Adam over at Write Thoughts commented on my blog about “traditional” vs “Flawed” heroes, and he got me thinking about one of the more traditional relationships in stories that are dwindling these days (but still out there).

joker-1822273_960_720
All images copyright free and available on Pixabay.

Do stories need good villains? What makes a good villain? This is something I’m actually pondering as I start thinking about other projects (a post which you’ll all see on Saturday).

The first thing I thought of, however, was the relationship that heroes and villains have in stories. I think there are a lot of stories in which the relationship becomes a plot in itself, and that inspired this post.  So let’s talk about a few of the more historic relationships:

Batman and The Joker: Batman is a hero who’s seemingly one bad day away from crossing the line, and The Joker seems to be the man who wants to push him over the edge. One of the things that makes Batman so compelling to me is his refusal to kill, especially in regard to Joker. What fascinates me most in this regard is that by being the man Batman refuses to kill, The Joker then becomes Batman’s very salvation.

I’ve been open about how I’m not a fan of DC, but the character I’ve always had the most interest in is Batman, and his relationship with The Joker is probably the most compelling aspect of the character. This was never more relevant than in The Killing Joke. It’s way darker than I would have liked, but it still shows that endless battle. This relationship is about temptation to me. I honestly think The Joker wants Batman to kill him, if only to show that every man could be brought below his morals.

 

fax-1889074_960_720Superman and Lex Luthor: I’m neither trying to go exclusively DC or comics for that matter, but this relationship is the absolute best example of this very phenomena. They are polar opposites. One has the power to do whatever he wants and doesn’t for the sake of who he wants to be and the people he cares about. The other has no physical power, yet still does whatever he wants because he doesn’t care about anyone. It’s just too perfect to leave out. I’ve had a lot of talks with friends about Smallville. Say what you want about the series as a whole, but I stand behind the first three seasons because that relationship and Lex’s progression into villainy was outstanding. Again, I’m not saying it was a great show for all its seasons, but if you want to study a relationship plot, watch that one.

In terms of comics, this is the most used technique. Xavier and Magneto. Wolverine and Sabertooth. Spider Man and the Green Goblin (or pretty much any of his villains). In terms of this relationship, comics are fish in a barrel.

Yes, I could mention a certain boy who lived, but I’ve seen a lot of people talk about him lately, and I want to give others a different point of view.

angry-1294990_960_720Abraham Setrakian and The Master: Before it was a TV show, the Strain was fascinating trilogy that took a horribly overdone idea and found a twist that I could get behind. This relationship is particularly fascinating because Setrakian is the obsessed killer in this. The Master is the aloof over powerful being. You could call it an inversion of Superman and Lex Luthor, and add a desire to kill, and you wouldn’t be far off. This relationship, however, brings a particular point to my argument.

In today’s world of literature, there aren’t many hero-villain relationships that are nearly as co-dependent as those found in comics. Like I said above, it’s fish in a barrel in comic books, but I have 312 books loaded on Goodreads (which is still much lower than the actual number of books I’ve read) and I had trouble finding examples in literature. Where are the man vs man conflicts? There are some subplots (Perrin vs Slayer comes to mind). But in high fantasy, the plots are larger than life.

polarization-1201698_960_720I think this observation presents an opportunity for a creative author to bring a comic mainstay into literature. I’m not saying this plot device doesn’t exist at all in literature, but it’s not common in science fiction or fantasy. The plucky hero is always facing something larger than life. If you disagree, feel free to comment below.

One explanation to this might be the scope of the story. Comics can handle that sort of plot because they’re serial by nature. The fans can tune in next week (TV) or month (comics) and see that battle. But I find that odd because those conflicts can (and for me they do) get old. As fascinating as Batman V Joker is for me, I’m just annoyed by now. But imagine a conflict between characters who are complimentary in nature and symbiotic by design? I find that idea fascinating.

Thanks for reading,

Matt

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16 thoughts on “The Symbiotic Relationship Between Heroes and Villains

  1. “What fascinates me most in this regard is that by being the man Batman refuses to kill, The Joker then becomes Batman’s very salvation.” Wow. You’re right.

    It’s interesting how the most memorable villains are attributable to comics, isn’t it? There is so much great literature out there, and yet I can’t name a single villain of the Joker’s caliber who has such significance to a protagonist even after thumbing through the books on my shelf. Granted, as you said, comic book characters benefit from their serialized nature. There’s simply more of them to grasp.

