacks. He’s bitten by one of the creatures and, even though the show is named after him and we’re *pretty* sure he’s going to make it, he’s left for dead in the woods. Cliffhanger. Binge that next episode, baby.
Of course, he isn’t dead and he wakes up in the back of…
Can you guess it? Come on, give it a shot.
Right. The farmer’s cart. Why?
Because the farmer is a good man.
I was watching 1998 Godzilla, you know. The one with Matthew Broderick. This point might come up again in a future episode of Anything Nice to Say, so shh…don’t tell anyone.
Broderick’s Dr. Nick Tatopoulos informs the military he thinks the creature laid eggs. Through a series of events, Nick is kicked out of the command center and is able to convince a ragtag group of highly trained French commandos…? Am I reading this right? Anyway, the French guys go off with him to find the eggs. I’m not really concerned about that for a moment.
The military keeps doing their thing, they kill Godzilla (at least, they think they do) and everyone who was evacuated from New York thinks they get to go home, but Dr. Elsie Chapman, played by Vicki Lewis, steps up to Colonel Hicks, played by Kevin Dunn, and says, even if Nick was thrown out in disgrace, they should still take his word for it and look for a nest.
Despite threats from the mayor, Hicks does not allow people back into the city and instead orders the coordination of search parties.
Two characters doing the right thing. Chapman has no authority here, but steps up anyway, and, despite pressure from higher authorities, Hicks listens to her and organizes a search.
The reason I talk about these characters is that the moral relativism read of “the villain is the hero of their own story” doesn’t take into account that almost all characters don’t do the right thing. I’ve heard one translation that no character sets out to be evil. There are plenty of evil people who exist in the real world. Why would fictional worlds be any different? And, we’re ignoring the fact that doing good is often times harder than just not doing anything. What’s the problem with grave robbing? They’re already dead.
It seems like there are fewer and fewer characters these days that do the right thing for its own sake. If we’re following the hero’s journey, he must stumble, fall, fail, make mistakes, have a dark night of the soul, do the wrong thing before figuring out what the right thing is. The hero doesn’t have the opportunity to be the good one all the time. He needs the good ones to remind him what it is to be good.
This isn’t the villain’s journey. Sure, you can write the villain however you aren’t, but was Hannibal Lector really hemming and hawing over whether or not helping Clarice is the right thing to do? Does he have moral qualms about wearing someone’s face? I guess you could say Buffalo Bill is the real villain, but…eh.
Many villains are not that complex.
And, they don’t need to be. Professor Moriarty is supposedly a complex criminal mastermind who can match wits with Sherlock Holmes. But, he’s not in every story. And, he’s not behind every crime.
Let’s be honest, most villains in most stories are just trying to accumulate power for some as yet unknown reason. They don’t follow a hero’s journey path to get there. Villains don’t meet the mentor, or cross a threshold. They create the thresholds and kill the mentors.
Here’s the thing: “every villain is the hero of his or her story” is poorly worded and doesn’t mean what it’s been twisted to mean. What it really means is that the villain has his or her own motivations and is as devoted to the outcome as the hero is. The villain deserves thought and consideration. You should think about why your villain does what he does.
You may think that’s no different, you make think that’s a subtle difference, or that may have completely changed your mind about writing villains.
Write the villain that fits. It can be a horrible unnamed evil that lurks in an unknown region on the cosmos. Or a dark entity that exists only as a flaming eye at the top of a tower. Or it can be a faceless clone in a white helmet that can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Or a interdimensional spider that feasts on the fears of children while he’s dressed up like a clown.
Let the people with the literary degrees decide what you meant by that.