Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?
I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.
This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.
Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.
To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?
Don’t Hate the Player
This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.
First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.
Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.
Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.
Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!
Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.
First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).
But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.
For The Love Of Conflict
But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.
These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.
Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.
So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.
What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.
There’s no getting away from it, we love a good villain these days. Whether it’s the obsession among some Star Wars fans with the relatively minor character Boba Fett, the cult status of Tony Soprano, or the massive fanning out that takes place over Loki – bad is the new good.
It’s something I’m so used to that I’ve never really questioned it. But this video made me think again about why we love villains and what that means for us as a society:
Honestly, I’m not sure whether an obsession with villains makes us less idealistic or just more varied in our tastes. I think its relevance is a very big question with all sorts of interpretations. Anything that makes us less condemnatory is good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also problematic.
What do you think? Why all the villain fandom? What does it mean, if anything at all?
Adding flaws is a big part of what makes characters interesting. Han Solo would be a lot less fun if he weren’t a criminal. Bilbo Baggins is appealing because he battles his own cowardice. Loki’s arrogance and scheming are half the reason he’s a highlight of the Marvel films.
Of course being played by the charming Tom Hiddleston also helps.
But not all character flaws are equal. Picking the wrong one can put readers off your hero or make your villain so sympathetic that they switch sides. I recently found an interesting distinction in Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You that illuminates the distinction and helps in character building.
Grefer draws a distinction between flaws and faults.
Flaws are aspects of a character that aren’t inherently morally wrong but that get them into trouble or make them less impressive. Take the example of Bilbo. His desire for self preservation and the quiet life are understandable, but this holds him back from achieving everything he could.
Or look at Sophronia in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books. Her curiosity and lack of respect for authority make her capable of great things, but also get her in a lot tight scrapes and dangerous situations.
These are character traits that make us like the character even as we shake our heads at them.
Faults are the character traits that are always wrong. Cruelty. Greed. The desire to dominate others. They might seem at first glance like extreme version of flaws, but there is a distinction, one that will affect the reactions of readers.
Loki’s pride is arguably a flaw. It gives him the confidence to construct grand schemes and be a charming conversationalist, but it also tips over into over-confidence and looking down on others. His desire to dominate, to bend everyone else to his will, is clearly a fault. It’s a terrible attitude to take, one that leads to darkness and destruction. It makes him a real villain.
Using the distinction
So how do you use this to your advantage?
Basically, focus on the flaws, not the faults. Flaws make your heroes interesting without alienating readers, so stick with them for the good guys. For the villains you may want to mix in some faults, but when deciding on the balance between flaws and faults think about how you want your readers to react. Do you want them to bay for the villain’s blood and cheer when he gets his head chopped off, or sympathise and long to see him redeemed? Make the villain more flawed than the hero, but think carefully before you fill them full of faults.
For more of this sort of stuff check out Victoria Grefer’s blog, Writing With The Crimson League. And if you’ve got any thoughts on writing interesting, flawed characters please share them below.
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.