    I suppose the hero-villain dynamic is unique to the superhero genre. It makes sense. In contrast, much literature focuses on internal conflict or aims to focus on the world using the protagonist as a sort of pivot. Great post, you’ve got me thinking as usual!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for stopping by JJ. While doing some simple thinking about the sequel to Caught, I came across the idea because of the nature of that book. I’m excited by the idea of a hero-villain relationship plot. I’ll probably talk about this more as I start working on my next projects.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That’s fantastic. It’ll be refreshing to see that type of relationship represented in something outside of the superhero genre, if that is where you decide to take it.

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  2. I think it’s harder to explore the Man v Man in literature unless you know you’re writing a series.

    Part of what makes the Batman and Joker relationship is that artists have had 50+ years to create it. Reinvent it. Toss what didn’t work, and keep what did. Build the mythology.

    And, it was more than one writer doing it. That adds depth and dimension. And, of course, I have no idea how many hundreds or even thousands of comics Batman and Joker featured in, so you have a lot of space to build it as well.

    Most writers are lucky if they get a trilogy, so it’s much harder to establish that dynamic.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. That’s absolutely true. Having time to develop the relationship is something that strengthens that dynamic. It’s something I’d like to see attempted. I think it would be powerful. Thanks for stopping by to offer your thoughts.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think in some ways we’re also getting into some underlying patterns that tend to dominate certain genres. Most comic book stories favor villains and heroes who oppose each other directly. In contrast, many fantasy books favor the villain as general or king, someone so removed from the everyday world that the hero must overcome numerous subordinates before the main villain even deems to notice the hero.

    Your remark about The Strain is very interesting. I never thought of it that way, but you are right. Setrakian is in a way an inversion of the comic book superhero. Then again, any “creature” that’s more powerful than a human is defined as “monster” or “superhero” based on their moral stance.

    I think part of the problem is that most heroes are inspired to become heroes because the villain is established and must be opposed. It’s rare, outside of a comic book world, to see a hero establish themselves as powerful before the villain.
    That would be an interesting challenge, create a medieval/fantasy setting where the villain rises in response to the hero, rather than the other way around.
    I may end up incorporating that into one of my short stories.
    Interesting ideas. Thank you for sharing them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you found the post interesting. It’s something I’m fascinated by at the moment. There are a lot of obstacles to doing this in fiction, but I still believe that in fiction, finding obstacles is synonymous with finding opportunities. I hope you have success with it if you try it for a short story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it could work. I have a draft of a medieval short story that definitely needs work. This could be a strong graft to remedy the weaker points.
        As you say, an obstacle in good storytelling often means “not many manage it, making a success that much more interesting for potential audiences.”

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  4. The interesting struggle of villain versus hero would be when they’re the same person. Fighting your inner nature to do good or bad; nature versus nurture writ large? OR, maybe it’s late and I’m rambling.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll never say never, but it’s VERY unlikely. I tend to want to move forward. And I wrote that book 21 times. Just time to move on. But it’s in the hard drive.

        Like

      2. Okay, fair enough. Maybe file it away as something to consider down the road as you evolve and grow as an author. Just a thought, one of the things I’ve learned from JD Sawyer was that sometimes story ideas come to us before we are ready to write them, so you shelve it for later.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. One of the most revelatory moments I had with my alpha readers was when they pointed out a character who haphazardly (in my view) became the big villain in my story. This character was not the villain I intended, but their story arc ended up opposing my protagonists’ arcs in the most direct way. After reading this, I’m even more encouraged to polarize my protagonists against their Big Bad.

    “The plucky hero is always facing something larger than life.” This comment also caught my attention. In the same vein, I have been deliberately avoiding the creation of a dedicated magic system for my story, going against all current trends and genre definitions of fantasy. There are supernatural elements to my story, but ultimately it’s the very human characters who (hopefully) drive the conflict. I have at times wondered whether I’ve made the right decision, so I’m encouraged by you post that my story may feel a little different from some contemporary fantasy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You should never be afraid to be different. Stories are stories. If they’re interesting and have compelling characters, we’ll love it. The world goes in ebbs and flows. Not too long from now, I think the world will swing back to the more amazing and sweeping magic. That’s also okay so long as that magic isn’t directly related to the solution of the main conflict. Keep working, we’re rooting for you.

      Liked by 1 person

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