“Every villain is the hero in their own story” is a common, popular writing tip, and while I agree, I think it is sometimes confused with “Every villain thinks they’re the good guy.” There’s a difference between thinking you’re a hero and thinking you’re a good guy, and not every villain thinks they’re a good guy.
Though the word “hero” in itself has a positive connotation, I argue that villains can still be a “hero” in their own mind while also being aware they are doing something wrong or harmful. Take revenge plots as an example. Most often seen in thrillers, a protagonist could be solely out to seek revenge, whether or not that revenge is warranted. In fact, many believe revenge isn’t “justice” and therefore isn’t heroic. But, at the same time, a revenge-seeking protagonist will think of themselves as a hero without believing they are a good guy. A good example of this is Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen. While he is seeking revenge for his family’s deaths, he kills many people who probably didn’t deserve to be hurt at all. And he’s aware of it. In fact, he uses it as a weapon against others. Therefore, he is a hero for his family, a villain to a lot of innocent people, and definitely the protagonist. But a good guy? I think he gave up that concept a long time ago.
Granted, don’t get me wrong, I love a villain who thinks they’re the good guy. I love villains who tiptoe on the good/wrong line more. But I wish we saw more villains that were simply villains—bad guys doing bad things because they want to. Their psyche can be just as deep as someone who is doing bad things for “good reasons” or someone who thinks they’re doing good things when they’re in fact doing bad ones. But we’ve sort of obsessed over “bad guy thinks he’s good” recently…when I think we should be focused on making villains round characters.
Round ≠ someone who thinks they’re good all the time.
Round = character who does good and bad things based on many types of motivation.
People aren’t so black and white. No one is purely good or thinks they’re good, and no one is all bad either. One of my favorite, eerie quotes is that, yes, serial killers sometimes help grandma cross the street. In fact, serial killers are often some of the most charming people around. But if you study serial killers, (and you’re a True Crime junkie like I am), then you know serial killers are generally aware that what they’re doing is SUPER messed up…yet they do it anyway. And then, they go to work and school and raise families and so on and so forth. Aside from killers like Charles Cullen* (no relation to Twilight), they hardly ever think they’re being a good guy.
Villains can be bad guys who know they’re bad and do bad things regardless. Just make sure they’re 3D while they carry out those dastardly deeds.
Instead of “every villain thinks they’re the hero of their own story”, let’s change it to “every villain thinks they’re the protagonist of their own story—whatever that entails.” In fact, keep this is mind for every character. Your novel will love you for it.
*Charles Cullen, also known as ‘The Angel of Death’, was a nurse in a hospital who killed over 400 patients. He thought he was “mercy killing.” Keep in mind that many of his victims were in good health. He is currently considered the biggest serial killer in American History.
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