Writing Philosophy: Heroes vs Villains

If you want to be a Villain Number 1, you have to catch a Superhero on the run!

If you’re more interested in writing ABOUT villains and heroes, though, then you can instead focus on reading…

Today’s topic:
Heroes vs Villains

So today I’d like to talk about the chemistry between heroes and villains.

I’ve always been someone who likes conversations between heroes and villains more than them actually fighting each other (though a big final fight of good vs evil can be very cathartic and enjoyable as hell).
As a result, though, I tend to not be satisfied when it’s just a regular “Heroes see villain again, they’re an obstacle, time to beat them (again)!” kind of chemistry. It’s a trap that many series can end up in because the villain may end up simply being defeated so many times that it’s practically become a joke.

Villains as arguments

How do you save such an occurance? Well for me, it’s by giving them original arguments to represent.

Sonic and Eggman definitely tend to play with the whole “Oh hey, it’s Eggman again. Welp, it’s my job to stop him.” kind of thinking. And had it simply stuck to this, I may have gotten tired of it. But if nothing else, there’s a fun chemistry between the two that makes it fun to see them interact with one another.

Honestly that’s one of the reasons why I still prefer the concept of Modern Sonic over Classic Sonic. Classic Sonic games may tend to have more solid games, but at least with Modern Sonic I can actually hear Sonic and Eggman talk to one another and give some arguments of what they stand for.

Of course, the most recent Sonic games don’t seem to have that many deeper arguments lately, but it’s the argument that is key to me liking the chemistry between heroes and villains.

I usually dislike the idea of heroes having a certain attitude of “Oh, it’s THAT villain again. Pffft” because it tends to devalue the villain’s position. Personally, I think villains should inherently have the upperhand.

Yes, everybody loves a good underdog story, but it’s more than that to me. I’m usually of the opinion that the villain needs to be PROVEN by the hero that they’re wrong. Whether they accept it or not is not important, what matters is that we get to see the hero BUILD UP that argument until they come to a conclusion.
Basically, I see villains as something of a question in a test, and it’s up to the heroes to answer said question.

Villain:
"Should I switch the trolley's track or not?"

Hero:
A) "No, you can't save the lives of that person if it leads to more deaths!"
B) "Yes, the person on the rails does not deserve to die because of our inaction!"

The question of whether the hero is right is something that should then be examined.

Dark Reflections

Another way of looking at a villain is how they’re a mirror to the hero.
This is a popular way of looking at a villain, especially for comic book heroes.

Sometimes they’re so far of a mirror that they pretty much look like their double until closer examination (not like it’s hard to miss Venom’s mouth, but…)

But it doesn’t just have to be visual, it could also be in their world views, thus why Batman vs Joker is so popular.

Heck with Batman, every villain in his Rogues Gallery can pretty much be placed as a mirror of Batman in some way.

Joker is Chaos to Batman’s Order.
Two-Face is a more literal version of Batman and Bruce Wayne’s “two faces”.

Riddler is Batman’s challenge to his smart detective skills.

Going back to the questions and answer thing, this mirror image is also why the chemistry between heroes and villains fascinate me. Because every conversation they have could be in a way them discussing the current topic they’re dealing with.
Every story between a hero and villain should be them forming their argument against each other in response to the topic at hand.

And the reason the villains are so fascinating is that they tend to give writers a chance to LIVE those opposite arguments. Try to build a character out of it and have something for the hero to not only disagree with, but also to at times actually agree with them.

The big reason why a hero usually wins at the end of the argument is the fact that the hero is able to develop and change their opinion. Grab the feedback from the villain and be able to patch up their flaws in their logic to come to a right conclusion at the end. Villains by comparison tend not to stray from their original opinion, staying still in their development and thus unable to truly keep up with the hero in the end.

DNA Strand

This is not to say that the villain should stay static ALL the time, I think the most interesting villains are in fact ones who grow alongside the hero long enough for the duration of the story.

