Fictional characters, like real life people, are the result of a combination of factors that end in a fleshed out, three-dimensional individual – the sum of their parts. While most every story is said to need an antagonist and protagonist, those two opposing forces aren’t always diametrically opposed. And, really, they shouldn’t be; that’d be all sorts of boring. If you look at some of the best tales, the heroes and villains aren’t simply paragons of good and evil; they have personalities, quirks and moral codes that might seem a bit skewed but still work for them.
In order to make conflict that feels real, you need the two sides to come across as relatable otherwise you risk writing blah personalities and no one wants to root for a boring hero or lovingly hate a cardboard cutout big bad; heroes need some darkness and villains need something redeeming to make them feel like an actual person.
The parts that you sprinkle in to add life to your babies don’t – and shouldn’t – be huge; go too far to the other side and you won’t have opposing sides anymore. So what can a writer do to make sure their heroes and villains don’t fall flat?
Big Hero 6 owned by Disney
In Disney’s genius take on the Marvel property Big Hero 6, young Hiro fights against the bad, bad man who blew up his big brother. But before he goes all stalwart and self sacrificy, he goes through the stages of grief even as they lead him down a dark path. So dark, in fact, that he attempts to up and murder the villain in a rather unheroic try for revenge. His almost-kill doesn’t make him a baddie but instead shows how even those who put it on the line can fight demons and temptation as they strive for justice.
Snow White: A Tale of Terror owned by Polygram Filmed Entertainment & Interscope Communications
As in pretty much very version of the timeless tale, the innocent princess is terrorized and almost murdered by her wicked stepmother in Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Where this version of the film differs from others in its depiction of Claudia (Sigourney Weaver) before and after she marks Snow for death; she doesn’t hate the girl because she’s young and pretty but because a life altering trauma sends her over the edge. Claudia is a sympathetic villain that make you root for her and that’s no easy feat.
Underworld owned by Lakeshore Entertainment
Underworld’s Selene is a brutal killer yet we root for her. She encapsulates the darkest parts of humanity yet is a hero to not only her people but movie audiences everywhere. Even before we find out the truth about her past and the ways her own father figure had betrayed her, we like her and want her to splatter as many supernatural brains as possible. Even when the good guy does what baddies do, we’re cool as long as the writer can convince us the anti-hero is in the right.
THE BORG QUEEN
Star Trek First Contact owned by Paramount
When the Borg invade earth’s history in Star Trek First Contact, audiences were introduced to a new aspect of the franchise’s version of horror icons, their queen. Unlike other members of the man/machine race, she had her individuality intact – or at least part of it – and knew how to manipulate others in her quest for perfection. As she uses her wiles to tempt Data to betray his captain, we begin to see the woman underneath, perhaps even the woman she was before her transformation, and feel the loss when all that remains of her is bits of metal and leather.
Black Butler owned by A-1 Pictures, Aniplex, Mainichi Broadcasting System (MBS), Yomiuri Telecasting Corporation (YTV)
Sebastian is a demon who gave a young boy a chance at revenge in exchange for his soul and travels around Europe brutally murdering others. And he’s a hero. A dark one but still, as the protector to Ciel, the Queen’s Watchdog, he finds himself spilling a lot of blood. Throughout the Japanese series, we see that, in his own strange way, the demon actually cares for the boy – who is just as bloodthirsty – and feels remorse when it comes time to collect his due.
Batman Returns owned by Warner Bros.
Can a thieving murderer ever be a hero? According to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the answer is YES. After her own murder at the hands of Max Shrek, the Donald Trumpish villain behind the power in Gotham City, the once meek secretary becomes the ultimate femme fatale. Buried beneath that thirst for vengeance is a heart that still yearns to be loved and cherished and, if she could’ve kept from taking her former boss’ life, could’ve become a reality. Sadly, as broken and lost as she was, she wasn’t able to cross that line into good guydom but that doesn’t change the fact that fans everywhere left that film longing for a Bruce/Selena reunion.
HEROS AND VILLAINS COME IN ALL FORMS
If there’s one takeaway from this it’s that you don’t need to keep your heroes and villains entirely on opposing sides. Good guys may fight baddies but their reasons aren’t always for the betterment of humankind and baddies don’t always wreck havoc because they revel in their evil ways. In fact, a villain shouldn’t often acknowledge their evil; it’s all a matter of perspective and they may even see the hero as the true big bad.
When creating your protags and antags, make sure to create fleshed out personalities and backgrounds to base their actions on. Don’t rely on the same old tired silliness that clogs up so many store shelves; look beyond what has been done time and again and try to redefine what a hero and villain can do. Your readers will thank you, even if they’re a little confused as to who they should be cheering on.
As always, I invite your thoughts and opinions.