The other day I received an email about a new book series involving a beloved character from a classic series. Sorry to be cryptic, but I don’t plan to reveal who that character is or what that series is. Suffice it to say, this character and others in the series have been reimagined as evil characters when formerly they were on the side of good. My first reaction was irritation. What gives, huh? Is it because villains are portrayed as having more fun these days?
As I groused over that email, I couldn’t help thinking about Thor: The Dark World. This is my own opinion here, rather than a well-reasoned critique of the movie (I enjoyed it by the way), but the standout character in it was Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer. But in a movie with the name Thor in the title, shouldn’t Thor—the hero—be the standout character? Maybe he was for you (he is 6 feet 3 inches tall, heh heh), but he wasn’t for me in this movie, despite the romance and the tragic bits. My eyes were on Loki every time and also on Christopher Eccleston who played a dark elf named Malekith the Accursed.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling Malekith (Christopher Eccleston); Loki at right (Tom Hiddleston)
Now, I realize movie production companies and authors have the right to do whatever they want. And I have enjoyed some of the fruits of their labor. But here’s where my blood pressure rises: when good is portrayed as weak or even boring.
In a previous post, I mentioned a quote from Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios. This quote came from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly in an essay by Anthony Breznican:
The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)
But in some of the books or movies I’ve seen in recent years—Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) being one of them—the good characters seem weak and timid in the face of evil. (Looking at you, Glinda!) This kind of thing sets my teeth on edge.
Making heroes weak to make the antagonists seem stronger goes against what Bailey talked about in Entertainment Weekly. As he said, “The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be.” Keep that in mind while I bring up another quote. I could kick myself for not writing down the exact words or even where I found it, but the person quoted said something to the effect that villains are preferred, because we get tired of trying to identify with people who are good all the time. (I know. I’m running the risk of misquoting here. Bad, L. Marie. Bad!)
I’m guessing “we” refers to all of us. Well, I can speak for myself, thank you. And I’d like to address something I see as a fallacy: “people who are good all the time.” Know anyone who is “good” all the time? People are more complicated than that. Even pastors yell at their kids sometimes. If we can’t identify with people “who are good all the time,” shouldn’t heroes be complex?
I love Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr., because we see his foibles. The choices he makes are what define him as the hero. I love Natasha Romanov (Black Widow/Natalia “Natasha” Alianovna Romanova) as played by Scarlett Johansson. I love everyone on Avatar, especially Prince Zuko and Toph Beifong. They don’t always play nice. They make mistakes.
Toph (I wanna be her when I grow up)
Love the X-Men, especially Wolverine (Hugh Jackman!) and Rogue. Also I squealed over Four in Divergent. (Sorry. That was gratuitous. I just wanted to mention Theo James.) I continue to be mesmerized by the characters on shows like Babylon 5 and Young Justice, thanks to Netflix.
Wolverine (and not just because he has abs of steel)
Gratuitous photo of Four (Theo James)
I’m happy to say that many of you are taking the time to make your characters complex (a shout-out to everyone I know from VCFA, as well as authors I’ve met through the blog like K. L. Schwengel, Charles Yallowitz, Kate Sparkes, ReGi McClain, Emily Witt, Stephanie Stamm, John Carnell, and Andra Watkins). There are others too like Phillip McCollum, Andy of City Jackdaw, and Jill Weatherholt who work hard at their craft. You give me hope, people. You also encourage me to get my act together and put forth the effort on my manuscript.
It takes work to make a hero complex, just as it takes work to make a villain complex. So why not make the effort to do so?
Maybe we need a better definition of good. Think about the characteristics that make a parent, a doctor, a fire fighter, or some other professional good at what he or she does. Many times that individual has to make some tough choices—i.e., disciplining a child; giving a patient a shot; and so on. When you really need a professional, you want someone tenacious and strong, not someone who cringes. But you also know that person isn’t perfect. Anyone who has a parent or is a parent knows this.
That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. I can relate to that person. Can you?
Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Hemsworth as Thor from marvel-movies.wikia.com. Theo James as Four from pinterest.com. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from marvel.wikia.com. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark from wallpapersshop.net. Zuko and Toph from avatar.wikia. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine from x-men.wikia.com.
