Sunday, March 24, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #174: Not All Villains Are The Heroes Of Their Own Story

I originally posted a version of this in the comments last time, but I wanted to re-phrase it and give it a post of its own, so that I can link back to it later, sorry for the repeat...
There was a debate in the comments last time about whether or not most villains think of themselves as the heroes of their own story.  My argument was that this claim is overstated.  I would say that most villains think of themselves as righteous and justified, but not “heroic”: they know that they are violating society’s ethics and morals in an unlovable way.  Most either enjoy being hated or just don’t care.

Veteran commenter J.S. proposed that only psychopaths know that they’re doing wrong and don’t care, but I countered with my own diametrically-opposed belief that only psychopathic villains truly think of themselves at the hero of their own stories, whereas the corrupt and criminal are more likely to think of themselves as “the bad guy.”

To wit: lets look at three members of TV’s dog-killer club:

Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) kills her client’s dog and frames her opponent for it at the end of the pilot episode of “Damages”. Does she think that this is the right thing to do? I say no. She knows that she’s chosen to do an evil thing. Does she think that her larger goal is justified? Well, she keeps saying that her goal is justice for her defrauded working-class class-action clients…but we can tell that she doesn’t really believe that anymore.

She still pays lip service to idealism, but she’s basically just a shark at this point, gobbling up money and power for the sake of money and power. Like Walter White, the only motivation she has left is spite (for a world that she feels is unfair to powerful women). Unlike Walter, however, she feels guilt for what she’s doing, and occasionally breaks down crying when she realizes what a wretch she is, which shows to me that she’s not a psychopath.

Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) one-ups Patty by killing a dog in the opening minutes of “House of Cards”. Does he think that this is the right thing to do? Yes, as he explains directly to the camera, he thinks that the dog needed to be put out of its suffering. Does he think this makes him a good guy? No. He knows that his actions are cold, Machiavellian and unlovable. Does he think of himself as a good guy in general? No, like Patty, he accepts that he is ruled mostly by his own petty hatreds.

Unlike Patty, he thinks that he can still do some good politically, but only once he has total power, and he’s more than willing to do things that he himself considers to be evil in order to get that power. Unlike Patty, he cannot cry about his wretched state, but his narration to us lets us know that he is aware (and slightly regretful) that he is hurting people, which, once again, shows me that he is not a psychopath.

Contrast this with King Joffrey on “Game of Thrones”, who orders his fiancĂ©’s wolf killed, giving him an honorary membership in the club. I say that Joffrey is the only one of the three who does think of himself as a hero because he’s the only one of the three who is a psychopath.

Joffrey is incapable of feeling empathy-- incapable of understanding that the needs and wants of others are equally valid as his needs and wants. The dog hurt him, and so it dies, and if his fiancĂ© disagrees, then she’s an idiot, because she should realize that it’s the job of everything in the universe to please Joffrey. Unlike Patty and Francis, he truly believes that he is hero of his story: he thinks that he’s never done anything wrong, and that everybody loves him, because he’s their king.

Now don’t get me wrong, we have empathy for Joffrey: we see that he was purposely spoiled by his sadistic parents, who saw him as their weapon of revenge against the world. Joffrey is merely what he was raised to be. So we have empathy for him, but no sympathy, and we recognize that he will never have any empathy for others.

So I feel that, amongst villains, only psychopaths see themselves as the hero of their story, while corrupt people, like Patty and Francis think of themselves as people who have decided to willfully transgress society’s commonly-accepted notions of morality and ethics for their own personal reasons, even if that means that others will think of them as “The bad guy”.

(One big request: I have only seen the first four episodes of “House of Cards” and I’m on season two, episode two of “Game of Thrones”, so pretty please don’t spoil anything I haven’t seen.) (On the other hand, I only watched the first season of “Damages”, but I’m probably not going to finish it, so spoil away.)


PaulClarke said...

I agree with your analysis.

