Authors tend to eschew the terms “hero” and “villain” for a variety of reasons, some of them technical and some of them emotional. We tend to use the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist”. These terms give us a lot of flexibility. For example, a story can be told from the perspective of a person with no heroic, or even admirable characteristics, someone who we wouldn’t want to call a hero, and we don’t have to change our terminology.
On the other hand, these terms also embody a more realistic perspective. People are not all one thing or the other, and stories need to reflect that. This is what’s called verisimilitude by authors, and it’s so important that we try to include it in every aspect of the story, even in how we talk about that story.
At the same time, authors, just like everyone else, have a problem with antagonists. If you look at them closely, you tend to find that you have a lot in common with them. Sometimes, the antagonist is much more beloved than the protagonist of a story. And we don’t like to call them villains, because who wants to be a villain? Much better to go with terms lacking any kind of moral overtones. Then, there’s no need to loose any sleep over who you sympathize with more.
Now even protagonists who are meant to be heroic tend to have something wrong with them. Once again, that’s verisimilitude. People have issues. And since I am the protagonist I am most familiar with, as I’m sure you are the protagonist you are most familiar with, and I have issues, I expect the protagonists I read about to have issues as well. I suspect you are much the same.
In fact, if you look at it closely, you’ll find that protagonists and antagonists are very similar. They tend to be flawed people driven into conflict with one another by decisions they have made. And sometimes you’ll look at a story and find hero and villain very hard to parse.
There’s been a lot of ink spilled over that. We want people we can understand to be good people, so all kinds of things have been proposed. Morality has been dismissed, good and evil called constructs, and, of course, terms have been changed. The intelligentsia of the modern age have a thousand and one reasons for why you should stop worrying about good and evil and just get on with protagonizing* your own story.
But when we come face to face with life, when it beats us over the head until we’re ready to run screaming for the hills, or at least to mommy, when we’re tired of the grind and we just don’t want to get up any more and we know there has to be something more than this, we find the lie in that stance.
We realize that we don’t want to be protagonists. We want to be heroes.
Everyone wants to be a hero.
And everyone is corrupt. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to be the heroes we want to be. Are actions are tainted and leave us unsatisfied.
What does it take to get rid of the corruption? In olden times, flawed metal had to be melted down and the slag either burned away or siphoned off in order to be purified. Are we the same? Is it all the melting and pounding worth it?
There’s a heat wave coming. Are we ready?
*Protagonize (proh – tag – uh– nize)
1 – To present your story in the most philosophically and existentially correct way possible, thus causing unimaginable agony to those reading it. Not recommended for parties.