Disclaimer I: May contain spoilers of: Star Wars (Old Trilogy), The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The Order of the Stick

Disclaimer II: The topic is about applicability of a wider moral system in fiction, it is not fitted to verge on real-life philosophy and ethics.

I remember a comment about morality from George R. R. Martin; it went more or less like this:

“I see our world and I don’t see black or white in it, only different shades of grey.”

Do you know what else you do not see in our world? Dragons. Or magic. Or starships. Or aliens.

Where am I going?

This is no different from, for instance, supernatural-influenced governments: it is an easy mistake to research a particular feature or situation in real life to make the setting more realistic only to forget the influences of the imaginary features of said setting that might intervene to change it.

I wouldn’t argue in reality that there aren’t wholly evil or good people and that morality can easily become a subjective matter; I also wouldn’t argue that creating characters with two-dimensional black or white morality can become shallow rather quickly.

But.

Depending on the setting a character might not need at all to be greyish to be complex and even an axiomatic character might serve his purpose better in certain situations.

It has become a common trend both in general and fantasy fiction to go for the grey & grey morality system since it is assumed, it being closer to our reality, that it will necessarily be more realistic than any other in any circumstance. While this can be true for other genres, in fantasy and sci-fi there may be other factors which could make grey & grey morality unrealistic.

Black & Grey & White according to the setting

For simplicity, let us take a classic fantasy/sci-fi setting. There is no doubt there will be a lot of shades of grey in such a world, applied to the majority of ordinary people, but we will also have the chance, for certain individuals or species, to find completely white and completely black characters. Their presence gives added variety, something to be treated carefully and underlined; it is not a feature to just be hinted at nor to be put in to simplify one’s narrative, it is a factor to be emphasized properly. Having a Great Good being and showing his unnatural behavior can indirectly define the more natural flaws of an average heroic protagonist; in the same way, a greyish antagonist will appear more sympathetic when compared to a Big Bad. A classic example of this is Star Wars, where we have a composite sympathetic antagonist (Darth Vader) and a monolithic axiomatic antagonist (Darth Sidious): the hidden good in the first is even more visible when compared to the utter corruption of the second; interacting together they complete each other and give a greater impact to the story. Such differences need to be perceived, by the public inside and outside the work, and exploited by the author to enrich the targeted character rather than make it blank. The correct mindset with which to treat this type of characterization in my opinion is to consider that completely black or white behavior is either idealistic or alien to the human condition, meaning that it can be experienced only by something that should not or should no longer be considered human by the audience. That is why it’s unlikely to come into place as a realistic tool outside the fantasy/sci-fi settings.

Without humans

That’s the easiest to explain: different species are bound to have different moralities. Certain species might have evolved from different roots: in the previous article I was talking about dragons, which can be considered to have evolved as large solitary predators, whereas humans are small social omnivores; it is not hard to imagine a dragon could see humans as humans see chickens, or that he could be naturally driven to stay away from others of his kind, rather than form families and clans with them. On the other hand a creature evolved as an herbivore, or maybe even a sentient plant, could have such a restrictive moral code that it could perceive an average human as a horrible monster and which a human could see as an obscenely pure and meek being.

This is even truer in sci-fi settings, where aliens have evolved in different worlds and times and are therefore bound to have extremely different biology, societies, and customs and might very well not even understand why humans act in certain ways.

There is also the case of magical, divine, or otherwise unnatural beings, which are even more keen to conform to the black & white morality: a construct/droid (if complex enough to be considered an intelligent being) has a moral system strictly dependent on how it was built, it might not have the capacity to feel some or any emotions or to just consider certain lines of thought, simply because they were not built in. An angel/devil might be the living embodiment of a certain set of virtues/vices (depending on the setting) and be physically and psychically unable to stray from that line: like a construct, it will only have a particular set of feelings, will perform only a particular set of actions and only for a particular set of ends, and if it is allowed to have the possibility of straying, that single act will most likely provoke its fall/ascension to the completely opposite side of the moral system, provoking a radical change in its very nature.