Fantastic post, Linda. Good = Weak. It’s one of my great frustrations in life that certain cultures and work environments make that connection. It’s hard work to be polite when you are in a rotten mood. To make the right choice when you are exhausted. To be positive when everything is going wrong. It’s really easy to look at someone (say, someone like you, Linda) and say she is naturally positive and supportive–with a good guy sort of character. But that sells the person too cheaply. The good guys of the world work hard at being good. So, yes, as writers, we need to show the flaws of our heroes and heroines, and we can also show the work they put into being good. The frustration that crosses a face before pushing it away. The angry tone, before it’s smoothed out. The exhaustion in the muscles, before struggling to stand and facing the battle again. Good ≠ Weak. Good = Even Stronger.
Thanks, Sandra. I also meant to say that black and white thinking doesn’t always allow for a well-rounded character. A person isn’t all one thing or another. And like you said, it sells the person too cheaply to think of him or her as just one thing. Yes, it’s tough to show this in a story. You and I have had this conversation and you lectured on how tough it is to convey emotion. It’s tough but rewarding when we finally get it right.
I remember way back when Kevin Costner appeared in the movie Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves. I read about some kind of preview-a test showing maybe?- that was done to test the audiences reaction. It seemed afterwards that the general public’s favourite character in the movie was the dastardly villainous Alan Rickmann as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
From this, I think the movie was re-edited in a way to push Costner and reduce Rickmann.
Oh, thank you for the name check by the way 🙂
Plot and everything aside, how could you NOT prefer Rickman? He was fantastic. 😀
He was. I think it was Costner as the hero, being overshadowed, that was put out.
I love Alan Rickman in just about anything he’s in.
As Kate said, who wouldn’t pick Alan Rickman? He’s a fantastic actor. But the movie was Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, rather than The Sheriff of Nottingham.
Oh, yeah, Alan Rickman totally stole that movie. Everyone else was way too serious and he was so campy and funny. Delicious.
Good post. I read these when I’ve just woken up, before I get out of bed – and they always get my brain working! It is very interesting, especially as our writing will reflect our experience of life, our characters and the stories we tell, will contain something of our understanding gleaned from the cut and thrust of daily life, no matter how far they are ‘removed’ from reality.
As a person who has acted with evil intent in my younger life, I think I’m qualified to speak on the subject a little. To me, doing evil is definitely the weaker action or choice. Evil is easy. To destroy something may require some effort, but to build and nurture takes a whole lot more effort to achieve. Evil is lazy. Selfish, and ultimately stupid – if we hurt others, we hurt ourselves. Conversely, good, in my experience always takes a whole lot of graft to sustain. Sure, a simple random act of kindness isn’t too taxing, but to support, encourage and nurture others is a strenuous activity.
The rewards for doing evil are instant and therefore attractive as they feed our egos. They can also be seductive and even pleasurable. Good acts often go unrewarded in the short term, but as they are done for their own sake and not for self-agrandizment, it’s sometimes hard to notice them. In this example, good is quiet, evil is showy. I think that’s why it’s easier to portray ‘baddies’, especially in the movies – John McClane, minding his own business, trying to get home for christmas, to patch things up with his wife – boring. Hans Gruber taking over an entire building and blowing things up in a smart suit pretending to be a terrorist – very sexy.
What’s interesting to me about that film, which I love btw, is how it’s then okay for McClane to use evil acts (murder) to fight evil while still remaining a good guy.I think this tells us something about the interchangeable nature of ourselves and the duality of good and evil.
I do have other thoughts about that, but I haven’t had my cornflakes yet. Good morning to y’all – or should I say ‘Yippee-ki-yay-motherf*****’
As usual, John, your comments are thought provoking even without the cornflakes. 🙂 You brought up a good point, which I see Charles has answered.
Great post, and good point. I think the views on heroes and bad guys are definitely changing. I like my good characters to have flaws, which is what makes their struggle to win even better, where as the bad guys don’t have to struggle as much, which is the difference between the two (if that makes sense? 😀 ).
Really good post though, gets me thinking!
Thank you! 😀
Somebody already mentioned the double-standard of heroes and villains. It is strange how heroes are allowed to kill without being criticized. Only certain ones though because Superman and Spider-Man get flack for murder. Maybe we’re in an age where people prefer the ‘Anti-Hero’ of Wolverine and Batman, so a movie or book without such a character causes these types of readers to side with the villain.
