There’s a tendency when writing stories to put characters into the role of hero or villain, so that they objectively fill that role within the story world’s logic. Even in an era of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains we often put central characters into one of these roles. But there is a more satisfying option.
I’ll illustrate with a real life example. I had a teacher in primary school who had a huge impact on both me and my sister’s lives. For me, he was the hero. He recognised both my potential and the difficulties I was having with learning. This led to a referral to an educational psychologist that helped turn my life around. From day to day, this teacher encouraged my academic interests and nurtured me at a difficult point in my life.
For my sister, this teacher was the villain. He didn’t like pupils who were very lively or chatty. He struggled to relate to girls. And so his treatment of this bubbly, vivacious young lady drove her to tears and made every day at school a struggle. This teacher’s role in the narrative of our lives depended upon which angle you looked at him from. Years later, he’s one of the few teachers I think about and discuss, and there’s a reason why.
A good example of a writer tapping into this is Brian Azzarello in he and Lee Bermejo’s ‘Lex Luthor: Man of Steel‘. Azzarello adds depth to Lex Luthor, the classic Superman villain, by showing why Luthor sees Superman as a villain. This perspective also makes the all-American good boy a more interesting hero. It not only shows that other characters view him in different ways but gives the reader another way to think about him.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, to just see the character from one perspective. I do it myself, sometimes unthinkingly, sometimes due to the constraints of a short story. But breaking from that model, showing characters who are both heroes and villains, can make a far deeper character, and a far more interesting story.