Lexy’s Writing Log #4 – A Pet Peeve: On Heros, Villains and Realism

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So, as it has been a while, I rewatched the original Thor movie to refresh my memory of how the villain Loki was developed. As I expected, it pegged my pet-peeve-rageometer because his story is often how villains are made these days. And the fact that the antagonist must always be a villain in movies. (An antagonist is only an opponent, not necessarily a BAD person.)

All stories teach something. All of them. True stories. Fictional stories. Myths. Legends. All of them. What sets humans above most animals is they do not need to have genetic preprogramming, they do not always need to learn by doing. They can learn by example and through stories of others’ experiences. But just because stories teach something, does not mean they are teaching something good.

Aesop’s Fables were outright teaching tales, ending with stating the lesson that was supposed to be learned. Fairy tales are more subtle, and many would argue they are teaching bad things. However, if one accepts that fairy tales were written LONG, long ago when societal norms were much different, and actually state that those norms are not today’s standards, it’d be better. And then there are the story constructions of today that every mega-studio will absolve themselves of fault in their portrayals of society and people, the faults of which I could write multiple books about.

Which I’m not. There are many others much more passionate about many of those faults than I am. My passion is today’s heroes and villains. The “white hats” and the “black hats” were terms coined during the height of black and white cowboy films. Through color coding, we knew from the outset who the hero and the villain was by the color hat they wore. (FYI, I’m ignoring the gender bias in this post.) The “white hat”, the hero, was always a stand up, noble, good man. Generally, perfection in cowboy boots. The “black hat”, the villain, was the sneaky, criminal, bad man.

The villain would lie, cheat, steal, kidnap, kill on a whim, etc, but generally for no reason but for greed. The good guy would work to stop him more because that was what good guys did. It was usually his job, so he did not need the corollary instigation of threat to his immediate family or revenge for something that happened to his immediate family or friends or even himself. We might have liked the villain because he was portrayed well or was entertaining, but we knew we should not want to be him. Because being the bad guy is bad, and if you didn’t want to be a bad guy, you didn’t do those things.

Because stories used to be short and simple, characters were naturally two-dimensional and perfectly suited to their roles in the stories. Somewhere along the line, though, we wanted to know more about the characters. I am not sure if it started with a storyteller giving us more and we-the-audience suddenly hungering for more, or we just got tired of the same-old, same-old. Either way, we wanted more details. But when the details didn’t resonate with us, we called it unrealistic.

Thus, the birth of the realism-in-fiction movement. (Special effects becoming more important than story in film: another rant, another day.)

So, the good guy who is good because being good is what a person is supposed to be now needs flaws. In fact, some get so many flaws, they are antiheros. (Riddick, I’m looking at you.) They are often callous, misogynistic, or just generally an asshole to everyone. One is never quite sure their motivation for doing the right thing. Usually revenge or something that falls along the lines of the lesser of two evils. They are not nice by any stretch of the imagination, but because we are still raised to see the protagonist as someone to admire, we look at bullying jerks as good guys.

The bad guys, however, that’s a different story. Instead of a bad guy who is bad because that’s the way they are now needs a justifiable reason to be bad. But instead of having it being someone who wasn’t nice from the start going too far for twisted reasons, we have someone whose reasons we not only understand, but we sympathize with. We identify with them. And while in our heads we know they are the villain, in our hearts, we just see them as flawed and someone who can come back, or that they are perfectly justified in their reasoning.

Darth Vader started out as a simple evil menace. Then we learned he was Luke’s father. And then Luke fought to redeem him. The prequels were an attempt to show the reasons that led Anakin to become a father and the second most evil being in the galaxy. Notice that Luke and Leia were conceived in a consenting, loving relationship and not out of rape. That would have added a wrinkle that would be too complex to deal with even with six movies, and utterly ruined the ‘okay for kids’ rating for the franchise.