Personally, I love the torn hero who has baggage. Even if the character does something good, he or she still has some tarnishing. Pure good is impossible to get by an audience these days because nobody trusts or likes such characters. After all, throwing good and bad into the mix is what creates depth.
I also love a hero with baggage, which is why I love Wolverine and Batman. I guess the killing aspect comes under fire because technically Spider-Man is a vigilante, rather than a cop. So he’s seen as having no authority to take someone’s life. And Superman can kill someone easily, so he would avoid that. But he has a veneer of perfection that gets old after awhile.
I think it’s also the persona. Spider-Man isn’t a killer type while Wolverine is. As for Superman, I think his perfection is a flaw in itself. He’s so high up that a slight deviation is met with uproar.
And I used to read Superman comic books when I was a kid. Back then, a perfect guy was cool. I liked the fact that he could beat up anyone. But now he’s not as interesting.
Honestly, I like that he is ‘perfect’ because I get tired of the anti-hero and tortured hero after awhile. I see Superman as a necessary archetype in a world full of heroes. You always need that Paladin somewhere.
True. And I like him in Justice League episodes. I’m going through those DVDs now, along with Young Justice. But I wasn’t a huge fan of Man of Steel.
The final battle between him and Darkseid in Justice League Unlimited is one of my favorites. I have yet to see Man of Steel though.
I’m curious about why you haven’t yet seen it (though I know others who haven’t). Do tell!
Very limited babysitter access, so we can really only go out during birthdays and ‘special’ events. Even then it’s usually a matinee. By the time we got a day for a movie, Man of Steel was gone.
Oh man. I hope you get a chance to see it.
It just hit the premium channels, so I’ll get a shot. Not rushing since my friends were kind enough to tell me the finale.
Ah. Um, were you upset that they told you the ending?
Yeah, but I’ve come to expect it from some of them. The ones that make the big posts on Facebook tend to forget not everyone goes to the debut weekend.
Fantastic post, Linda! You always blow me away with your knowledge on characters from popular movies and books.
I completely relate, as I do try to do the right thing each day, but I am far from perfect. Anyone who thinks they are perfect will get their reality check one day.
I always love a hero who does the right thing, but I relate to one who also has flaws.
Thanks for including my name in your post, Linda. You too are the great encourager!
“Really, he would be a standout character if he just stood there rearranging socks in a drawer.”
Agreed. I don’t know whether it’s the character or Hiddleston Pie’s portrayal, but I love me some Loki. Also agreed on everything else… “good” doesn’t have to be boring. Good doesn’t have to be all good, just as bad doesn’t have to be all bad.
And YAY I GOT SHOUTED OUT.
Loved this post, Linda.
People seem to have this image of a ‘good person’ being someone that’s only good and seeing a ‘bad person’ as more complex and layered. All characters are people (yes, even aliens and anthropomorphized objects). I love what you said:
“That’s what a good hero is—someone who isn’t perfect, but who tries to do the right thing. ”
That’s right on point. I’m trying to do that with one of the ‘good’ people in Wolf’s Tail; a man who left his newly wed wife for the California gold rush because he thinks he can get rich quick and give them a better life.
And I completely forgot to say “THANK YOU” for the shoutout. 😀 😀 😀
Glad to do so. 😀
That’s such a great premise, Phillip. Sounds very compelling.
I agree that some think only certain people have layers (i.e., antagonists). That’s why I like writing for children and young adults. People assume that kids are still growing and learning, and therefore aren’t perfect. I don’t know why for adult characters, the black and white thinking creeps in, and a character has to be all one thing or another, instead of complex.
Great post, Linda! Not perfect–even deeply flawed–but working hard wins hands down. Who of us isn’t that? I haven’t seen Thor yet–still on the list. But I love many of the other heroes you mention–and thanks for the gratuitous comments about and picture of Theo James. Also, thanks for the shout out! 🙂
Some people disliked the second Thor. It wasn’t as good as the first one, but it was entertaining.
