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Heroes and Villains

Heroes and villains–they’re of course at opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of characters, but they share more than might be obvious at first glance, and if you’re in the business of writing fiction and creating such characters, it can be useful to think about those things.

Of course, the principal element that heroes and villains have in common is their function in terms of the story: it is their interaction which determines the main action of the plot. At its most basic, it is either that the hero is being specifically targeted by the villain, or the villain has general nefarious plots which the hero sets out to foil.

But a common function in the plot isn’t the only thing these two extreme types of characters share. They are leaders, not followers, and they also share high doses of intelligence, imagination and determination, all of which are neutral qualities to be used for either good or bad. (I’m talking here about major, central heroic or villainous figures, not the minor characters, good and bad, who line up behind them). And I also think of heroes and villains as blowing hot or cold. What I mean by that is that I think major heroes and villains can be each basically divided into two broad sub-categories, Type Hot and Type Cold. Of course these are only very broad generalisations; traits will often bleed into each other. But basically:

*Type Hot Hero: impulsive, brave, sometimes foolhardy, generous, often impatient, gregarious or solitary, prone to wild temper, pride and defiance but also with a basic sweetness to them: a good character who struggles to be good, it doesn’t come easily. They are often immediately or soon attractive to other good characters, as they have a certain charisma. Can be momentarily tempted out of a hero’s trajectory by a clever villain of either type, playing on their impulsiveness;

*Type Cold, or more attractively, Cool, Hero: reserved, thoughtful, often solitary, self-controlled, ironic, stoical, brave, but without the impulsiveness of the ‘hot’ type.  Or else, much less commonly, they can be sweet, dependable, kind, apparently accepting but inwardly resisting. This type of hero often emerges unexpectedly and has less outward charisma than the ‘hot’ type. A ‘cool’ type hero is a good character whose inner integrity really grounds them, they are less easily tempted, but the results when they are tend to be worse than for the ‘hot’ type.

*Type Hot Villain: impulsive, reckless, ruthless, violent, arrogant (the extreme end of pride), physically intimidatory, often bullying, yet calculating. A fearsome opponent, but out in the open: the wolf in wolf’s clothing, if you like. This sort of villain is not to be thought of as stupid: real villains are always intelligent, in books, unless they are minor villains of the henchman type. They often attract hordes of followers as they have a certain violent, dark charisma. Usually defeated by clever heroes of the ‘cool’ type, or less often, the ‘hot’ sort who have learned self-control.

*Type Cold Villain: self-controlled, calculating, deceitful, manipulative, ironic, cruel, ruthless. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing: for my money, the most frightening enemy. They are highly intelligent and imaginative and often emerge unexpectedly, and though they often have fanatically devoted followers, they generally do not have obvious charisma. But a villain of the ‘cold’ type can sometimes masquerade behind the mask of an apparently warm and charismatic heroic type—and this can be one of the worst of all!

So, there’s quite a bit in common in terms of those hot and cold qualities, for a different emphasis on say, anger or pride, can lead to very different results depending on whether the character is hero or villain. But of course there’s two very big differences: and that is self-centredness and the will to power. Both of these things are the absolute essence of true major villains, but are absent from true, major heroes. It does not mean that heroes don’t sometimes act selfishly or foolishly, or that villains aren’t capable of being brave or even merciful (when it suits them!). It doesn’t mean either that heroes don’t know how to exercise power or that villains are always obviously powerful. What it means is, simply, that villains seek power for its own sake and to exercise it over others and their actions are motivated by their own interests. Contrary-wise, as Lewis Carroll would say, heroes do not seek power for themselves, but for the good of others(and often walk away from it or reject at the end, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, for instance). And their actions are motivated not only in the cause of defending themselves, but also, and crucially, defending others, often at the risk of their lives.

That’s why I think it’s so difficult to write a really good and satisfying novel based on the villain’s point of view, though of course it has been done, and successfully too, by a few people. The main problem with seeing it from a villain’s point of view is that fundamentally a real villain is not interested in other people except as pawns or obstacles, even when they are observant and understand of others’ motives. If the villain is perceptive and has a sense of humour, it can work, but the villain’s point of view runs the risk of being chillingly detached and thus not engaging to readers. Mind you, I think the too-good hero is also a turn-off to readers and that sort rarely features as a point of view narrator; much more engaging is the kind who you feel could be tempted, and who struggles with their calling. The flawed, reluctant hero may be common in literature, but that’s because he or she resonates strongly with readers, expressing deep human longings and hopes.

About Sophie Masson [1]

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson [2] is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.