You have a hero.
You have a villain.
You’ve taken them through two revisions and think these characters are awesome, perfectly drawn as you intend. The overall theme of the narrative supports the plot arc, and the events are timed perfectly, so the pacing is good.
But then you discover that, while the story is engaging, your beta readers aren’t as impressed with the characters as you are.
This has been my problem in the past, and at this stage, I go to my writing group. Someone in that wonderful circle of friends will offer an opinion as to why the characters aren’t as strongly defined as I need them to be.
The problem is, it may take several drafts before my characters translate to paper the way I envision them. When creating their personnel file, I now try to give each character, hero, villain, or sidekick a theme, a sub-thread that is solely theirs.
A personal theme clarifies what drives each character and underscores their motivations. It is both a strength and a weakness.
- A villain’s personal theme might be hubris – an excess of self-confidence. It is arrogance to a high degree, and terrible decisions can arise from it.
- A hero’s personal theme might be honor and loyalty. This can undermine their ability to act decisively. The good of the one can exceed the good of the many—and people will die that could have been saved. Who is the villain, then?
Strong personal themes inform how each character reacts and interacts throughout the narrative.
But in real life, I often find little distinction between heroes and villains. Heroes are often jackasses who need to be taken down a notch. Villains will extort protection money from a store owner and then turn around and open a soup kitchen to feed the unemployed.
Al Capone famously did just that. Mobster Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression – HISTORY.
In reality, heroes are flawed because no one is perfect. I prefer narratives that reflect that. What similarities might blur the boundaries of our heroes and villains and lend some texture to their narratives?
- Both must see themselves as the hero.
- Both must take unnecessary risks.
- Both must believe they will ultimately win.
When I create my two most important characters, my hero and villain, I assign them verbs, nouns, and adjectives, traits they embody. They must also have a void – an emotional emptiness, a wound of some sort.
This void is vital because characters must overcome cowardice to face it. As a reader, one characteristic I’ve noticed in my favorite characters is they each have a hint of self-deception. All the characters – the antagonists and the protagonists – deceive themselves about their own motives.
The heroes come to recognize that fault and are made stronger and more able to do what is necessary. The villains may also acknowledge their fatal flaw but use it to justify and empower their actions.
Both heroes and villains must have possibilities – the chance that the villain might be redeemed, or the hero might become the villain. As an avid gamer, I think of this as the “Sephiroth factor.”
He is featured in the metaseries Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, which includes other products related to the original game of Final Fantasy VII. It is a series originally begun in 1997 as a game for Sony’s PlayStation 1 and which became wildly popular among RPG players.
This game has become legendary with a huge cult following because of the well-thought-out, intense and layered storyline and the cast of instantly relatable characters.
In Sephiroth’s storyline, he begins as a hero, the most powerful member of SOLDIER, Shinra’s elite military division. He was revered, a heroic, invincible veteran of the Shinra-Wutai war.
Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core (which was made for PlayStation Portable) is a prequel to the original game. We get to know Sephiroth as he once was and meet other members of this elite unit. Over the course of that game, the three most beloved heroes of the Wutai war suddenly abandon their posts and go rogue.
From the outset of Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core, Sephiroth is the kind of hero that makes one wonder just what is going on inside him. He has begun to have doubts and, at one point, indicates that he might leave SOLDIER.
Toward the middle of Crisis Core, Sephiroth, Zack Fair, and Cloud Strife (who is only an infantryman when we first meet him in Crisis Core) are sent on a mission to the village of Nibelheim. There, Sephiroth discovers that he is the product of a biological experiment combining a human fetus with tissue from the extraterrestrial lifeform, Jenova.
This knowledge breaks Sephiroth’s mind, and he goes on a rampage, destroying the village. He is ultimately killed, but his physical death brings about his evolution into the ultimate enemy the true heroes of that RPG game series must battle.
In the end, only one SOLDIER first class remains, Zack Fair. He, too, abandons Shinra and is ultimately hunted down. Zack’s death sows the seeds of the delusion that creates the true hero of the piece, Cloud Strife.
In Final Fantasy VII, the 1997 game that started it all, we meet Cloud Strife, a mercenary with a mysterious past. Gradually, we discover that, unbeknownst to himself, he is living a lie that he must face and overcome to be the hero we all need him to be.
The fallen angel, the tragic hero who becomes the villain is good fodder for those of us who write fantasy. So is the broken hero, the one who rises from the ruins of their life to save the world.
However, if you strip away the fantasy tropes and the outrageous video game weapons, the hero in any story written in any genre can become the villain, and any villain can change course before it’s too late.
The way my creative mind works, plots and characters evolve together. When I sit down to create a story arc, my characters offer me hints as to how they will develop. This evolution can change the course of the original plot.
In a current work-in-progress, two characters, hero and villain, switched roles, requiring a total rewrite.
Who in your work will be best suited to play the villain? Character B?
Conversely, why is character A the hero?
The next installment of this series will drill down a little further into the nuts and bolts of creating fully realized characters, focusing on the protagonist and the antagonist.
Credits and Attributions:
Sephiroth, designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square / Square Enix Final Fantasy VII, © 1997. Fair use.
Cloud Strife, designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square/Square Enix Final Fantasy VII, © 1997. Fair use.