Friday, April 24, 2015

To Be a Hero... Can a Villain Apply?

Hero versus villain... protagonist versus antagonist... Seems rather cut and dried, doesn't it, but is it really? But can a villain actually become a hero?

Of course he can. It's all a matter of perception.

I've recently begun watching Wolf Hall on Masterpiece Theater. For those who aren't familiar with this drama, it's the story of Thomas Cromwell, and the part he played in the events of his times, that is during the reign of Henry VIII. Of humble birth, Cromwell was taken under the wing of the great Cardinal Wolsey, and nurtured. The Cardinal's unmakiing was Henry's failure to have a son by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. His pride - and his nation - decreed he must have an heir. Of course, his becoming infatuated with a young girl named Anne Boleyn didn't help matters any. She had spent some time in the French court, and was smart enough to realize that if she gave in to Henry - ie sleep with him - she would quickly lose his favor. But she held out and kept her eye on the prize - becoming Queen of England. For that to happen, Henry needed his first wife annulled, which would also have made any children by that union bastards. He only had the one daughter, Mary, and he was willing to have that happen in order to gain a son.

I've read a number of stories and histories dealing with this time period, and almost invariably Thomas Cromwell is painted as a villain for his part in the fall of Wolsey, the divorce of Henry and Queen Catherine, and  breaking with the Pope and the formation of the Church of England. But here he is actually the hero, the center of the story. The man himself has not changed, of course, merely how we are to perceive him.

So what does that mean for a writer? Just that the person who is the center of your story can be a villain and still be the hero. Not only the virtuous need apply.

In this story, Anne Boleyn is painted as a villainess, but if you should read or watch Anne of the
Thousand Days, you'll have a whole different picture of the woman who became Henry's second wife, mother of the greatest queen in English history, and first of his wives to be beheaded. Whereas Wolf Hall makes her out to be a calculating schemer, who was in league with her family to acquire power and wealth, in Anne of the Thousand Days, she is a young girl who becomes enamored of a handsome, virile king and spends years waiting to make him hers.

One of my favorite villains cum heroes has to be Dr. Hannibal Lecter. I've read all the books, seen all the movies, and love them. Hannibal is a serial killer, and an unrepentant one at that. He makes no bones about what he's done. Granted, he has reasons, and how he became the way he is is well told in Hannibal Rising. But the fact remains he has done things which don't exactly make him hero material. And yet that is just what he is, for he is the center of every story, even when he is not onscreen, so to speak.

What does Hannibal have that makes him so interesting, even as a villain? He's intelligent, and very charming... and manipulative as hell. As a trained psychiatrist, he has insight into how people think, how they work, and he isn't afraid to use that knowledge for his own means. Whether you like him or not, there is no doubt that he is the hero of Thomas Harris' books.

Another example of the villain as hero can be found in John Milton's Paradise Lost. I only read this poem for the first time in the last couple of years, and was instantly mesmerized. It begins in the aftermath of the great Rebellion - the attempt by a third of the Chosen to overthrow God which resulted in their being cast down to the newly created Hell. Among them is their leader, of course, Lucifer. Since history is written by the victors, and since Lucifer did not win in his attempt to wrest power from God, ergo Lucifer is the villain. And yet he is the hero, for he shines more brightly than any other character in the book, and he is certainly the most interesting among them. Compared to him, Adam and Raphael are dull and annoying, whereas Lucifer reveals himself made of sterner stuff, and also shows God in a less than flattering light.

Lucifer is portrayed as highly intelligent and brave, and unafraid to take on someone who is as powerful as he is, if not more so. Even knowing that God is all-knowing, he takes a stand for what he believes in and fights for it. Is that not the definition of a hero? And yet he has been vilified for many years.

Lucifer also features as the hero/villain of a series of graphic novels written by one of my favorite
writers, Mike Carey. And once again, the angels do not come off well at all. In Carey's version, which actually found its origins in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Lucifer is fed up with being in charge of Hell and he's gone up to Earth and opened up a piano bar called Lux in Los Angeles. The story opens as an angel approaches him, sent by God to deliver a message - God needs a favor. Once again, there is no doubt Lucifer is a villain, but he is still the hero of these volumes.

A good hero is not perfect. He has flaws and imperfections which make him human, and place him within the understanding of the readers who might be less than impressed with someone who is without fault. At the same time, a villain can have his good points and his virtues. And be interesting enough to fill the role of hero.

Wouldn't life be dull if every character was one way or the other? It's how you handle the flaws that sets your characters apart, for good or for bad. Who doesn't love a bad boy?

I think every writer needs to make a hero of a villain at least once in his or her career. I know I intend do.

You've met him already, and he too is a serial killer. You'll be seeing him again.

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