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June, 2004 : Essay:

Villains and AntiHeroes

Because heroes and villains struggle against each other, we often think of them as opposites. This is not always the case, at least not in the more ambiguous depictions currently in favor on our television and movie screens. A special case is the antihero, who remains with us in various manifestations. The complex nature of his or her character makes the motivations of the antihero less obvious than that of a strictly delineated hero. So what makes an antihero? How is he or she different from a villain, and how do these archetypes reflect variations in human morality?

Traditionally, a hero is honest, upstanding, righteous, brave, and true. These days, such heroes exist only in comic books, where the worlds portrayed are black and white. Our world, however, is replete with gray. The antihero reflects the reality of our species. We are flawed and so are the true heroes amongst us. Although we may create idealized heroes in fiction, they often fail to resonate in our modern world. Perhaps this is why many of us prefer to identify with the antihero.

One familiar antihero is Han Solo from Star Wars, a selfish, crude profiteer; he certainly did not start out as a hero! Hercules, too, was not inherently altruistic, but only became a hero to prove himself so that he would be allowed back into Olympus. Blake from Blake's 7, a petty rabble-rouser running from justice (albeit corrupt justice), was originally interested only in saving his skin. Although these motivations do not negate the acts themselves, any in-depth examination will reveal some less-than-noble reasons for action.

Villains, of course, have motives that they believe to be as worthy as those of the protagonists, be they hero or antihero. To lose sight of that and, for instance, portray the alien "baddies" as mere bloodthirsty warmongers, does nothing to advance our understanding of what drives them. A villain can be bad through and through—the strongly motivated villain—yet the ambiguously motivated villain is more interesting. Consider Gollum, who is a villain due to the impact of the Ring upon his nature. He is torn between wanting acceptance back into the world whence he came and possession of the Ring; he was not born a villain. Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey can be viewed either as a villain or a victim of mental illness. The ambiguously motivated villain has extenuating circumstances. In a historical context, we could examine Pontius Pilate. He did not want to crucify Jesus but ended up doing so nevertheless. Is he an implicit villain because he was weak-willed and easily manipulated? His near-contemporary, King Herod, was a strongly motivated villain, yet he had reasons of self-preservation for his reign of terror.

Seldom do we human beings set out to be villains. On the contrary, most of us think of ourselves as more heroic than villainous. Sometimes heroes act in a manner that can be deemed villainous, committing assault, even murder. If the victim is perceived as a "baddie," the perpetrator is seen as a hero. It is only when the victim is innocent that the perpetrator is considered a villain.

Other characters force us to examine darker moral issues. Is euthanasia mercy or murder? What does it take to justify all-out war? Are soldiers who are "just following orders" exempt from making moral decisions? Spock would say that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Biologically speaking, that is true. Yet does it ring morally true?

What about villains who appear so deluded and megalomaniacal that few of us can muster up sympathy for them? The blacker the villain, the less the reader (or viewer) is told of his or her motivation. Sauron (Lord of the Rings), for example, is seen by some as an allegorical reference to Hitler. There is no real examination of his motives: he just wants to rule the world and does not care what it takes to achieve his goal. Strongly motivated villains tend to be vainglorious, monstrous egotists. Yet not all of them follow in that mold. Sociopaths are outwardly charming, yet inwardly devoid of moral reason. Some evidence suggests that even the worst sociopaths, like Hannibal Lecter, are made and not born. Fictional villains allow us to ponder the question of the extent to which someone's background forces him or her into a life role.

One convincing villain from literature is Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor (Parable of the Grand Inquisitor), a man who is prepared to burn Jesus at the stake, but instead banishes him into unrecognized exile, knowing that banishment will prevent the sacrificial propitiation and reconciliation with God. This character knows what he is doing and why he is doing it: Church doctrine must be upheld at all costs, even if it means suppressing the knowledge of Jesus' return to the world. The best literature parallels real life. This is more or less what the Church was doing during the Inquisition. Dostoevsky merely compacted several characters and several hundred years of history into one event.

One thing strongly motivated villains do not do is magically transform themselves into compelling heroes. The fact that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father does not provide motivation enough for the about-face at the end of the first Star Wars trilogy. Vader himself always knew that he was Luke's father. It is not plausible that evil of that magnitude would be redeemed so easily by a son's pleading and further confrontation with the good side of the Force. The about-face undermined the nature of Vader's character as established from the start, rendering him incoherent.

Luke Skywalker himself personifies the strongly motivated hero. Yet his path was set only when his family was murdered. Even the noblest hero acts at some level from the baser motives we associate with the antihero. Skywalker was motivated at his core by revenge. So too was Batman after his parents were killed by "baddies." Neo (The Matrix) acts out of self-interest after being shown a revelation of the reality of his world. Frodo (Lord of the Rings) was chosen as Ring-bearer and acted under threat of the destruction of his world. All of the above are strong motivations for action which, by extension, means that any one of us can be a hero given motivation strong enough.

