Villainy and Redemption: Can Bad Guys Ever Become Heroes?

I love villains! Wait… let me clarify. I love fictional villains!

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Sometimes (often) the villain in the story is just as interesting—if not more so—than the hero. When I say villain, I mean the primary antagonist, the “big bad” who torments and drives the protagonist through the plot. Sometimes, that antagonist isn’t a villain at all, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m talking about the antagonists who are villains in that they are the enemies of the hero we’re supposed to empathize with and root for.

So why do I love these bad guys? Well, I wouldn’t say I love them all. Some villains are very poorly written, which makes them one-dimensional. In those cases, they’re simply evil for the purpose of the plot. There’s no reason for them to be that way, and their actions make little sense in the context of a rational world. These villains are easy to hate, which makes the hero easy to root for. I’m not calling out any specific work of fiction here, but I will say that whenever a villain is just plain evil because… reasons, it’s an example of lazy writing. It’s much harder to convince readers (and viewers, and gamers) to root for a hero when the villain is also a sympathetic character.

So what makes a villain a sympathetic character (i.e. the kind of villain you might find yourself rooting for)?

One of the things that make a villain sympathetic is a cause. You see, whenever the villain believes that they are the hero in their own story—because in their mind, their cause is just—they could just as easily be the hero with a shift in perspective.

A completely made-up example: Goldenboy is on a quest to stop BadMan from invading his lands and enslaving his people to press them into building a fortress and form a conquering army. Obviously BadMan, with his black hat and his constant mustache-twirling, is the villain, and we can hate him and root for his inevitable defeat at the hands of Goldenboy, who is buff and super-handsome and has great hair.

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I’ve come to save the day! And look fabulous doing it.

Now, let’s shift perspective. BadMan received advanced notice of an impending invasion by a monstrous species from across the sea that will annihilate all humans if it is allowed to land successfully on BadMan’s shores. BadMan attempted to warn people, but the leaders of all the different kingdoms were too busy fighting amongst themselves to pay attention, so in desperation, BadMan began conquering the other kingdoms in an effort to unify the continent before the monsters arrive.

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Sure, we may disagree with BadMan’s methods. We can still hate what he’s doing by enslaving people and killing those who don’t submit to his rule, but given the wider context, BadMan isn’t so much a villain as a ruthless leader doing whatever is necessary to protect not just his own people, but all the humans on the continent. In BadMan’s mind, he is the hero. He’s the one doing what’s right, and when Goldenboy kills him and the kingdoms are all freed to go back to their infighting, the end result is that the monsters will invade and wipe out the humans.

I love stories that follow this kind of pattern. I love a gray area where no decision is a simple one. This example is made up, but this type of story has been written in many different variations in books, movies, video games, and any other fictional media, and every time I encounter it, I love it!

I’m even happier when I discover that the villain has depth. Yay! What that means is that BadMan isn’t just some mustache-twirling jerk in a black hat. He has a spouse, maybe even a child whom he loves and dotes on. Maybe he has a long-lost love that he pines over. Perhaps instead, he’s lonely and has grown bitter from past heartbreaks.

Whether it’s long-lost lovers or a fondness for puppies and kittens, whenever the villain possesses traits that I can relate to and sympathize with, I love that!

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Villain starter kit

Of course, related to positive traits is when a villain has honor. So he kills a lot of people, and far too many of them are innocent. That’s pretty hard to forgive, but then again, let’s remember context (and that this is fictional). Yet BadMan does possess a strong code of honor. He doesn’t kill innocents without reason. He doesn’t hurt people just to watch them scream. He’s bothered by the necessity of his actions. Indeed, he may even be tormented by it. In essence, he is sacrificing a portion of himself—his own moral code—for what he views as the greater good. This is really just an extension of villains having depth, but I felt it deserved a special mention, because I think this type of thing really makes an interesting villain.

Then there are villains who don’t have a choice. Let’s say that BadMan isn’t working towards some cause to benefit humanity. Let’s say he’s working for the monsters. We’re back to hating him, right? Not so fast. BadMan is under a spell, and though he is fully aware of how his actions sacrifice his own principles and strong sense of justice, he can’t do anything about it. Then we learn that BadMan was once a heroic individual just like Goldenboy. Well, even though we know for a fact he must be stopped, we wish there was some way that Goldenboy could save the day and also save BadMan. Of course, usually that’s impossible in the story.

What happens when they don’t know they’re working for the wrong side? There’s always the villain who’s just doing their job. Even though they are the primary antagonist because they are the face of the kingdom, or corporation, or whatever evil entity they work for, they don’t actually realize that that entity is evil. Granted, some of the actions they have to take for that entity should raise red flags, but they may have been given bad information that makes them believe what they did was—if not just—then at least necessary. It’s always a great moment when that type of villain must come to terms with the truth.

The last thing I’ll mention is when a villain is just plain interesting. Sometimes, a villain is evil and does bad things without remorse—and we would normally hate that—but then we’re introduced to the villain and we just can’t help but find them fascinating. We want to know what makes them tick. We wonder why they are the way they are. When they’re defeated, we kind of hope they manage to escape their death to return for a sequel. Again, I’m not calling out any specific examples, because there are so many, but I’m sure most of you could pick some examples of this type of villain off the top of your head pretty quickly.

There are probably a hundred other ways in which an excellent, interesting villain can be written, so no one has any excuse to make bland, boring, just-plain-evil bad guys. Including myself. 😉

I do try to make interesting villains, and I have a tendency to love them too much, to the point that I try to soften their actions because I don’t want to end up hating them. I always have to pull back on that tendency because I don’t want to take the teeth out of my bad guys.

So after all these points, I know my answer to the question: “Can bad guys ever become heroes?”

Yes. Yes, they can. With the right kind of redemption, I think the majority of these fictional villains could truly be the hero in the story. There are so many fictional villains I’ve read or seen over the years that I wish would have their own stories. I don’t write fan-fiction, so I won’t be the one creating those, but I will continue to try and create my own villains that fit my view of interesting.

What do you think makes an interesting fictional villain? Who are some of your favorite villains in fiction (books, comics, games, movies, plays, any type of fiction)? Let me know in the comment section. I’d love to hear your opinion on this.

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I wanted to add that I have finally received the finished cover for Balfor’s Salvation, and I’m thrilled with how it turned out. While I love the artwork on the original cover, done for me by Mike Alvear, this new cover is also beautiful, and I think it closer represents the genre of my book. Let me know what you think. I will still be using the original illustration of Balfor for my profile simply because I love the way Mike drew him.

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