Stories: Anatomy of a Fiction Hero, Part 2

In part one I gave a few examples of different types of heroes and how they play out on screen (or on the pages). But what makes a good hero, or for that matter a good villain?

Some villains are great at making us grind our teeth every moment they’re on screen (Dolores Umbridge). When they do something sinister with that grin on their face we think “God I hate them!”

Or sometimes they just command so much authority with their will — crushing with style — that we can’t help but like them (Tywin Lannister). These are the kind of villains that tend to stick around on TV shows, and they’re sometimes as likeable as the protagonist. Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk, season one’s villain, is equally fleshed out as Matt Murdock. Brilliantly played by Vincent D’Onofrio, Fisk displays both a compassionate side and one of unhinged fury.

What the show does well is illustrate that both men are actually after the same thing: saving Hell’s Kitchen. Fisk may be even more ruthless than Murdock, but both of them have a daytime persona and a very different evening hobby. Both of them use violence to get what they’re after, but Murdock believes that a controlled use of force improves upon the current system, fixing what falls between the legal cracks. Fisk believes that saving everyone requires burning the current system to the ground, that only in rebirth can the city be saved.

The Krogans in the Mass Effect series have a saying which is essentially “Your worthiness is judged on the strength of your enemies.” Great heroes require powerful foes — Superman fighting an average Joe isn’t very interesting, after all.

The Villain’s Role

A Reddit discussion on what makes a good villain raised some good points, notably that the villain needs to complement the hero by being different in the right ways. One poster gives a great example that the Joker was a good nemesis for Batman because his wild, humorous nature works well with Batman’s very serious demeanor. The Joker would not have worked well with a smooth talking rogue-like hero like Captain Jack Sparrow because they’re too similar. It wouldn’t create the right kind of tension.

The villain needs to challenge the hero without overpowering the story. If the villain is powerful enough, a lot of the hero’s character growth is probably a direct cause of the influence.

The Hero’s Distinction

I want to revisit the concept of the balancing act from part one because it raises some interesting questions. Obviously stock heroes are as boring as stock villains; the hero can’t be “too good” or they won’t be believable. But they can’t be too bad either. Even antiheroes like Riddick have a soft side that shows through, and really, though he kills a lot of people it’s more to escape mercenaries hunting him than killing in a psychotic serial killer fashion.

In books and shows I often find interpersonal behavior more telling than violence about a character’s compassion (or lack of). A bad guy can gun someone down whimsically and that’s explained away by his being ruthless and cold. A hero can do that too if it’s set up right, as long as we have a reason to buy it. So violence in itself isn’t necessarily an indicator of a bad hero.

A hero with no personal relationships can be explained away with a loner-style cliche. But what if the hero deals with people all the time but has no close relationships? What if the hero uses people and throws them away, making no apologies for betraying the few people that believe in him or her? Sometimes a lack of empathy or humanity is more powerful than violence. Beat someone for information? Ruthless, but potentially justifiable. Watch someone in agony over a terrible incident where a pet/family member/loved one dies horrifically and smirk at their pain? Maybe a glib and heartless remark at their expense? Now that’s a real asshole. Think Dolores Umbridge again in Harry Potter. No physical violence, but villain extraordinaire.

Sometimes this works for protagonists, and sometimes less so. Why is that?

Our First Impressions and Expectations

I think a lot of it comes down to what we’re presented with up front. Just like meeting someone in person, we gather impressions about the character from the first things we see them do. This is why the beginning of any story is important; the way we’re presented with the hero matters. If she starts out looking like a good person and becomes a real bitch later, we may feel betrayed by the change and not want to follow her anymore. If the story hinges on us admining for her, the story is dead.

In shows like Damages, Glenn Close’s character (Patty Hewes) is pretty ruthless and uncompromising right off the bat. As we continue to see examples of that behavior it doesn’t strike us as weird, and we can get behind her because it’s entertaining to watch her outwit people and win even if she’s not a nice person. We can be attracted to her strength.

Damages seems like a good comparison with Scandal (which we talked about in part one). Both stories are about a firm run by a strong woman where they go up against powerful and terrible adversaries. But where Hewes seems devious from the beginning, Olivia Pope is cast as a white knight of justice that helps people in ways no one else can. A heroic fixer, if you will. When Olivia becomes more and more ruthless, uses people and shuts out her friends, it made me lose interest in her character a bit. She’s still less cold than Hewes, but we knew what we were getting with Hewes.

Aside letting us down morally, the other issue with Olivia Pope is that she’s overly strong when she doesn’t need to be and a pushover when she needs that strength. The way she lets people treat her, for example, is frustrating to say the least. I’ll be as vague as I can and still make a relevant point so as not to spoil anything for those that haven’t seen it. She tells a lover they’re over repeatedly, which he ignores regardless of how badly it screws up her life. Her pleas are ignored, she’s treated like an object, and the lover abuses his power many times to strong arm her into whatever he wants — basically debasing himself into a royal jackass — and she goes for it.

Look at Glenn Close’s character and you could never see that happening. Again, we respect her strength. You can either lead by inspiring or lead by strength, and after awhile Olivia has neither.

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