Sunday, September 27, 2015

Writing Basics: Differentiating between the Hero, Villain, and Anti-hero Archetypes

In a prior post, I discussed the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist. Now, I want to dig into the distinctions between heroes, villains, and anti-heroes.

Before we continue, let's rehash so we don't get all of these terms confused:

The protagonist is the character who moves the action forward.

The antagonist is the character (or force) who halts or stalls the action.

The Hero Archetype

Image from
When it comes to traditional fiction, the hero is the character who embodies the human ideal: s/he is strong, intelligent, courageous, physically perfect, and -- often -- divinely graced (supported in some way by God/the gods). The hero is often the protagonist of the story, but s/he doesn't necessarily have to be.

Traditional (ancient) heroes were by no means subtle; they were cunning and quick to action, relying more on intuition than well-thought out plans.

Examples of ancient heroes:

Gilgamesh from Gilgamesh; Beowulf from Beowulf; and Odysseus from The Odyssey

Each of these heroes come from epic tales, and (if you didn't notice) ancient storytellers thought these heroes so important as to name the tales of their journeys after the men themselves.

But what about the modern hero?

Image: Disney. I do not own this image.
Modern heroes fit the modern cultural landscape: While still being courageous and, well, "heroic," the modern hero is more realistic in terms of appearance. S/he will still be strong, though this strength is more likely to be a form of mental strength (which ties back into intelligence) or fortitude (perseverance). Our modern hero is also more realistic in terms of physical appearance; the heroes of today's books may be attractive, but their attractiveness is more "down-to-earth." We see this especially in the recent emergence of the "nerdy hero," like Dave Stutler in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The modern hero also lacks divine grace, unless you are reading Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, in which case refer to the characteristics of the traditional (ancient) hero above.

One thing to remember when crafting your hero: Make your hero have a flaw. Often referred to as a "fatal flaw," every hero has one, and it is the characteristic that makes you hero more human-like and thus relatable.

The Villain Archetype

Image: Warner Bros. I do not own this image.
In direct opposition to heroes, villains are devoted to evil. They are malicious creatures who thrive on the destruction of goodness, and most villains are driven by the desire to ruin the hero's plans or end the hero's life.

Villains are most often considered the antagonists of stories, primarily because villains exist for the sole purpose of thwarting the hero's efforts and adding conflict/tension to the plot (refer back to our quick definition of antagonists to see why this makes sense).

Examples of villains in popular culture include:

Ursula from The Little Mermaid; Voldemort from the Harry Potter series; Darth Maul from Star Wars, and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty

Often, people consider villains ugly and purely sinister. However, like heroes, villains need to have some "human qualities" to be relatable.

Remember: When crafting the villain in your story, make sure s/he has redeeming qualities. If you make your villain too evil/unlikable, you run the risk of making your villain almost comically evil (and by comical, I mean too ridiculous to make serious).

Example of a villain with redeeming qualities:

Image: HBO. I do not own this image.
Lorena from The Southern Vampire Mysteries (The Sookie Stackhouse Series). In the HBO adaption, True Blood, Lorena is a vile, loathsome creature who tortures her vampire "child" Bill Compton. She also torments Sookie Stackhouse, Bill's human squeeze and the narrator of the books (she is also the protagonist of the series). Basically, you will hate her. UNTIL Season 3, Episode 6 "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" when Lorena expresses her undying (haha) love and devotion for Bill and we learn why she is twisted and evil (her backstory is her redemption).

The Anti-Hero Archetype

Image: Warner Bros. I do not own this image.
Not everything in fiction is as it seems, or even as we expect. There is a third archetype that needs to be mentioned in this discussion of heroes and villains: the anti-hero.

The anti-hero serves the same purpose as the standard hero: serve as the protagonist (sometimes), go on adventures, fight "bad guys," save the day. You know, standard stuff. However, there are key characteristics that define the anti-hero as separate from the typical hero; the anti-hero is the antithesis or "opposite" of the traditional hero.

Seen as superficially flawed, the anti-hero may be clumsy, unattractive, unlucky or incompetent (see the above reference to the "modern hero" example Dave Stutler). The anti-hero may be flawed in more fundamental ways as well, often seen as a wicked or ignoble character who defies authority and follows his/her own rules.

Examples of anti-heroes from modern books:

Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire; Dexter Morgan from Darkly Dreaming Dexter (and Showtime tv adaptation Dexter); Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series; and Gollum from Lord of the Rings

Image: Showtime. I do not own this image.
The anti-hero can serve as a wonderful amplification of the typical hero/villain struggle, and a well-crafted anti-hero can amplify your already wonderful plot with rich, relatable events and struggles.

Want additional references on the hero, villain, and anti-hero archetypes? Here are a list of resources (an asterisks denotes a free Kindle resource):

The Western Hero in History and Legend by Kent Ladd Steckmesser

The Cinema Anti-Hero by Daniel Marshall

What do you think about the hero, villain, and anti-hero archetypes? Opinions, comments, or concerns? Leave them below!

I respond to every comment, and I would love to read yours :)


Adil Vp said...

Great piece of information to aspiring writers. Well written...

Majesta Miles said...

Glad you like it, Adil! :)