Friday, March 12, 2010

Heroes and Villains

LOL cat.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. And it does have something to do with this post, which is about characterisation.

Over at Mad Genius Club they were talking about Evil Overlords. How can we understand them? How can we write them in a believable way. Hence Darth Kitty, here.

I came across an interesting article on Scientific Blogging (I know that is like admitting I read New Scientist for fun. Which I do). Andrea Kuszewkei blogged about the link between the sociopathic personality and the extreme altruistic personality. Addicted to being Good?

She says, 'Personality has consistently shown to be extremely heritable. However, the same genetic material arranged and weighted in a slightly different way, may at times express as vastly different phenotypes: the "extremely good" and the "extremely bad" individual. How is this possible?'

A sociopath is willing to break rules. But then so is an extremely altruistic person. They are convinced they are right, or must do the right thing, even if it is against the rules.

As a writer I found this really interesting. I can see how tendencies pushed a little too far one way do become obsessions. Mal in Firefly said 'A hero is some guy who got a lot of people killed.' (That's quoted off the top of my head). He was talking about war, but it does make you wonder. What convinces someone that they are right, so right that they can send other people to their deaths? Bonaparte marched into Russia with 500,000 men and between the fighting and cold he returned with 20,000. How could a normal person live with that?

As a writer of fantasy books I often create 'hero' characters. To help me with this, I researched great military leaders (Bonaparte included). Iwanted to understand why people followed them and I came to the conclusion that most people are followers.

My favourite hero would have to be Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorksigan. My favourite character in Terry Pratchett's books would have to be Vimes. Neither of them are villains. Conversely, have you read any really believable villains or heroes?


Rhonda Roberts said...

Yes Rowena I agree - I find characters who are completely good or bad just too damned predictable.

I like the main character's faults to be nice and juicy - either up front from the start or revealed ever so slowly.

I know everyone but me hates the film Unbreakable but I absolutely loved both the hero and the villain.

The superhero was clinically depressed and the villain was a terribly tragic figure who was impossible to hate even though he killed train loads of people. Now I think that kind of moral ambiguity makes a good story!


Rhonda Roberts said...

Just to clarify what I'm describing as morally ambiguous...

In my reading of Unbreakable the tragic villain commits mayhem in an attempt to force the hero to 'rise', to take his rightful place as a superhero. So the intention is 'good' but the act itself is 'bad.

(I know there are other ways to interpret the film but I just love Samuel Jackson and refuse to believe he can be all bad!)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi Rhonda,


I remember that film because it was so interesting. The ambiguity of the characters was intriguing, although I don't know if the film worked on all levels. It is a while since I saw it.

I thought the characters in Firefly were well rounded. You start out thinking they are standard characters and, gradually, more layers are revealed.

Rhonda Roberts said...

Hi Rowena

Yeah I liked the first two thirds of Unbreakable but the ending was a real let down. And some of the best stuff was deleted too. Pity!

I agree Joss Whedon has a good touch with humanising his 'heroes' doesn't he.


Thoraiya said...

Rhonda, I think Unbreakable is M Night Shyamalan's best film, it blew me away with its intelligence and cunning. And for the reason that we're talking about here...the line between hero and villain being so fragile.

Interesting about Napoleon. In "Crime and Punishment", the protagonist, Raskolnikov, thinks a LOT about Napoleon and the difference between being ordinary and being great.

He decides that the difference is Napoleon's ability to take life, if necessary, in order to achieve greatness, and so he goes ahead and kills an old lady to get her money and drag himself out of poverty - he thinks that if not for poverty, he could be great like Napoleon.

Great, great book.

My other favourite villains are Darth Vader (is it cheesy to believe there's good in everyone, just like Luke says?), Baron Harkonnen, Gaston from Beauty and the Beast ("and every last inch of me's covered with hair!"), the Phantom from Phantom of the Opera, and Lestat from Interview With a Vampire.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'd forgotten that line -- 'Every last inch of me is covered in hair!'

Thanks for reminding me.