Their interactions should be something of a DNA strand. There should be times when the villains are on top, then there are times when the heroes are on top.
My most favourite interaction in Aladdin is this little bit between Aladdin and Jafar:

It’s such a small little interaction, but what I like about it so much is it’s placement. The fact that this comes after Aladdin has been betrayed by Jafar’s creepy old hobo personality after the cave of wonders.

Basically, there’s a constant back and forth between Aladdin and Jafar in how they interact with one another and who’s on top of who.
First they met in the dungeon where it’s clear that Jafar has full control.
Then at the end of the cave of wonders it’s clear that Jafar still has the upperhand, but because of Abu’s interference he loses the lamp to Aladdin.
Now in a fun little reversal, Aladdin is the one who is tricking Jafar, turning Jafar into the fool who has to endure the Sultan’s antics.

What’s great is that in a lot of stories, that’s the end. Hero overcame the villain, that’s it. But instead this is just another set-up to have Jafar take BACK the lamp and getting back in control. And yet again he STAYS in control up until Aladdin beats him by tricking him into wishing he’d become a genie. THIS time however, Aladdin does so by being himself, not by acting like he’s Prince Ali.

Like I said, a DNA strand, they go back and forth on who’s the one on top in a satisfying manner.

It still favours Jafar because he’s the villain, obviously, but the point remains that the villain doesn’t stay static.

They keep up with the hero and react accordingly when the hero has surpassed them in some way. It’s almost like a race.

Twist Villains

This also leads to the lack of villains LIKE Jafar in recent Disney films.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia and Moana. But their focus is clearly on making the heroes more complex over making the villain enjoyably evil.
Mother Gothel comes the closest to it while Frozen has Hans who’s a twist villain, Zootopia has Miss Fairweather who’s a twist villain and Moana has Te Kā who turns out to be the benevolent goddess Te Feti all along (so basically a twist hero).

Now, I don’t hate twist villains as a whole, I think it’s great that movies make you think about who’s the real villain in a story. It’s why I’m such a big fan of Murder Mysteries, as silly and improbably as they can get sometimes.

But the problem with making a memorable villain a twist villain is the fact that you don’t KNOW this villain UNTIL they reveal the twist.

Basically you’re meant to identify the “Mask” as their “true” personality until they reveal themselves, after which most of their personality as “the mask” is kinda thrown aside as “oh, that was me acting”.

There will be some shared truths between the two personalities. Hans for example very clearly was telling the truth about having so many brothers and being ignored in his kingdom because whether it’s “good Hans” or “evil Hans” his motivations tend to line up in that regard.

But the point is that we don’t really get to know “evil Hans” much. We don’t get to enjoy the personality of “evil Hans” because for most of the movie we’ve been seeing “good Hans”.

I am NOT saying it’s a good or bad twist, it did surprise me first time I watched Frozen (and the signs are there if you look for them), but my point is that there’s not enough time to have enough chemistry between the heroes and villain as a result.

At least with Scar in Lion King, sure Simba doesn’t know for most of it that Scar is the villain until the end, but WE the audience do. So we still at least get to embrace the darkness of Scar as a character, rather than invest in Scar as the “caring uncle” that Simba sees.

Same for Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, who may be somewhat of a twist villain, but it’s not like the chemistry between Belle and Gaston (and more importantly our PERCEPTION of their chemistry) went a complete 180.

Compare them to Hans and Miss Fairweather and the way the heroes interact with them pretty much does a 180 because they basically reveal they’re totally different people than they did before. Yes, it makes sense in-story, but in terms of hero vs villain chemistry it doesn’t give time for that to develop.

Deuteragonist

A good counterpoint here of course is that the opposite argument thing is instead given to the Deuteragonist rather than the villain.
If we count Anna as the main character in Frozen, then the one she has arguments with is not Hans, but Elsa. Heck, Elsa WAS meant to be the villain at some point, but they changed that because of:

You thought you were rid of this song after so long, didn’t you? Well too bad! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

In Zootopia’s case it’s Judy Hopps vs Nick Wilde. It’s a buddy-cop movie after all, so throughout the story it’s about how those two build up a chemistry over how they build a chemistry with the villain (who they don’t even know is the villain yet for most of it). Same with Moana, it’s mostly a Moana vs Maui argument where Te Kā is just an obstacle that they both have to face.

