It’s often been said that what people look for in entertainment is a response to the reality of their lives. When times are good, there’s a greater thirst for stories that provoke thought and challenge. When times are rough, people look to entertainment as an escape.
There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world at the moment. There’s political divides (Trump’s presidency, Brexit), religious conflict, and social unrest. As the world grows smaller with technology, it seems to splinter into an increasing number of factions as people search for belonging.
Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular at the moment. Maybe this is one of those moments when many people want to watch films and read books in order to forget the problems in their daily lives.
But we still desire well-told stories. As much as we want to see things in black-and-white, and dive into stories of good-vs-evil (where we know, from the outset, that good will triumph), we still require some kind of realism—and this is especially true of our villains. The moustache-twirling baddie, the pure-evil adversary, the antagonist who simply wants to take over or blow up the world—these seem passe, or one-dimensional. They might be watchable for a while, but they have no real substance. In a shallow comedy a villain like this could work, but not in anything more serious.
Think of some of the great villains in stories, and there will be something that draws us to them, something that holds our interest, something we can relate to. They’re not cardboard-cutouts, but real, rounded characters. Yes, they want to harm others, or take what isn’t theirs, or stand in the way of progress—but they have their reasons. They are driven by understandable motivations, even though we can see that their reasoning is flawed.
There’s a phrase that springs to mind here—everyone is the hero of their own story.
I can recall watching the Michael Douglas film Falling Down when it first came out on video (yes, I’m old enough to remember video tapes). There’s a brilliant moment at the end, when Douglas’ character, D-Fens, is facing the police officer, a gun trained on him. His brow furrows, and he says, disbelievingly, “I’m the bad guy?”
It’s a fantastic moment, because we’ve been following D-Fens throughout the film. We’ve seen and understood his frustrations, and even as his actions have become worse his justifications still make some kind of sense. We’ve travelled with him, and even though he’s not an easy character to warm to, we’re still on his side. We believe that things will turn out for the best, that he’ll somehow redeem himself—until this confrontation. This is when it all comes home. D-Fens is the villain, even though he couldn’t see it for himself.
The best villains are driven by deep, relatable motivations, even when their actions are unacceptable. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When John McLane’s wife calls him ‘nothing but a common thief’, his controlled expression slips for a moment. He rounds on her, stating that he is ‘an exceptional thief’.
In this, his actions become more understandable. He’s not driven simply to steal, but to steal in style. Criminality (or robbery) might be his career of choice, but he wants to be the best at it. He’s like Rocky, pushing to become the best he can be. He’s like so many artists, fighting to produce their best possible work. He’s like doctors who strive to learn more, or lawyers who want to be well-respected for their work. His drive could be something to admire, had his sphere of work not been so anti-social.
Seeing what drives a character, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instantly makes that character more interesting—and also helps propel the story on. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through the Dune books, and I’m finding it fascinating how Herbert lets the reader in on so much of what his characters are thinking. We know the plots everyone is forming, and we know many of their secrets—and there is justification for all of them. At times, Herbert is able to blur the line between ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’—the characters are all simply trying to make their way through tricky situations, with an aim to survive at the end.
George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books do this, too. His narrative follows so many characters, and there is a constantly shifting tableau of conflicts and alignments. An ally can become an enemy, and an enemy can become an ally. Some characters might be ‘purer of heart’ than others, but all are real, dealing with internal conflicts, and simply doing whatever they feel they must do.
So we have stories with clear villains whose motivations we can understand, and stories where a cast of characters have shifting alliances. But there are also stories where the ‘villain’ is the protagonist. Think of Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone. We find many of their actions despicable, but because we get to know their inner turmoils, and because we get to understand why they do what they do, we become invested in their struggles. These are both men doing what they feel is necessary to protect and provide for their families, and that in itself is an honourable thing, even if we recoil at their methods. And there is a depth to both characters that makes us believe they could change. Tony Soprano has his doubts, and there’s that glimmer of hope that he might somehow redeem himself. Michael Corleone’s arc is a downward slope, but because we saw his good side at the start of the story, we have to believe that it is possible for him to rise up again.
There is a flip-side of this, too—heroes don’t always do good things. In Die Hard, Sgt Powell tells John McClane that he shot a child some years ago. In The Lord Of The Rings, Boromir can’t resist the urge to own the ring—and at the end Frodo is unable to relinquish the ring. But this is good storytelling, because perfect heroes are boring to watch. We’re drawn to a character like House not only because of his brilliant mind, but also because he’s such a flawed character.
I could give more examples, but this should be enough. Heroes don’t always do the right thing, and villains have strong motivations behind their actions. Hero and villain are labels we apply to characters to help us understand the story—but the roles can change, depending on our own perception of the actions. Ultimately, everyone is the hero of their own story.
And that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction.