Heroes and Villains: The Hero
Heroes and villains. The good guy and the bad guy. The protagonist and the antagonist; characters whose stories are bound together until the very end. In this series of essays, we’re going to be looking at how to make interesting heroes and villains. For this first essay, we’re starting with heroes.
Heroes. The good one, the knight in shining armour, the paragon of virtue. These types of heroes are quite boring. They’re predictable because you know that they can do no wrong. If Lex Luthor drops a basket of kittens into a furnace, you know that Superman is going to fly down there and save them. Even if it means Lex gets away and blows up a half a city. That level of predictability, for me anyway, gets dull very quickly. I don’t like to know what a character is going to do before they do. So, what can you do to stop that?
You have your dark heroes and they’re a good place to start, but they’re just generally a hero with a flaw or two. Your police office with a drug problem who does things that are bit sketchy or your vigilante type person. They’re alright but I quite like to go one step further and I’d recommend you give it a try. Give your heroes that streak of evil that makes them completely unpredictable. It also makes them a lot more fun to write, in my opinion.
When your hero has that darkness in them the reader is left with a real sense of “what will they do next?” It’ll keep them on the edge of their seat and keep them reading. If you do it well, anyway. One great example of this is Dexter from the series by Jeff Lindsay. He works for the police by day and is a serial killer by night. What makes him an interesting chap is that his daytime activities are helping to catch criminals. As are his night-time activities, albeit slightly differently. All of his actions, ultimately, he takes to make the city of Miami a safer place. He picks criminals who have either cheated the system or have escaped the law for whatever reasons, and kills them. Is he right to do so? I don’t know and that’s not for me to decide. But his end goal—make Miami safer—is a good one. It’s a hero’s mission.
Another great example of a hero with a dark twist is Satan from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. The poem centres around the dawn of biblical man and their eventual expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Lucifer plays quite a major role in that; convincing Eve to eat from the Tree. This act was borne out of an almost childlike jealousy. “Daddy likes the new baby more than me so I’m going to show Him why they’re not as good as He thinks they are.” I am paraphrasing here, obviously. But Satan’s actions before that, his rebellion against God is where I think the hero elements come through. He fought against God’s subjugation of angels. To free himself, and the others, from God’s almost tyrannical control over his brethren. He argues that it was all an attempt to explain the hypocrisy of God and for him, and other angels, to get the respect and acknowledgment that he felt they deserved. Is he right? I don’t know.
That is what I love most about these types of heroes, however. The questions that you end up asking yourself when reading. Is Dexter right to go around killing evil people? Is Satan right for trying to free himself from someone he saw as a dictator? I have my own personal feelings on these issues and I’m sure you will too. They may be the same or they may differ. But the characters are memorable. You will put the book down and, hopefully, think about the moral dilemma it raised for some time to come. You don’t just stop reading and move onto the next one. The characters and the story stay with you.
How do you make a character that memorable? There are two things that you need to make sure that you have to make sure are spot on: motive and backstory.
A hero who is doing really evil things because they are evil, fun or because they feel like it, is a villain. If they’re committing evil, it has to be for the greater good. Even if that is just their personal greater good in the context of the story. The unemployed person who screws over a bunch of people so they can get the job they need to feed their family, for instance. The end goal or the reason that your characters are doing certain things have to be good. The crime also has to fit the payoff, too. Your hero can’t justify blowing up an orphanage for the sake of getting their romantic interest to notice them. You could argue that it’s justified it if it meant saving an entire city from that fate, however. Dexter’s motivation, admittedly, is a bit sketchy—he’s a killer with a compulsion to kill because he enjoys it—but he channels that into ridding society of some criminals. So it works.
You have to be able to explain their actions through a character’s backstory. You should be doing this anyway to make likeable or relatable protagonists but it’s so much more important if you’re making your hero a touch evil. The reader has to feel for the position that the hero is in. They have to understand why they’re taking those actions and making those choices. If you just drop the reader into it with no rhyme or reason as to why, they’re going to hate your character. Which means they won’t keep reading or they won’t read the next one. Much like motive, the backstory has to be proportional to the evil. Someone who was abused as a child is going around killing child abusers, I’m on their side. Someone who failed an exam is going around killing child abusers, I’m still on their side in theory, but I don’t understand why and I’d be inclined to say that they are just a murderer.
It’s certainly not an easy thing to create a hero that commits acts of evil yet still retain that hero status. You need to make sure that you have right balance of backstory, motive and character so that your hero is likeable, relatable and understandable. Keep practicing; keep going until you get it right. It really is worth it in the end.
Next: The Villain
© 2016 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.