Useless Heroes, Successful Villains [The Overthinkery Reclamation Project]

This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on November 13th, 2013. (This is quite a long time after yesterday’s ‘reclaimed’ post, you might notice. Having read a lot of the stuff in between, I am dismayed at how short, and how angry, my writings used to be! We’re getting to some more worthwhile stuff, though, I hope.)

Following on from yesterday’s post about how villains are often more interesting than heroes, I saw something today which made me think I perhaps ought to revisit this, since I have a self-imposed article a day target and little else to say. So here is a follow-up thought to all that:

A hero without a villain is useless.

A villain without a hero is successful.

This is a pretty interesting point. How many times have you seen the villain of a piece accuse the hero of ‘getting in [their] way’? It’s probably quite a lot, and it almost never happens the other way around: if you see a protagonist telling someone to get out of their way, they’re probably starting down the path to type-1 anti-hero.

The job, or role, of a hero in a lot of fiction is codified by the threat they face. In fact, if it weren’t for said threat the hero would likely never have become a hero (or realised their heroic potential) and instead have sat at home playing Skyrim or something. The villain, meanwhile, tends to be someone who has a plan to carry out independently of any opposing force: rarely does a villain emerge in response to a hero. Although this does happen in comics with long-running and established forces of justice, it would be a lot harder to make the concept work in film or literature, in which the audience generally tends to follow the hero’s progression from nobody to saviour of the world.

Think of it this way: Dr Evil starts his plan to destroy the world. In response to this, Sir Excellent begins his hero’s quest in order to prevent the destruction of the world. This would be a lot harder to make happen the other way around: Sir Excellent declares that he will protect the world from destruction (despite it not being under threat), in response to which Dr Evil decides to challenge him on that. With a bit of formula-twisting it is of course entirely possible to make a story with a similar sort of situation, but you can see why this hero-as-reaction trope is the standard.

That’s not to say that the aforementioned formula-twisting is a bad thing. Since we all know what the standard straight-play order of things is, it’s often a lot more interesting when we do come across something which subverts it. Plenty of tales now cast the villain in the role of protagonist or find some other interesting way to challenge the norm, and there’s always at least a level of interest that arises purely out of that difference from the accepted standard.

The point of all of this, then, is… well, I don’t know. Make your own minds up.


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