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.