With humans

More subtle but still present is the existence of humans (or average humanoids) assimilated to either the black or white end of the moral system. Of course, since we have some experience on the drives and morality of this particular species, I’m likely to admit that, unless we are talking of a very unusual setting (like, say, Warhammer 40K?), it would be more realistic to picture the majority of humankind in shades of grey. But, depending on the setting once again, not necessarily all of them. Sometimes experiences of the worst or best kind may deeply influence a man or a group. It can range from very subtle to violently direct: for example some people may be stationed in an enchanted valley that provides for them all food and shelter they need and which protects them from illness. When other normal humans will reach the valley at the distance of a century or so and try and conquer it for its resources, the descendants of the local residents might not be able to offer resistance or even understand their motives. A wizard studying forbidden knowledge, summoning and treating with demons, is likely to become more accustomed to and keen to perform inhumane atrocities for the same reasons: because he has been familiarized with them so much that he doesn’t find them repellent as an average person does. An even more direct way is when the human character reaches his new axiomatic morality while losing his humanity in the process, thanks to the supernatural powers provided by the setting. As a classic example, the same wizard decides to turn into a lich: he doesn’t need to eat or drink or rest, he doesn’t fear disease or death by old age anymore, he’s bound to see the world and himself in a very different light.

Another less drastic example could be the Force in Star Wars: the Dark Side feeds and produces strong emotions, therefore the more a person indulges in his passions and uses the Force to empower his desires, the stronger and the more twisted his passions become, to the point he feels no longer like a human (or humanoid), but he’s rather become a jar for craving and corruption. On the flip side, the more a Jedi detaches himself from emotions, the more he detaches himself from the human condition: rather than feel abnormally, he doesn’t feel at all anymore.

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For my next number, I will attempt to provide examples of creation of tridimensional axiomatic characters. Beware, these are extreme cases, they are not supposed to be rigidly applied when needed, they are just here to show how to behave while creating a completely black or a completely white character, but can be pretty useful to create very dark grey or very light grey characters as well.

The Irredeemably Wicked

This is the easiest one and the most commonly seen in its shallow form. There are lots of articles about how to build a realistic villain from the grey & grey (sometimes very dark grey) point of view scattered across the internet and on this very site. I would suggest reading them as this is more of a supplement for a particular instance. A common error (that many of those articles address) in fiction is to create a flat or otherwise unbelievable villain with no realistic behavior and motives. The main suggestions given on the matter are to search for what drives him to commit his deeds, to add depth and make him a composite independent living character rather than an obstacle on the protagonist’s quest for glory. I can obviously agree with all this. The point I’ll have to make is that, contrary to common belief, it doesn’t mean that, to make a character composite, you need to add sympathetic traits. You only have to add traits. If the author explores the reasons and the nature of the villain, he is giving depth to it, no matter if the features he adds are not likable in the least. What is important is for the character to both be realistic (according to the setting) and arouse a response in the public; nothing says the response must be an Aristotelian pity, which can become redundant and shallow if forced where it does not belong or treated poorly and for too many times. A villain might only provoke fear, hate or disgust and work just as well; what is to avoid is a flat villain that does not create a response from the public, adding the sympathetic pity trope becomes only a cheap way to avoid this occurrence. A good author should be able to create a character with no redeeming qualities which is yet appreciated by the public and considered original.

Step 1: What is it?

The better way to go for in this case is beginning with what this villain is. The main possibilities are:

Non-humanoid creature: Common in fantasy and of an easier approach for both the author and the audience; these creatures neither think nor are like humans. Their nature might not be inherently contrasting with the common welfare of other beings and just seem alien, but more often than not it is cancerous to them and has to be shown. A man-eating dragon or a mind-raping abomination fall into this category. The author should put great attention to emphasize what makes the creature different from humanoids not only on the outside but on the inside as well. Its behavior should hardly be even remotely similar to that of mankind and the like. The common error for this category is, I believe, to either portray these kinds of villains as mindless or to not give them even the slightest inch of motivation. We know they are monsters because of how they look and we assume they are “evil” because of how they behave, yet we have no insight into them: more like natural disasters than opponents. While this can be successfully exploited, it has to be highlighted, as Lovecraft did with his creations: the protagonists of his stories spend a great deal of time aimlessly trying to understand what do the Old Ones and their horrors want and why they act like they do. While I can appreciate those unknowable eldritch kinds of entities, I believe they are more appropriate as threats lingering outside the plot; when the author wants to create a monstrous villain inside the plot as the main opponent to the protagonists, he should take the chance to explore its mind and make it as alien as its body is from the human perspective.