Khan Noonien Singh of Star Trek lore was a complex evil menace from the first episode. His history in the original series episode was that of a criminal. He remained a criminal. His motivations did not change except he was hellbent on revenge during Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn. He was a good villain. I loved how he was portrayed, but I hated him as well.

Along comes the Abrams reboot and Kahn is a better man than Kirk and his motivations for his actions are fairly justifiable. He did a bang up job ruining both heroes and villains in that abomination. Obviously, the writers and Abrams have no clue about Roddenberry’s vision, and the world is lesser for it.

And then along comes Marvel’s cineverse and Loki, with whom many of us can identify with at least one of the founding reasons he turned into a villain. He was different from most Aesir. More brains, less brawn. More playful, less reverent. The ‘second son’ living in the shadow of the beloved one, wanting acceptance and approval. Teased and mocked by both brother and friends for being a ‘weak’ trickster. Thor was the cause for the collapse of Loki’s world. Because of Thor’s arrogant attack on the frost giants, Loki discovered he wasn’t Aesir.

When he confronted Odin about this, his father’s reasons for what he’d done made him feel used, objectified. A child of the enemy who was always spoken of as ‘beneath’ the Aesir, he suddenly saw his life through the eyes of a second class entity. Nothing he could do would make him even equal to the son who was banished. (If you consider the myth stories of the Norse gods, Loki was usually the one who had to do everything for the other gods or fix situations they got themselves into.) It broke him and anyone who has felt anything similar to what Loki had understands that torment. And many will see he had no option to change his situation other than go the direction he had. It makes the heroes as much the villain as he is supposed to be.

When we identify with traits villains display, we are supposed to think, “Hey, I’m acting like a bad guy. Maybe I should stop doing that because I want to be a good guy.” If we see people displaying villains’ traits, we’re supposed to think, “Hey, they’re acting like a bad guy. Maybe I should do something that doesn’t enable him and make him think it’s okay.”

Granted, there are things we can learn from the sympathetic villains. If we see ourselves acting like people acted towards a villain that broke him and turned him into a villain, we should think, “Hey, I am being a jerk and might be pushing someone into becoming a villain. I should stop that.”

Now, I adore Loki and Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal is wonderful. But Loki-mania is driving me batty. I want to shake people who would throw themselves at his feet and act like they would do whatever he told them. Worse, people who would agreeably subjugate themselves. Sure, most may be just playing around. It is fiction, after all, not the real world. But the lines between fiction and reality are blurring all the time. The news isn’t even clearly factual and we all know it. Our government leaders are blatantly blurring fact and fiction.

I don’t even like how bad guys are redeemed, when/if they are. Invariably, if a bad guy suddenly realizes they are doing wrong and turn good guy, they usually sacrifice themselves for the good of the others. While this may allow them to be remembered as a hero (though poor Anakin Skywalker will only be remembered by his children, if not only his son,) it doesn’t teach anything of having to endure society’s bent on damning people for eternity for their errors. The most infamous case would be Michael Vick. Yes, he had done horrible things to dogs with his dog fighting thing. But few are willing to give him a chance. (Ironically, the only people we seem able to forgive are politicians these days. Remember when a scandal condemned them forever and they lost their jobs? Yeah, now they get elected anyway because of ideologues.)

Not saying that someone who did wrong once should be completely trusted. Michael Vick should be watched, of course. But they should expect people to be a little dubious and skeptical until they earn trust again. And sometimes even after that. Repeat offenders may never earn trust again, and they should realize that. But for the love of gods, how does it teach anyone who has been doing wrong for so long that changing is worthwhile? “Oh, I turn over a new leaf, I’m going to die.” Yeah, that’ll convince ’em. 😛

Anyway. Writing update: Over 20k words down for Chance Encounter. And I think it’s going pretty well, albeit slow going. We’ll see.

About LexyWolfe

I am a writer of fantasy and occasionally science fiction.
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