So let’s talk Heroes and Villains and your world.
I should note that when I talk Heroes and Villains I’m using that to pretty much mean the same thing as “Protagonist” and “Antagonist.” Why? Because it’s a hell of a lot easier to write “Hero and Villain” and sounds a tad less academic. I’ve got enough trouble going academic as it is.
So for the duration of my digressions, I hope you’ll forgive the simplicity.
But hey you have your main character(s) right? They’re the heroes and villains, correct? They’re the ones you focus on, right? The hero, especially, is the main character, right?
You may have a main character but they may not be a Hero. Oh there may be a Hero, but it’s not your main character.
For some writers, this is a problem, and it brings up an important issue in telling the stories of your world.
A Critical Definition
As noted earlier, when you’re writing, your Main character(s) of your story are essentially viewpoints on the world. In a few cases if you use a first-person writing style, quite directly so. But just because the story is from their perspective it may not mean they’re the Hero or Vllain.
When I try and define Hero and Villain, Protagonist and Antagonist, one thing that is critical is that the Heroes and Villains have effect. If your Hero is the main character the story is told from the perspective of someone affecting the setting. A Villain is the same way.
They may be morally different, but both are rather active, even if reluctantly or reactively (in the case of some Anti-Heroes).
In a way, Heroes and Villains are defined by a sense of Agency, of the ability to act and direct and change things. It may not be in a good way, or an effective way, or a competent way. They may fail, but their activity upon the environment is what makes them Heroes and Villains as much as their motivation.
You could be exceedingly evil, but if you’re in a coma due to your last drug binge in your lair of evil, you’re not really an Antagonist. You’re more an After-School Special for supervillains.
You could be exceptionally heroic, but if that results in no direction and activity, then you’re not really the Hero, are you? Yes you may be a nice guy, but you’re not really the Hero, you’re a well-meaning victim of circumstance.
Sense Of Agency, Sense of Story
Thus when you are deciding on your story, if you’re telling a tale of Heroism and/or with villainy, Heroes and Villains require agency, initiative and direction. If they do not act, they are merely acted upon and at best responding, and even then poorly.
This is a critical definition, as a few things happen to those who make tales that can ruin the sense of Agency.
- We focus so much on worldbuilding, our characters bounce round like pinballs. Ever read a book that seemed to be an exercise in tourism? You get the idea.
- We conjure up characters to tell the story or have it happen too. The Hero is there so stuff happens and things get done, but they’re not a character, not part of the world. They’re a camera with legs, making your tale the equivalent of a found-footage movie.
- We spend too much time inside the Hero’s head we forget to make them a person. You don’t notice how unfurnished a room is if you keep looking out a window.
Now in a few cases if your Villain is a phenomena like a plague or something, then the Villain can lack agency in a human sense. Their “agency” comes from pure brute force and circumstance. But if you’re writing from a hero’s point of view and they have no initiative they’re no Hero.
You’ve probably read stories like above. Someone gets all the hero trappings but never does anything, never shows any initiatives. Never does anything. It’s boring – you find yourself wishing for a Mary Sue/Gary Stu because at least they’d do do stupidly overblown stuff.
(And if you can write a story where the Hero is a faceless force and the Villain has a sense of agency, I want to talk to you.)
However sometimes your main character doesn’t always have a sense of agency. In a few cases, this is actually OK.
The Narrative Character
If a main character is not a hero, not a person with a sense of Agency, then in many cases that can be quite lame. It’s not interesting to read about someone bouncing around. It’s annoying to just watch things happen to someone in a world, even if the world is well written.
Except in some cases, I do think this is a valuable form of storytelling – if done consciously.
Sometimes the main character isn’t a Hero, it’s what I call a Narrative Character. A Narrative Character is someone who relates what is happening but has little role in shaping what is going on. That may not sound interesting at the start, but I believe it can be done well if handled properly. Thus, I think in cases where this is deliberately chosen, this is a legitimate form of storytelling.
Now I should note that I think truly Narrative character, the victims of circumstance, are relatively rare. Usually they’re on a scale between Narrative Character and Hero. The exceptions are usually narrative stories, where someone is reiterating what’s going on.
But it’s a legitimate choice if you do it right.
I feel some of the best examples of Narrative Characters are often found in horror stories, especially those about people in the grip of unfathomable evil. Their narrative ability both explains the horror but also communicates their sheer overwhelming sense of being trapped. Lovecraftian tales often do this quite well.
Though I wouldn’t limit the idea of the Narrative Character just to horror.
Make Your Choice and Move On
So when writing and picking perspectives, remember that Heroes and Villains have a sense of Agency. If your main character lacks suck, there’s either a flaw in your choices, or you’re really writing a Narrative Character.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.