Heroes and Villains

This isn’t properly a kink topic – more of a morality and personal media analysis topic. But given the way my kinks work, these categories are a very large part of the dynamics that I like, and sometimes I talk about characters as being in these categories (as I did in my last post). So I think it makes sense for me to define the terms as I use them.

For me, villains are characters who willingly hurt innocent people. Or, to put it in more exact though less simple terms, characters who willingly hurt people who are too innocent/not guilty enough to be hurt in that way. (As usual when I use it, ‘hurt’ here means ‘hurt in a way that violates their human rights’. So for instance refusing to put up with people violating your boundaries is not hurting by this definition, even if it really upsets them. Likewise, neither is causing someone consensual pain, etc). Several of these terms being flexible, this leaves a lot up to the author of any particular narrative.

‘Willingly’ is flexible because a person who has no other choice is not acting willingly, but a person who does and takes that one anyway is. So when they want to determine morality this way, authors get to decide what choices their characters had, and who gets to count as having had no other options.
–An example of this is the question of whether and when ‘I was following orders’ is an acceptable defense against war crimes – if the idea of violating orders was unthinkable? If it would have brought severe punishment? Never? Etc.

Meanwhile, ‘too innocent/not guilty enough to be hurt in that way’ is flexible because people have often very different opinions on how much it is alright to hurt guilty people, and how guilty they have to be for that. As an example of this:
–Someone who thought that death was an appropriate punishment for profiting off of slave labor and someone who did not would write very different takes on a story about exploited factory workers planning to bomb a rich neighborhood.

On the other hand, heroes are people who are actively against willingly hurting innocent people. (‘Actively’ is another rather flexible word, which I here use to mean basically anything aside from ‘they never really thought about the topic, but if you asked would probably end up saying they were against it’. So it can range from simply opposing it to refusing to do it to going out to stop the people doing it). This has the same areas of flexibility as the other definition. For some examples:
–If a character is offered the option between shooting one person or watching 10 people be executed, does making the second choice make them selfish for prizing their own ‘purity’ above 9 lives, or does it make them admirably committed to their principles (or neither)?
–While most people would agree that the heroes could not torture random civilians, is it alright for the heroes to torture people with known misdeeds?

As a relevant definition, I generally define dark heroes as ‘heroes who have a more permissive opinions on what harm it is acceptable to deal out to guilty people than some baseline’ (the baseline can be many things – the other heroes, their canon characterization if this is a fanfic, etc).

As an example of one way this shows up in my kinks: as I mentioned in the previous post, one villains-as-constricts dynamic I like is guilty-feeling repentant villains. Often, I like to see these villains hurt – imprisoned, enslaved, tortured, etc. Sometimes, I like it when the people doing this are the heroes. Such a dynamic is only possible in a moral universe where there is some level of hurt it is alright to deal out to some level of guilty people.

Edited to add: a comment a reader left made me aware that I’d missed a rather important point. That being: the standard discussed here is based on my morality/worldview. A more general formulation would be ‘villains are characters who violate the determining tenet of the morality system/worldview being used and heroes are people who are actively against violating that tenet’.  The determining tenet of my morality/worldview is not hurting innocent people. Therefore, that’s what determines heroes and villains for me. However, if for instance my determining tenet was ‘obey every command of the Great Leader’ or ‘create a world populated only by left-handed people’, then villains who didn’t hurt anyone, but did violate the commands of the Great Leader or hid right-handed people, and heroes who hurt innocent people because the Great Leader told them to or killed innocent right-handed people would be a part of my stories.


3 thoughts on “Heroes and Villains

  1. I liked this post very much and will probably reblog a link to it on my Tumblr later. A couple of comments:

    While readers generally understand what villains are doing in terms of hurting innocent people, for all but the most one-dimensional villains, that’s a side effect of what they’re focused on doing. We notice the body count. They’re generally aiming for something much bigger, like destroying the current order of things and assuming ultimate power. Some of them are indifferent to hurting people. A great many more enjoy it in a sadistic way, but very few define What It Is [They] Do as “hurt people.” That’s a facet of their personality, from their POV. Everyone else gets stuck on that part. 😉

    Also, I’d refine your description to “characters who willingly hurt people who are too innocent/not guilty enough for a normative audience to accept their being hurt in this way.” There’s nothing inherent to the story preventing them from inflicting pain and getting away with it. Their downfall depends on the author’s deciding to invent an ending for them that satisfies the audience’s desire to see “people who do bad things” get punished.

  2. I’m glad you like, and thank you for commenting!

    Well, yes. In fact, the reason I focused on this particular facet is because it’s the one I consider distinguishing – otherwise, heroes and villains can do exactly the same things. Heroes and villains can both try to assume power, or destroy the current order, etc – what distinguishes the two is whether or not they’re willingly hurting innocent people as they do it. (As a sidenote: I suspect, from reading a tumblr post of yours, that villains is something we probably disagree/have different views on).

    And, I wouldn’t, because it’s not about the audience. It’s about the author. The author’s standards are the ones that’ll show up in the story. An audience that disagrees with the author will likely have issue with the story, while an audience that agrees with the author won’t (at least on this topic). As an example: the heroes in The Turner Diaries execute people for interracial sex, because to them that’s sufficiently guilty to be hurt that way. Since I strongly disagree with this, that would make me unable to accept them as the heroes. But someone who agreed with this wouldn’t have this problem.

    Also, thank you, because that made me realize something I’d completely missed when writing the post. I will go include it an an edit.

    And, you’re completely right. Villains are villains regardless of what happens to them in the end – that is a matter of story structure and authorial decision. This standard could be used just as much for a story where the villains are victorious.

    • <3. [Did not get the comment notification, responded when I checked back and saw this.]

      They can, but that's not so common in modern stories. American heroes' actions are increasingly constrained by other arbitrary lines in the sand and the belief that crossing these lines would make them "just like the villains." For instance, most modern heroes aren't allowed to seek power. They're given a power that they didn't ask for and often feel burdened by. Their longing for a normal life is presented as proof that they're "good people" and contrasted with villains who gained power as a result of wanting power. Another example is the way that heroes generally aren't allowed to kill their own opponents anymore, because the act of killing a person is considered innately corrupting and harmful. Stories that accommodate this quirk without sparing the villain often have them fall to their death, or otherwise be executed by circumstance.

      Re sidenote: You don't have to elaborate, but I'm curious what you think we'd disagree on.

      Oh, that's an interesting distinction. I wasn't looking at them in terms of whether the author considered them the villain because, while that has a lot to do with what happens to them, it isn't really the final word on whether the audience is going to condemn them. And usually authors are catering to an existing contemporary morality. IME an author who will have their heroes do things that a mainstream reader would disagree with are the exception, to such an extent that these readers feel cheated/betrayed if the story doesn't show the characters they identify with acting in ways they approve of.

      *Eyes twinkle* Saw and appreciated your edit.

      It could, and I really like that.

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