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.