by Grant Smuts
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
–William Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’
I’ve always rooted for the villains. I know, we’re supposed to cheer for the heroes, triumph of human will and determination and all that, but there’s something about many villains that draw us. Perhaps it’s their motivations – philosophies of destruction and madness taken to their logical (or sometimes illogical) extremes. Perhaps wanton malice and cruelty appeals to something base and vile in the heart of every human being. And some of my favourite characters, in film, gaming and literature, have been villains.
The best and most realistic villains by my estimation, however, are the ones who could look you in the eye and tell you, without wavering for a second, that they are right, and you are wrong.
We ourselves embrace and in time come to embody philosophies and ways of thinking. We walk around with our personal moral codes, that, for the most part, won’t ever make any waves. But as the years go by, we soon come to adapt to the prevailing moralities of the day, or else be thought of as ‘old-fashioned’ at best.
The things we hold onto now might be called into question, even vilified, years down the line. Which of course leads one to believe that morality, beyond the fundamentals of ‘kill not, do harm to none’, is nothing more than temporary, convenient metaphysical claptrap.
The so-called ‘justice warriors’ of today, standing on soap-boxes and decrying the many injustices of the age will fade away, along with their causes, to be replaced, in time, by a new set of injustices, and new generations of crusaders. With, of course, the occasional witch-hunt.
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien is often looked down on for simplifying the conflict between good and evil. “Men and elves – good; Orcs – bad”.
But that’s usually by the people who mistake it for simply being a fantasy novel. Tolkien’s Legendarium was a mythology, something in constant progress until the day he died. The defeat of Sauron and the shattering of the forces of evil was the end of the novel, yes, but it wasn’t the end of his work. A lot of interesting notes seem to indicate that Tolkien intended to expand on the cultures of the Orcs and the region of Mordor – which wasn’t just the barren wasteland the movies depicted.
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin seems to give a realistic, gritty effect to the characters. People who can be as petty and as cruel, as vindictive and as prone to that horrible illness – chronic backstabbing disorder – as the rest of us. Of course, Martin was less interested in the prototypical battles between good and evil, instead writing of the allure and the trappings of power, and what men will do to attain it. It’s a fantasy retelling of 15th century England’s Wars of the Roses, back in the days of the Tudors.
These two works are considered seminal as inspiration for writers today, but in crafting heroes and villains, most writers tend to miss the point of just what it was these authors were trying to create.
Tolkien intended a mythology of his own, something that would never die when he did, instead being something like his own modern folklore. It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t continue it as he wanted – I don’t know if anyone else will have his vision.
And George RR Martin follows the ideal of William Faulkner – that the only conflict worth writing about is that of the human heart.
When I began writing my own book, as a teenager, I thought in terms of heroes and villains. Now that I look back, it’s probably best that I never did get published back then. Sure, I wrote a great psychopath, but if I look at it now, it seems more like I was ticking off boxes than creating something really organic.
What really motivates men to do the things they do? Is it something as simple as madness? Perhaps it is a sense of justice, a sense of purpose, and how is that defined other than ‘what feels right’?
People are guided more by their personal sense of justice than some dimly conceived platonic ideals which form the basis of our laws. It just so happens that what most people think is right just happens to coincide with said laws. But these things are arbitrary. Revolutions begin with those who disagree. It begins with anger at the perceived wrongs in the world, even if all the world says those things are right.
It becomes a matter of whether your perception of right overpowers the notion that of the world. Those with vision move forward, taking power where they can, to effect change.
We see it all the time, in the real world. We just never are quite so quick to distinguish between villains and heroes, unless their actions go to extremes.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as the bard said.
This helped me to shape the final vision of my novel. I wanted to create two viewpoints of what is right, as opposed to someone blatantly in the wrong. Certainly the the characters on the opposite sides of the conflict will see the other one as wrong. And perhaps the reader will pick a side – in fact, I’m hoping that they will.
This is not to say that I have no truly evil characters in my novel. A good psychopath is always welcome in any work. And then there are the creatures beyond morality, the higher entities of time and space, who exist outside the boundaries of man’s perception of what is right and wrong – but that’s where I dip into cosmic horror instead of the traditional conflicts of high fantasy.
If, however, I ever needed a definition of what a hero and a villain might be, I suppose I’d opt for a cynic’s perspective.
The heroes (when written well) show us what we’d like to be.
The villains often show us what we are.