Supervillain Diaries EP.5 “Of heroes and villains…”

When you’re writing about superhumans, amazing powers and larger than life feats – a narrative comprised of heroes and villains in a comic book style – you can’t help stripping back the characters you’ve created and questioning their purpose. To make the story work in novel form, the character development is critical. In a way, it’s even harder for the writer of a novel than a comic or graphic novel because you don’t have a costume or facial expressions to help build the right character vision. For example, one look at Dr. Doom or Apocalypse and you know they’re bad guys. By the same token, Superman and Spiderman shriek good guy with their bright colours and lack of weapons etc.

Weaving the character’s costume in words is a slow process. There’s an element of surprise you need to consider. A good guy will appear doing something good, sometimes. But for the sake of plot suspense, the route of making bad people appear good or leaving the reader hanging at the end of a chapter (with their own questions about a character’s true motives) is the essence of building pace and anticipation.

And then there is also the bigger picture to consider, namely the narrative of the entire piece. In Supervillain the central character who is to all intents and purposes the hero, inhabits a world where good and bad are inverted. The good guys are the bad guys. The terrorists are the freedom fighters. But you can’t just do that as a blithe, simple inversion. It’s got to be credible.

So the good guys who become bad, in context, have to be credibly good and vice versa. Now as it happens, this is a classic plot device and one that isn’t hard to grasp. That sort of character inversion is commonplace, in fact. I think it started with Robin Hood, who was, after all an outlaw but also a hero. Or perhaps it was even further back, from my own distant heritage when we consider how Loki in Norse mythology is both friend and foe to the Aesir gods, especially the (often insufferably arrogant and selfish) Thor. Or perhaps more distant still, to ancient Babylon where the gods of order and chaos created man and monster to battle as their proxies, only for their creations to turn against them and define their own sense of right and wrong, serving up chaos for the gods of order and order to the gods of chaos.

Genres can help in some respects. A gritty crime story is full of moral ambiguity, laced with dirty cops, principled hit men and reluctant informers who become brave heroes. In works of fantasy or science fiction, again the genre provides scope for the violent warrior to turn into the defender of innocence, or the hard nosed starship Captain who has refused to help the rebels has a change of heart and joins them on the front line. But this risks falling into cliché. It smacks of the angry Captain Dobey from Starsky & Hutch, who every week threatened to bust his best cops down to traffic duty for their maverick ways. Or even worse, it becomes self-parody. Take the seemingly endless Terminator sequels where the cold blooded killer cyborg finds itself teetering on the edge of become a cuddly wittle bunny wabbit cyborg. Ahhhh. How sweet the sound of printing money has become. But it leaves the fans feeling short changed.

I was discussing the various subtleties of this issue with one of my test readers and he summed it up very succinctly for me. His view was the dividing line between hero and villain is a line drawn between the greater good, and the personal good. The villain will sacrifice a few pawns to win the chess game, the hero will risk everything to save the pawn, even losing the overall game. This is a very insightful viewpoint.

In Supervillain, the antihero becomes the hero but is motivated by very small, personal reasons. It means the bad guys are defined by their noble goals for the rest of humanity. It explores the dangerous ground that asks if folk heroes like Sancho Panza would be seen as cold blooded terrorists if we experienced them today. Is the cult following for the likes of Winston Churchill really a celebration of sacrificing the lives of soldiers for badly defined military goals, as some of his actions may be judged? The reality is grey, depending on many factors not least one’s own moral and ethical perspective.

Of course, in fiction, as in folklore and history, we have the opportunity to gloss over the grey areas, but I’ve never wanted to do that. In Supervillain I wanted to confront the tragedy of the little guy who gets smooshed by accident when Hulk smashes the big bad guy to save the world, or the collateral damage when a stray bullet from the A-Team kills an innocent bystander as they take down some evil crime boss.

In many respects I set out with Supervillain to explore the contradictions of the hero vs. villain idea. It grew from the fact that, as I matured, I began to view Captain America and Iron Man as the running dogs of authority and the likes of Wolverine or The Punisher to be modern day hero outlaws. But in reality, if you met them, Wolverine and The Punisher would be scary, violent criminals and Captain America a much nicer guy to bump into down your local bar. Capturing the essence of that grey emotional soup is the way to write more mature, literary takes on the classic comic book tropes we grew up with. At least, it’s my way. I think the lesson here, as with the nature of heroes and villains, is there is no clear right and wrong in anything when you’re writing it.