Why not both?

The question of whether it’s possible to do both (chemistry between Deuteragonists and Antagonists) at the same time is something of a balancing act. How much does the hero agree with the secondary hero and the villain?
It almost forces you into splitting up the argument into 3 instead of into 2. Now the villain has to not only feed their argument to the hero, they have to feed it to the secondary hero as well. And the hero has to either receive the help from the secondary hero, vice-versa or have to make a compromise with the secondary hero to come to a conclusion strong enough to beat the villain.

This again means that it’s necessary for the villain to still be a threat, because it takes more than just the hero to beat them, it takes a secondary hero as well. This however also means that there needs to be enough chemistry between all 3 parties, and that’s kind of tricky.

If we move to another Disney movie as an example, Dr. Facilier’s chemistry between Tiana and Prince Naveen isn’t as fleshed out as it should be because for most of it he interacts more with Prince Naveen than with Tiana.

Heck he only finally interacts with her at the end… when she beats him. That’s the problem when there’s only so little time to tell the story. Because they need to develop the romance between Tiana and Naveen and at the same time have moments where Dr. Facilier interacts with either of them, and that’s tough.

One of the examples I can give on how to do this right is how they did Slade in the Teen Titans TV Show. He’s had episodes where he builds up a villainous chemistry with Robin, Terra and Raven:

But the reason this works out so well is that… well… Teen Titans is a TV Show. They have the TIME to have the villain interact with certain heroes for specific stories.
Movies by comparison tend to only have enough time to have the villain interact with the hero they’re focusing on at the moment. Thus why in Princess and the Frog, Dr. Facilier could only fully interact once with Prince Naveen to turn him into a frog, then once when he tries to seduce Tiana to hand over the medallion after which she defeats him.

By comparison, Jafar gets to interact with Aladdin a total of 4 times. Once as the old creepy hobo who then betrays Aladdin, another as himself while Aladdin is disguised as Prince Ali, another where he exposes Prince Ali as… Aladdin, and finally his final battle with Aladdin where Jafar fights as a powerful sorcerer.

The Villain’s Presence

This actually reminds me back to the Ring franchise. The Japanese Ring films represent an actual conversation between the heroes and Sadako (while in the American films Samara is just an obstacle, I’ll rant about that some other time).

That’s the thing, though, in the Japanese films like the first Ring, though on the outside it’s mostly a conversation between Reiko and Ryuji because they’re the heroes, overall they never leave the actual presence of Sadako.

Basically because the threat of Sadako stays throughout the story and the fact that Reiko and Ryuji have to UNDERSTAND Sadako to get rid of the curse, it’s never JUST a conversation between Reiko and Ryuji.

They have their own arguments, but it builds on the subject that Sadako has put in front of them. This goes to show that to build a chemistry with a villain it doesn’t always mean that the villain has to physically be there. As long as the villain’s IDEAS are everywhere and the subject is talked about by the two heroes, you never truly leave the villain in the shadows (even if it’s inside those shadows where you find her. Hoooooo~!)

A writing technique I’ve learned from the Ring films is that though the villains don’t need to appear that often, the heroes will instead end up going through the same things the villains did to get to their conclusion in the first place. The main difference being what conclusions they end up as AFTER going through the same things. It’s why comparing Anakin and Luke is part of the fun in watching the original trilogy after watching the prequel trilogy. You see Luke going through the same “echoes” as Anakin. But unlike Anakin, Luke stays on the Light Side of the Force after all of them.

Basically I love it when villains are an actual bodily threat, but I love it more when they have an actual argument with the heroes and actually have to adapt to the situation rather than everything going according to plan until the end.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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