That’s too bad. I did enjoy the first. I also recently rewatched Man of Steel. While there are things about the movie I don’t like–the fight scenes with all their explosions and crashing buildings could be shortened, in my opinion–I really appreciated the look into Superman’s childhood. I liked the vulnerability of this Superman and getting to see how his powers caused problems for him as well as made him stronger. Not exactly what you are talking about in the blog, but similar in the complexity of the hero character.
I also appreciated the childhood look, which is why I recommend Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb. It’s what I had hoped the movie would have been.
I have to agree – Loki would stand out if he was re-arranging his sock drawer. But that’s in part because Tom Hiddleston is just yummy. And an awesome actor. Ok so I totally love the guy – I’m biased! The character of Thor relies far too much on Chris Hemsworth’s physique for my liking without providing much in the way of depth and personality. A six pack does not a personality make!
But all joking aside, that’s a very good point. A hero should be someone who faces internal demons, who makes mistakes, who has failings – but then overcomes those failings. I think there’s also an issue of good = perfect (and let’s face it, perfect = boring. Applying a bit of maths here, we get back to good = boring!)
Main characters who are strong but are completely perfect irritate me just as much as the weak, vanilla ones. I read something recently where the MC was always right, conquered every issue and fear at the click of a finger, was so beautiful and charismatic that every single male character in the book was obsessed with her, was feisty but always right in her attitude etc. I had to put the book aside because she annoyed me so much – I couldn’t finish it. Maybe it’s just me, but I much prefer reading about heros who are a complete mess (as I am) than about someone who has their stuff perfectly together.
(Oh and I’m with you Tony Stark is a great example of a fantastic hero! I love a smart arse)
I hear you! And I had to laugh at the comment about Chris’s physique. The reason why movies like Catching Fire are superior to others is the fact that they went all out getting the absolute best people for the roles–not just those who looked the best. The writing also was stellar, rather than superficial. And that’s the issue–superficial heroes and villains. Creating three-dimensional characters is hard, hard work!
Thank you for the shout-out! ^_^
I am all for the shades of grey. I often have countries at war in my stories and always try and make the “enemy” still come across as “good” in some way, at least to the readers, as the characters are usually all “NO, WE’RE AT WAR!” The country Felipe and Cait’s is at war with is a constitutional democracy and women can be voted in the parliament – something Cait approves of rather highly, as I’m sure you can imagine. This is at more of a macro level, I guess, but the same goes for the micro of characters.
I occasionally find the “good character re-imagined as evil” stories intriguing, as it can be interesting to see how the same character might turn out given different circumstances and motivations. But it has to be done well. The example that comes to mind is Peter Pan on Once Upon A Time, which had great potential given that the original Peter Pan is definitely no angel, but it just fell flat on its face in my opinion. I was very disappointed.
I love the fact that neither Felipe nor Cait is perfect. And yes, I can imagine Cait would be all for that.
I agree that a reimagined scenario needs to be done really well. What gets me is when someone reimagines a choice for a character that the originating author would never go for.
You are on a roll, my dear! Great post! Such good points you make. Your dedication to your craft really shines through in the thought and effort you put into making it the best you can. 🙂
Thank you, Maria. 🙂 And thanks for what you did for Jill. I read her blog. You made her day!
Yay, Rogue! Complexity in heroes and villains is something I’m thinking of writing about as well, as a thread of my LEGO graphic novel involves a fight to the death (well, maybe not quite the death, but you never know) between a flawed hero and a sympathetic villain. Right now, my challenge (especially among the TFOLs–teen fans of Lego) is to get viewers to distinguish between the hero and the villain. I think I managed to do it when the villain publicly endorsed Mega Bloks for money, though.
Ooo! Sounds great, Lyn! What a combination. And I don’t know if you’ve seen Babylon 5, but the writers are awesome at showing sympathetic villains and flawed heroes. I also love Dune for that.
I was writing yesterday and it wasn’t going very well. And then randomly this post of yours popped into my head. I suddenly realised that I had spent all this time focusing on developing the antagonists and the power players, and I’d completely forgotten about my main character who had found herself falling right into the good / boring stereotype – and I was growing really bored writing about her.
So thanks again for what turned out to be an incredibly helpful post – I am now lavishing care and attention on my MC, as I should be doing, and she is already growing into a much more interesting and layered character!
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