Heroes, Villains, Anti-Heroes, and Sadsacks

Heroes and villains populate our fiction and our imaginations: Batman and the joker, cops and robbers, the Allies and the Nazis. Not every central character fits the standard hero or the standard villain, though; the anti-hero shows up too, with the BBC’s Sherlock or Yossarian from Catch-22.

Last weekend at Ravencon, I went to a panel called “writing believable villains” with T. Eric Bakutis, Tim Burke, Andy Beane, Kate Paulk and Gregory Smith. One of the panelists briefly summarized anti-heroes and villains: the anti-hero does the right thing for the wrong reason, and the villain does the wrong thing for the right reason.

That is, the anti-hero does things we would consider good, but not for altruistic reasons. Han Solo transports Luke and Obi-Wan from Tatooine because he is paid, not because he is trying to help them or take a stand against the Empire. Conversely, a satisfying villain does things we consider bad, but motivated by ethics or values of his own. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does horrible things, motivated by her belief in order and conformity. The villain in the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, is motivated by his obsession with M.

We often disagree with the villain’s ethics, but they are present, and can make them even more dangerous. Hitler wasn’t so damaging because he wanted to kill millions of people; he was dangerous because the mythos he used to support that goal drew others in.

Clearly, then, the hero is a character who does the right things for the right reasons, like Luke Skywalker or Superman or Frodo. The boundaries between each character type is complex, and these categories are more food for discussion than iron-clad designations. One story’s hero is another’s villain.

Still, I thought that the anti-hero/villain comparison above invited a fourth category: the sadsack. The sadsack does the wrong things for the wrong reasons. We are emotionally compelled to root against the sadsack, and feel a sense of satisfaction when they fail or face justice. A lot of newer characters fall in this mold for me: basically every character from “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia”, Lester Nygaard in the new “Fargo” TV series, as well as the main character in “Being John Malkovich.”

What do you think? What are some other examples of good villains, anti-heroes, and sadsacks?

Workbook2

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