But I always took that comment to mean that the villain is the hero of his own story not because of doing anything heroic, but because if we were to view the story from their point of view it would have goals and obstacles and a similar structure to the heroes.

As apposed to those terrible one dimensional villains who are just there to stop the hero. They have no goals/desires/ideals of their own. They're just a mechanization of the story, an obstacle for the hero.

JD Paradise said...

I do think that there's at least one other avenue here - an antagonist who willfully transgresses society's rules for the greater good, and who therefore can legitimately see himself as a hero without being a psychopath.

There's also the antagonist who shapes the rules the protagonist is rebelling against - your basic president or king or high priest or what-have you. They may have some self-interest, but they're also trying to keep a people fed and healthy or a faith whole, and can presumably make decisions that directly jeopardize the protagonist without descending into psychopathy.

If you're a Walking Dead fan, the Governor is undoubtedly not a completely well man, but written differently the writers could have completely twisted the knife by making him someone who was just looking out for his people's good.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, I haven't really gotten into the concept of the NON-corrupt leader whose laws the hero is opposed to, such as Creon in Antigone. He's certainly a non-psychopath who's convinced that he's a hero, but he's sort of right about that. Sophocles gives both antagonist and protagonist equally heroic, yet diametrically opposed qualities. The same could be said for Jones and Ford in "The Fugitive".

I would say that Creon and Gerard belong in a category that would be called "heroic antagonist."

On the other hand, let's look at President Snow in "The Hunger Games". Again, he feels very righteous and justified, and I would say that he's not a psychopath, but does he think of himself as a hero? I would say not really: he knows that his people hate him, and he knows that he enjoys his own sadism, so I think he thinks of himself as "the bad guy".

j.s. said...

Paul Clarke makes a distinction I should have made before between two key senses of the term "heroic": 1) pursuing the good, true, just and noble via good means for good reasons and 2) in the position of being the protagonist of one's own narrative. Conflating the two meanings doesn't help. And I've definitely been guilty of that.

I've never seen DAMAGES, but it seems to me your position in this post rests mostly on this series, as I disagree with your take on Frank Underwood. When Glenn Close cries is she crying out of sorrow, regret and despair for the pain she's causing others? Or is she crying for the stress that this has brought into her own life? If you haven't, you might want to take a look at what FBI profiler John Douglas has to say about serial killers who cry in front of cops and judges.

Merely knowing that what you are doing is wrong and being bothered by it in some way isn't definitive enough for me. As I've mentioned above, any number of the most heinous murderers in history have appeared to show contrition (when it's likely they were crying for themselves). SS guards, Khmer Rouge killers, other genociders and any number of serial murderers consciously chose to get drunk time after time to do what they knew was wrong and also in many cases found viscerally repulsive -- yet would not stop doing. Some of them were psychopaths and some of them weren't.

If you keep going in HOUSE OF CARDS you'll find out more about Underwood that makes you understand him less. At this point, even with the episodes you've seen, I'd argue that it's hard to see what Underwood believes in beyond himself or how he sees himself governing any differently when he acquires more power eventually. He knows he's not a good guy, he enjoys being feared (but not too hated as that wouldn't be so useful), and he really doesn't seem to have any qualms about any of his transgressions. He's closer to the psychopath personality/arc than you think. From the first few episodes alone there's an obvious component of malignant narcissism behind his every action.

Why not take these litmus tests to their logical extreme and Reductio ad Hitlerum? Who would say that Hitler, the world historical poster boy for the worst of humanity's Evil wasn't a psychopath? He certainly did seem to think of himself as heroic in all senses we've mentioned above. And he also seemed to be aware that he had to do some bad things and be seen as the bad guy on the way to his ultimate goal of the Thousand Year Reich. He's a sort of all-of-the above bad guy. He had empathy for his mistress and his dog, but not for the millions of souls he slaughtered en route to following his bliss.

j.s. said...

