How To Tell Hero From Villain
Part 1 of Theme-Archetype Integration: The Nature of Art can be found here.
There we discussed how human (and MAYBE non-human) psychological archetypes are a fixed attribute of the nature of reality, the pattern from which human personalities and life-courses are created.
The storyteller's "art" does not create archetypes (scholars discover them, as physicists discovered the Higgs Boson, rather than inventing it).
The storyteller's "art" is all about choosing what details go in which compartments of an Archetype to create a fictional "Character" that readers can understand and believe is real.
So, Literary scholars have identified the archetypes they call Hero (the Hero With a Thousand Faces is a worthwhile read).
And of course The Hero's Journey.
These two non-fiction books detail old, tried-and-true, analyses of how humans, myth and fiction work.
But this blog is about writing Alien Romance, a blend of science fiction and romance genre that transcends both.
One of the keys to worldbuilding an environment to tell a science fiction tale is to question the very facts that everybody knows to be true. The least questioned, hard facts of science, the proven beyond doubt facts, make the very best fodder for the science fiction novel's premise.
Science fiction has been described as the pursuit of one of the 3 following inquiries:
1. "What if ...?"
2. "If only ...."
3. "If this goes on...."
Any two combined raise the interest of the mature science fiction reader.
Use all 3 at once, and you get a novel that turns heads and gets talked about.
Note that all 3 apply just as well to a Romance plot. Staring at a just met prospect, a lead Character might think, "What if he/she was interested in me?" "If only I could attract his/her attention..." or "If I agree to a second date, where will this lead?"
In science fiction, the subject is the tried-and-true Laws of Physics or Chemistry etc., and in Romance the subject is the Relationship with a particular person.
Science Fiction worldbuilding premises are about the structure of physical reality, and the Romance worldbuild premises are about the structure of human personality and what we refer to as "Character." That's not the individual player in the story, but rather the elements that make up the Personality and Values inside such a player.
"Character" is remarkably hard to define. I wrestled with it mightily when the term showed up on my elementary school report card. I was well into my 40's before I began to get a grip on what attribute "Character" refers to.
It is a difficult, abstract and complex quality. You can point to a cup of coffee and say, "That is a cup with coffee in it." And you see it, and smell it, and you feel the heat, and you know what it is.
OK, so now go point to your own personal character.
Where is it in your body -- between your eyes, at your mouth or throat, at your heart, your gut? Where do you carry your Character?
What does it mean to be a "Good judge of Character." Could you write a story where the main character is a good judge of Character? Could you detail what goes on inside the mind of someone who is accurately identifying a "strong character" or a "weak character?"
Do you think rereading Joseph Campbell's works would give you those lines of inner dialogue you could put in italics and attribute to your Hero?
How about a Villain who is a good judge of Character?
Is the ability to distinguish accurately what sort of person another person is a trait that only Villains have -- or only Heros? Is it a common trait -- to be very accurate about summing up the driving force of another person just on first acquaintance.
Think about that in terms of Love At First Sight.
In order to have a Love At First Sight experience, to identify your destined mate and absolutely perfect other half at the blink of an eye, do you have to be a Good Judge Of Character in general?
The answer to those questions formulate the Theme of the novel you are worldbuilding.
The existence of the trait (in human and/or non-human nature) "Good Judge Of Character" is a bit of Worldbuilding pertaining to the structure of the Archetypes you are using in your worldbuilding. Yes, you can "make up" fictional archetypes to create an alternate reality, but in that case you must reveal the distinguishing difference eventually, usually in plot events and conflict.
Without telling or even showing the reader in detail about the physics and biology of the world you are taking them into, you establish the fact among these people there exists a distinguishing trait that the reader might term Good Judge of Character.
Is this trait rare among these people? Is it a trait that is admired or feared? Is it the most common trait and thus of no value? Creating Aliens who have an aristocracy that exhibits the trait Good Judge Of Character, or that have that trait as their most common trait, gives the writer a way to both draw the reader into the created world and to distinguish that world from all others.
The best example I know of using Judge of Character as a common trait distinguishing the Aliens is E. E. Smith's Lensman Series where the Arisians (non-material beings) judge human character and select certain people to be given a device called a Lens that bestows a range of psychic abilities on the human. The judgement the aliens make is about whether absolute power will corrupt this human absolutely -- or not. The humans with the ability to hand raw power without becoming corrupt are chosen as Lensmen (and yes, women).
Apparently there is no Kindle edition that isn't riddled with scanning errors or edited down to excerpts. Here, from Wikipedia is a list of the original series:
Triplanetary (1948. Originally published in four parts, January–April 1934, in Amazing Stories)
First Lensman (1950, Fantasy Press)
Galactic Patrol (1950. Originally published in six parts, September 1937 – February 1938, in Astounding Stories)
Gray Lensman (1951. Originally published in four parts, October 1939 – January 1940, Astounding Stories)
Second Stage Lensmen (1953. Originally published in four parts, November 1941 – February 1942, Astounding Stories)
Children of the Lens (1954. Originally published in four parts, November 1947 – February 1948, Astounding Stories)
Many book editions also were published. The plot outline (with spoilers) is on Wikipedia:
But you don't get the impact of the Character Archetype via the summary. My favorite of the novels is Gray Lensman, where that Character trait is starkly detailed.
