So there are people we call heroes and people we call villians, and no matter how enlightened and insightful we claim to be, we can’t seem to get away from those labels. So how do we decide which is which?
In the old days, it was white hats and black hats. The good guys dressed so we could recognize them, they were polite to the ladies and they could always stand up to the bad guys no matter how bad the odds. The bad guys, on the other hand, were cowards and lechers. Their wardrobe was just as obvious.
It happened most in Westerns, when everyone wore hats. It worked in gangster movies for much the same reasons. Or look at that great of classic movies, Casablanca. Rick and Victor Lazlo are almost always shown in a white suit, while Major Strasser appears in the traditional black uniform.
But in no medium have heroes and villains been more clear cut than comic books. With every character wearing brilliantly colored costumes that make them easy to identify, villains and heroes were never so clear cut as in the golden age of comics.
Today, people have taken great pleasure in blurring the lines between heroes and villains. To an extent that’s a good thing, because it forwards verisimilitude, or how realistic fiction is. Realistic fiction is good fiction, because it’s more likely to last a long time.
For an example of this, look at Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (or Emma or Sense and Sensibility). In spite of the fact that few modern readers can sympathize with the lives of young daughters of English landed gentry, the books continue to resonate with readers and, in fact, be very funny. Why? Because Austen was an astute observer of human nature, and her larger than life characters reflect people we ourselves know.
However, her central characters are riddled with flaws – Mr. Darcy’s pride, Elizabeth Bennet’s snap judgements, Emma’s inability to understand the intentions of many of the people she meets. This doesn’t make them weaker characters, it makes them more believable ones.
The problem with modern fiction is that it has a tendency to go too far. Central characters in many stories are now self-centered anti-heroes, or cowards who stumble to heroism entirely by circumstance, deliberately shying away from the character traits that life and experience tell us makes people good for themselves and their communities. This is just as lacking in verisimilitude as the white hat-black hat attitude embodied in the old western.
All too often the attitudes that fiction show us make us more fragile and disconnected human beings. Maybe it’s time to push back. If you drop all that in the fire and cook it good, what comes out?
Care to have a look and see?