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From the
Other Side
Heroes and Villains
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2003 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved

What makes a good villain or hero?

Several writing-related news groups have discussed this issue in the past year, all without arriving at a clear answer, which on the surface is surprising considering how easy it is for most people to decide who is good and who is evil. For example, in the following quiz enter a check to decide if each person listed is a 'hero' or a 'villain.'

Check one box (good or evil) for each:

Adolph Hitler
Mother Theresa
Benjamin Franklin
Osama Bin Laden
George Bush
The Last Teacher Who Gave You a Failing or Low Grade
The Lady Behind the Counter at Dunkin' Donuts

Some of these answers should be fairly easy. Most likely, you thought Adolph Hitler and Osama Bin Laden are both 'villains', and that Mother Theresa and Benjamin Franklin are 'heroes'. The last few might not be so easy, although I suspect that even if you do not consider yourself a 'hero', you certainly don't regard yourself as a 'villain'.

So it's easy to identify heroes from villains, yet people seem to have so much trouble identifying why. The obvious next question is, what distinguishes each individual mentioned as 'good' or 'evil'? Here's where things get interesting, as we need to determine what factors are used to decide if someone is a 'hero' or a 'villain'. There are really only a limited number of factors people use to make that decision: Their personality characteristics, their actions and/or their beliefs.

Personality Characteristics

Personality characteristics are those soft, 'touchy-feely' words we use to describe our personal predictors of how other people will act (e.g., compassionate, humorous, intelligent). Most people appear to have a mix of both good and bad personality traits. Osama Bin Laden is apparently a fairly religious man, and despite what you might think of him, in general most religious people are considered 'good'. Even if you don't think of Bin Laden as religious in the sense of being pious, you need to recognize that in order to use religious texts such as the Koran to convince others to act as he thinks they should, he must be knowledgeable. Similarly, Mother Theresa has been suggested for sainthood, yet as the Mother Superior of the holy order of nuns called the Missionaries of Charity, I'm willing to bet she's fired people and done all the other unpleasant things that a manager has to do -- things that can make others look at one as evil.

The following list offers a non-exhaustive list of psychological characteristics and matches them with people who are usually considered good or evil.

Mother Theresa (1910-1997): Dedicated her life to helping the ill, infirm and dying.
Dr. Kevorkian (19??-): Physician who assisted his terminally ill patients in ending their suffering.
(Strong) Convictions
Mahatma Ghandi (18??-19??): Never wavered from his belief in non-violence, despite years of brutal mistreatment.
Adolph Hitler (1889-1945): Ruler of Germany who felt the country had a great destiny and worked tirelessly to achieve his vision of that future.
Family Values
Mr. Rogers (1928-2003): Television children's show host and Presbyterian minister.
Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519): Wife, mother, poisoner during the Italian Renaissance.
Bob Hope (1903-): Actor, comedian, patriot. Entertained troops in several different wars.
Sheriff of Nottingham: As portrayed in Mel Blanc's Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): Inventor, publisher, statesman, and much more.
Hannibal Lecter: Brilliant psychiatrist, epicurean, cannibal, amoral murderer and Thomas Harris character.
Loves Another
Romeo and/or Juliet: Lead characters in a Shakespearean tragedy of the same name.
Any Pedophile
Pope John Paul II (1920-2005): Leader of the Holy Roman Church.
Torquemada (1420-1498): Spanish Inquisitor Priest. Killed hundreds as he helped them repent during the middle ages on behalf of the church.
Respected Member of the Community
All of the above, depending upon the neighborhood in question.
All of the above, depending upon the neighborhood in question.

The bottom line is that psychological characteristics are not the single best measure of whether someone is a hero or a villain. It's been said that 'history is written by the victors', and this is a perfect example. Depending on one's point of view, somewhere in the world, there are people whose opinion of each of these individuals is exactly the opposite of yours or mine. For instance, Torquemada was a respected member of the Catholic Church, honored by Popes for his diligence in the service of Christianity. There are still people that salute Adolph Hitler as a hero and there are people who dream of, and pray for, the death of the Pope.

This brings us to rule number one: A good character, whether a villain or a hero, needs to have sufficient redeeming values and flaws to make them interesting. Even comic books, known for stereotyping, have created rounded characters, characters with strengths and flaws. Spider-Man can't get a break with the press (or anywhere else!). Dr. Evil has a son who thinks he's a boob. Superman has kryptonite. And the list goes on, yet we still haven't explained how to determine whether someone is good or evil. Let's move on to their actions.


There are just too many actions that can be used to define good and evil. Bear with me as I select just one action for the purpose of making this next point. Please also excuse the Socratic method.

Can we all agree that it's bad to kill people? Any of you who don't subscribe to this particular belief, feel free to skip to the next section.

Can we similarly agree that it's bad to arrange for someone to be killed? In other words, paying to have someone killed is as bad as doing the killing yourself?

Can we agree that while killing one person is bad, killing a bunch of people is worse? Someone who kills twenty people is more evil, more of a villain, that someone who kills just one person?

Okay, enough of Socrates. We now appear to agree that someone who has killed a lot of people, even if it's by proxy, is bad. That would mean that people like Hitler, Bin Laden, Pol Pot, and Stalin are villains.

Are we still in agreement? Good. It also means that that every other political leader of a country that has been involved in a war is also evil and a villain... including people like George Washington, Charles DeGaulle, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush. The bottom line again is that actions are not a valid measure of how we distinguish between heroes and villains, which leaves us with beliefs.


Ah, I think we've finally found the answer here. Someone who believes that everyone else exists at his or her sufferance, to serve them, to live or die at his or her whim, someone who thinks that rules are for others and all property is his or hers, just waiting to be claimed; that's a villain.

Gee, if it was that easy, why did we waste all that time talking about personality characteristics and actions? Because we're here to talk about writing and authors can't just go around placing labels on people that say 'hero' or 'villain' like the labels one tends to see on cheesy science fiction movies to show that people are in a digital world. At least not if they want to write stories that readers will enjoy reading, they can't! So what's a writer to do?

Putting It All Together

Well, we still haven't really decided exactly what makes a hero or a villain, short of labeling one character the hero and another character the villain. When I write a story -- usually even before I start to write -- I have a very clear picture in my mind of who's who, and that means at least a brief history to help me understand why they are the person they are. I'll bet it's the same for you when you write a story, even if you're not quite as formal about it as I am. So, back to the original question -- how?

The answer is that there are a few general rules that usually apply:

  1. Heroes are usually likable. The villain can be likable too, but the hero should be more likable.
  2. Somewhere along the line the villain must do something that is generally considered bad, usually for personal profit. The hero may do something bad, but only in the pursuit of something good.
  3. Since we've already agreed that we usually can't just say this character is good and this character is bad -- well, we could but it tends to make for a boring story -- and it's also usually a good idea to give the reader enough clues that he or she can tell who's who. Thus, it's a good idea to try to use all of the options we discussed above.

In conclusion, we are describing in many words what Louise Shaffer, author of The Three Margarets, described in one word on a recent interview on National Public Radio (NPR). We are developing for each character a logical, consistent and detailed explanation for their actions. In other words, we are not so much worried about heroes and villains, but about people and their personal 'motivations'.

Jeffrey M. Mahr
Senior Editor, Infinite Imagination eBooks

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