Each type of hero and villain has a place justifying different themes within different types of tale. Archetypal heroes and villains have been with us since humankind first felt a need to explore and explain. They are most often used in moral parables, of which the cartoon or comic strip is merely a watered-down version. Mythology is populated by black and white characters depicting the forces that each god and goddess originally represented. Zeus, Astarte, Thor, Woden—all personified aspects of the world around us.

Only the sub-genre of originally human characters is subject to a legend-making process with suspect motives. Legend can easily turn villains into heroes or antiheroes. Consider Robin Hood, a thief who took from the rich only because the poor had nothing he wanted. He certainly didn't give away any of his illegitimate earnings! Rob Roy: thief and vagabond. Billy the Kid: murderer. Butch and Sundance: thieves and murderers. Caesar: demagogue and ruthless expansionist. Almost any character sanctified by legend is far removed from that person in reality. Conversely, those known to history as witches and evil-doers were often nothing more than midwives, practitioners of herbal lore, the old, the cranky, even unfortunates out of favor with their neighbors. Elves and genies, warlocks and gnomes are the residual manifestations of pagan pantheons.

We still need our heroes and heroines, in literature and on celluloid. And we still need our villains. Heroes are those who fight relentlessly against the coming of darkness as personified by the villain. Each hero and villain represents a central part of our nature and, as such, will always be with us, in us. Realistic characters, anti-heroes and complex, plausibly motivated villains, reflect the world around us, while pure, archetypal heroes and villains defy emulation. Each is to some extent ambiguous and becomes more so as we learn more about ourselves as a species. We will never truly understand the depths of the depravity to which a villain sinks or the heights of self-sacrifice reached by the most noble of heroes. It is not right that we should. We constructed these archetypes for a reason that is as valid now as it was when we first devised our mythologies. Both types of character, however, have the capacity to help us understand who we really are.


Copyright © 2004, Lisa Agnew. All Rights Reserved.

About Lisa Agnew

Lisa Agnew is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction based in Auckland, New Zealand, where she has lived for well over thirty years. She has just released a new book - The Overman's Folly - the story of a time-travel experiment spanning several generations. Visit her website at www.writingrealm.com

COMMENTS!

Jun 21, 17:33 by John Frost
Thoughts on heroism, or its antithesis.
Jun 22, 05:14 by Greg Lindenberg
Two words: Harry Flashman!
Jun 22, 05:15 by Greg Lindenberg
“One thing strongly motivated villains do not do is magically transform themselves into compelling heroes. The fact that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father does not provide motivation enough for the about-face at the end of the first Star Wars trilogy. Vader himself always knew that he was Luke's father. It is not plausible that evil of that magnitude would be redeemed so easily by a son's pleading and further confrontation with the good side of the Force. The about-face undermined the nature of Vader's character as established from the start, rendering him incoherent.”

I think this overlooks the fact that the struggle was going on in Vader all along and Luke’s words/actions pushed Vader across the right finish line.

gl
Jun 22, 06:47 by Greg Lindenberg
...and it was not Luke's words and actions that made Vader change as much as it was the fact that his superior, the Emperor, was KILLING his son.

gl
Jun 22, 08:45 by Lavie Tidhar
Did you say Harry Flashman?
Without a doubt the best anti-hero in the galaxy. (and he makes a cameo appearance in Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron, too!)
Jun 22, 11:56 by David Gardner
I think this overlooks the fact that the struggle was going on in Vader all along and Luke’s words/actions pushed Vader across the right finish line.

Possibly, but I think this overlooks that there's precious little foreshadowing for Vader's turnabout, and virtually all of it is it RotJ itself, leaving the audience with the feeling that Vader has done a complete turnaround in a very short time frame.

David
Jun 22, 12:15 by Bluejack
Flashman does, indeed, rock. One of the things that makes him such a perfect anti-hero is that he's not actually quite as bad as he believes himself to be -- a nihilist with a heart of gold... or, well, maybe silver. Bright shiny copper?
Jun 23, 08:19 by Lavie Tidhar
Interesting article, couple of points that came to me on reading it though:

"In a historical context, we could examine Pontius Pilate. He did not want to crucify Jesus but ended up doing so nevertheless."

Historical context? Since when has there been any kind of historical evidence to the fable of Christ?

"Mythology is populated by black and white characters depicting the forces that each god and goddess originally represented. Zeus, Astarte, Thor, Woden—all personified aspects of the world around us."