There are many other ways to get the Lensman Series, so look around.
Everyone who has blogged about the Lensman Series has a different opinion about what it is about. I could write a book about the worldbuilding behind this landmark work of science fiction romance (yes, Helen of Troy Move Over! should be the title.) This is a Romance. The Hero is monumentally crush-worthy. And yes, it was the most scorned work of science fiction at the time of publication, as well as the one work most responsible for the advent of the Science Fiction Romance (yes, in 1941!!!).
As with Tolkien, the stories are suitable for young children but the vocabulary and syntax is adult level. In fact, you might have to use the Kindle "look up" feature to identify the meaning of some of the words.
Being Space Opera, the Villains are likewise drawn in stark, high relief, with utterly villainous traits. The villain is Boskone, the shadowy adversary of Arisia, two civilizations at war for millennia, using genetic manipulation of humans on Earth to war with each other.
The writer, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., (a chemist by trade) leaves us no doubt which are the good guys and which are the bad guys. But it is worth your while to study these novels with that question in mind.
Modern Space Opera (Star Trek and Star Wars in particular) presents a more adult, more equivocal portrait of the Good vs. Evil issue. In Star Wars especially, we learn the inter-marriage issues between the monster Bad Guy and the rebellious young Good Guys.
We know what Theme is, where it resides in a novel, and how to integrate theme with Character and with Worldbuilding. Here are the index posts listing those discussions:
You might have a Theme that says, "There is no such thing as a Villain." Or conversely, "There is no such thing as a Hero."
If your Theme is that there is no distinction between Hero and Villain, then your plot events must challenge that thesis -- you must create a society where the norm is a lack of distinction between Good and Evil, or Strong and Weak, or whatever traits you choose to distinguish Hero from Villain, and then create that One Oddball Misfit Character in that world who is a Hero (or Villain) and wrestle his/her internal conflict (I'm not like everyone else but I have to be), and his/her external conflict (Everybody hates me and I hate them), to a Climax (Escape From Planet Of The Apes.)
If, on the other hand, your Theme is that Heros/Villains Are Born Not Made, you might fabricate a World where how you are born does not matter -- or conversely how you are born might get you Legally Executed in your teens if you turn out "wrong."
Theme might be: It is Wrong To Make Yourself Conform -- or conversely Making Yourself Conform Is The Highest Virtue.
These themes easily integrate with the master conflict of Person vs. Society.
In our everyday world, we tend to label the people who want to tear down and destroy "society" as the Villains, the criminals. The Hero, or good guys, are those who protect society from the savage destruction.
Do we have a label, a word, for those who Build a Society? Are Builders hero or villain or something else?
Many great Romances have depicted the perfect match between a "nice" conforming girl and a "bad" or non-conformist boy. Falling in love with a drug dealing Biker Dude seems very natural to some women readers, not implausible at all. Bad Boys are attractive in a dangerous way.
The plot may go in the direction of the good girl reforming the bad boy. Or the bad boy drawing the good girl into the fun of confronting danger. Or the plot might explore how society's assessment of the bad boy as 'bad' (e.g. Villain) is incorrect, and he is really a Society Builder, a Great Reformer, labeled "bad" by the corrupt power structure he is intent on tearing down.
All of these Characters are shaped (and often labeled) by their environment, so Worldbuiilding is one of the most critical writing skills.
Theme is the connection between Worldbuilding and Characterization. How the writer depicts the impact of the "world" (society, civilization, prevalent values, upbringing, social status of parents, etc) on the Individual Character reveals a core theme of the work.
That core theme might be, "Strong Characters Are Not Affected By Environment" or it might be "No Amount Of Strength of Character Can Withstand Environment" (or put another way the apple does not fall far from the tree).
As noted in Part 1 of this series, the writer's Art is in choosing what elements go with which other elements to flesh out an Archetype.
I used the example of buying a dress pattern (choosing an Archetype), selecting material, then going to the notions counter and choosing thread, buttons and other decorative bits to give the dress unique individuality and beauty.
So the thematic contribution to the distinction between Hero and Villain is the simple statement of whether, in your build World, there actually exists a Hero Archetype (Heroes are born not made) and a Villain Archetype (Villains are born not made) or if all humans (or all aliens) are simply victims of our environment -- or possibly some more complex mixture.
This is the old Nature vs. Nurture argument about human Character.
Theme makes a statement about that Nature vs. Nurture issue - yes, no, or maybe sometimes.
But worldbuilding requires the writer to determine how Character Archetypes work in the invented world. The closer to observed reality the writer chooses to work, the easier it is for readers to immerse in the invented world and walk in the Character's moccasins.
So to tell the Hero from the Villain, first you decide if these are two different archetypes (and if so, what that difference is) -- or not.
In your World, is there such a thing as a Villain with a Strong Character? Or a Hero with a Weak Character? Is the distinguishing characteristic of Hero and Villain innate (archetype) or acquired (arbitrarily chosen by the writer).
How do you inform your reader which character is which?