Another case study: Jodi Arias. Yeah, I've been following the trial. And I know this kind of true crime coverage kills brain cells, which is why I limit my time on HLN.

She's clearly a malignant narcissist, a pathological liar and likely a psychopath too. Her numerous emotional breakdowns on the stand and in those police interrogation videos seem to stem from various overlapping motivations: 1) to lie/fake/cry her way out of it; 2) honest floods of emotion from recalling the trauma of the event; 3) some vestigial modicum of regret for her victim.

The murder was obviously traumatic for her and she did, in some sense love Travis and probably feels genuinely bad that he's gone and even that she's the one who did it. But I'd say the bulk of her emotion is about how these actions affected her personally, including the aftermath of her arrest and trial and the not inconsiderable psychological damage of having been present at the moment of a brutal murder.

I imagine she's cognizant to a pretty high degree that she's lied to the cops and the courtroom, but probably feels that these lies are at the service of a higher inner truth -- that she had to kill her ex-boyfriend because he was, in fact, an imminent threat to her. Not physically, the way she claims, of course, but to her giant/fragile ego.

Matt Bird said...

I don't think we really disagree that much, I think we're simply stumbling on the distinction between righteousness and heroism (and to a certain degree on the shades of difference between psychopathy and malignant narcissism, as you point out.)

Yes, most villains consider themselves righteous, but I would say that few consider themselves to be 'good guys', which is how I think most people interpret the idea that they consider themselves to be the hero of their own story.

Most have an idea in their head that "I have a good reason to get angry and 'play the bad guy' here, because my goal is a righteous one, even if it means I have to be cruel, deceptive and unlovable."

To circle back around to my original point, I think that this is why writers should read memoirs of rotten people: to see how differently those people see themselves and the world.

j.s. said...

Matt: I'm certainly enjoying these posts and as always I appreciate the amount of time, attention and passion you put into them.

I've been obsessed with the problem of Evil for as long as I can remember, which is why I devoted myself to the study of religion, psychology, philosophy and literature in college and have kept up with it since.

It often seems that broader public discussions of these issues tend to want to make things either much more or much less complex than they are. For instance, when it comes to rampage killers, a percentage of whom seem to be mentally ill in some significant way, most people's gut reaction is that to admit this kind of consideration into the discourse around the event as a way of understanding what happened (let alone excusing/explaining away/mitigating the suspect's actions or jail sentence) is an insult to the victims and their families.

Not surprisingly some very prominent Holocaust survivors feel the same way about Hitler. Check out Ron Rosenbaums' excellent volume EXPLAINING HITLER for the full gamut of attempts to comprehend the origin of his evil as well as the numerous philosophical and moral objections to the entire enterprise.

On the flip side, I sometimes feel that imaginary villains like Frank Underwood and Dexter -- who get to have all the cool parts of being a psychopath with few of the liabilities -- get off way too easily, receiving the benefit of a false, ginned up emotional complexity and a writerly faux-empathy where none would exist in the real world.

Beth said...

This is a great post and series of comments! Can I just add that it's really hard to admit faults out loud to another human being, but it's super-easy to justify them internally. Most people do NOT want to think of themselves as bad. Like the cop who pulls over a black-driver would not call himself a racist. Or the crowds who participated in a lynching don't think of themselves as murders.
People justify all sorts of actions, pretending they are ambiguous when they aren't.

Also, as a parent, I have resigned myself to being the villian to my kids at times. Yes, my rules seem irrational to a 4 year old but I do have a LARGER Issue and good reasons for throwing away that candy!

PaulClarke said...

Just remembered a piece of advice someone once gave me:

Write a logline for the story from the Villains point of view.
In fact, do it for as many of the characters as you can. This is the simplest form of structural outline. You can spot story issues and motivational problems straight away.

As for villains, I guess NFL gives us a good perspective on this. Some players entire existence it to stop the other team.