Again, I have to disagree. In Greek mythology, for instance, the gods are full of flawed human characteristics, especially Zeus, who is womanising, lazy, tends to uncontrollable rages and yet, on occasion, generous, kind and even majestic. In relation to SF, Roger Zelazny was probably the best writer to use mythologies in his work, and they are interesting precisely because none of the gods (or pseudo-gods, as in Lord of Light) are simple black and white characters.

I think generally - and I hope someone disagrees with me(!) - crime fiction has been a lot more interesting in terms of examining the role of the anti-hero. Although the recent success of private eye SF novels might form an example of genre-feedback. Or something. :-)
Jun 23, 14:38 by Bluejack
"In a historical context, we could examine Pontius Pilate. He did not want to crucify Jesus but ended up doing so nevertheless."

Historical context? Since when has there been any kind of historical evidence to the fable of Christ?


Actually, there's considerable historical evidence, particularly for his interactions with Roman administrators. We know that Pontius Pilate was the administrator of Rome during the reign of Tiberius from archaeological inscriptions, as well as the historians Tacitus and Josephus, who both mention Pilate's execution of Jesus. They don't go into the psychology of the moment, or the complex interactions between Pilate, the Jewish priesthood, or the character of Jesus himself, so are free to scoff at that, although personally, I find the dilemma that the New Testament Jesus forced onto Pilate to be a particularly fascinating, and rather convincing quandary.
Jun 24, 04:37 by Lavie Tidhar
bluejack, are you talking about that one paragraph in the Testimonium Flavianum? controversial...

the point is, the new testament books all date from a considerable time after Jesus. There are no real surviving records, Roman or Jewish, to support the story. using the term "in a historical context" is misleading. of course, I'm not going to argue about it being a great story.
Jun 24, 07:23 by Bluejack
Well, the phrase "historical context" is not particularly central to Agnew's point, I think.

Your dismissal of any historical evidence to the "fable of Christ" suggested to me that you were one of those who argue that there was no Christ, that the whole business is a manufactured fiction. I think there is ample evidence that there was a Jesus, that he inspired followers, that he was executed. Now, exactly how that happened is described only in the documents collected into the New Testament (and a few other, considerably less reputable documents). So if you are saying that there is no reliable, independant historical record of the particulars of what happened, I agree.

(Finally, of course, what the books in the new testament actually mean is more debatable still, and many intelligent readers come to wildly different conclusions.)
Jun 28, 11:47 by Adrian Simmons
Getting back to the Darth Vadar for a moment. You know, the Emperor also had to know that Luke was Vadar's son. I mean, how many Skywalkers are there in the galaxy? There is also more forshadowing than Number6 may believe. For example, in ESB, it is Vadar who comes up with idea that Luke could be 'turned' (as opposed to destroyed, which I believe is the Emperor's solution). Plus, in ESB, Vadar uses all his tricks to get Luke to join him instead of destroying him (I especially like the argument that together they can defeat the emporer... a ruse or a long held hope?).

Of course, no discussion of Star Wars would be complete with out mentioning that Luke was one bad mutha (as the kid's today would say). And how did he get that way? Two words my friends: Uncle Owen.

Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
Jun 29, 05:57 by David Kawalec
For example, in ESB, it is Vadar who comes up with idea that Luke could be 'turned' (as opposed to destroyed, which I believe is the Emperor's solution). Plus, in ESB, Vadar uses all his tricks to get Luke to join him instead of destroying him (I especially like the argument that together they can defeat the emporer... a ruse or a long held hope?).


Vader was a Sith. There can be only two Sith. The only way to move up the corporate ladder is to kill the boss. Is this compassion or PURE EEEEVIL?

I think in a lot of ways, Lucas was just making the whole thing up as he went along. Despite the fact that Star Wars is "Episode IV", the five completed films don't seem to hang together very well as one whole story. Perhaps Episode III will have enough plot-shims to make it all nice and pretty.
Jul 2, 08:58 by Adrian Simmons
You know who one of my favorite villians is? Clarence Boddiker from the original ROBOCOP movie. Played amazingly by Kurtwood Smith, Boddiker is a unique villian. Most of the movie bad guys I was familiar with usually relied on straight violence or fury or overt bad-assedness. Boddiker was intimidating because he was so incredibly confident, a real proffessional. And heartless (I still expect Kurtwood Smith's 'Red' character from THAT 70s SHOW to kneecap one of those kids).

The other thing about this character is that since RoboCop can't really express much emotion (although Peter Weller still does a good job of it), he has to balance it out. And he does a great job of it.
Jul 2, 12:14 by Anonymous
Gary Sinese has some amusing villains along the way. Alan Richman does a nice villain now and then. But so much of it is style and clever one liners rather than interesting character motivations.

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