Monstrous humanoid: While this kind of creatures is as common (if not more) than the previous one, they are the hardest to render. The main problem, to which I’ve seen a lot of authors and actors fall into, is the opposite of the one I wrote about in my previous rant, about dragons assimilated to beasts for their physiology: in the case of a monstrous humanoid, it’s all too easily assimilated to a man due to his appearance. This isn’t necessarily bad when we are talking about an hybrid spawned by a humanoid and something else, or about someone who was adopted by humanoids, or someone who had been a humanoid (like certain types of undead), but, for everyone else I’d consider it the worst mistake to make. We are considering something that might have a various amount of semblance with humanoids, but, in this case, it has to be a mostly exterior resemblance (like a dolphin may look like a fish but it’s not). It could be a demon possessing a human, or it could be an alien evolved through a parallel line; in any case the differences in its way of thinking and acting should come out the moment it goes on scene. The point of creating a monstrous humanoid lies in its comparison with actual humanoids: it looks like one at first, but closer search will show there’s something wrong with it. Once again, this something must be both in its body and its mind. There is to be a special care in its psyche particularly when the body is completely human (again, like in a demonic possession or with some shape-shifting species).

Humanoid: With this I will consider humans and those humanoid species with moral systems akin to those of the average human. The major point with this category is to remain consistent with the established behavior of the villain and explore the reasons that brought it where it is. It is a rare thing for a human to fall in the very deep end of the alignment pool whilst still remaining a human being and that is the contradiction the author needs to address the most: it is a human in body but not in mind. Such a being should be able to provoke the same uncanny feeling of a monstrous humanoid, sometimes even more than a monstrous humanoid, because its apparently unnatural actions are not justified by unnatural means (having a dragon father, turning into a vampire, seeing Chtulhu…). A prime example I think would be Hannibal Lecter: the way he speaks, the way he looks, the way he acts, in another setting they could have been very likely interpreted as clues of an non-human nature; this is not the case and such awareness only makes him more unsettling. Think of the recording when he attacks a nurse in the asylum: from completely calm and still and silent, to suddenly jumping forward to bite.

All three categories have the potential to generate an axiomatic villain, but it is usually better not to push humans or humanoids with natural morality established as similar to humans’ too much over the edge unless extraordinary justifications apply. I would say we have a borderline example in Star Wars Ep. IV: Darth Vader, the (yet apparently) soulless, faceless, half-machine black knight-sorcerer ruthlessly kills his underlings and mercilessly tortures the captive princess, but it is the absolutely normal-looking human Governor Tarkin who decides to coldly and casually blow up a planet, killing billions just to prove a point.

For our example, to make things interesting, we shall take the harder type, the monstrous humanoid, and one of the worst and most likely to go shallow subtypes: the ensouled vampire.

Alec, our prototype, will be inspired by Stoker’s archetype, therefore he will neither be one of the older demon-possessed corpses nor a human infected by some really bizarre disease: it is the soul of an evil man, whose actions were so despicable, that, instead of going to the Hells, was given the reward of retaining his dead body to torment the mortals yet some more.

He was sixteen when he died, but, after long centuries of unliving, he has become pretty powerful by the time of the main story and his features will include: dominating the minds of men and beasts, turning into wolf or bat or mist or other unsavory nocturnal predators; mild supernatural strength, speed and reflexes and dark vision, to which we will add some other powers coming from his long studies in magic and which come from his background, thus being independent from his nature, such as his touch and bite carrying the mortal disease that killed him. As for his weaknesses: he’ll feel repulsion for holy objects (water, symbols, weapons) and garlic, he’ll not reflect on mirrors and similar surfaces, he’ll need to rest in the land where he was originally engraved, he’ll be vulnerable to the stake through the heart and sunlight, but, if he has eaten enough, he’ll be able to temporarily bear the light of day without turning to ashes.

Alec appears as a young human and, while, if starved, he can become unnaturally pale, corpse-looking and show principle of acral necrosis, most of time there is nothing in his body that could betray his nature. His way of acting on the other hand can easily stand out: silent, contemplative, detached, with serious problems of communication in the current language and a usually tired and empty gaze; he can hardly blend in as a young man in the alternative 21st century Earth. We won’t see him mixing with high society nor seducing young women with his charms: he’ll walk alone in the darkest hours of the night to casually subdue a prey with his mind and suck it dry in the corner of an alley. He still has some passions and beliefs, but the changes the world has had in all the centuries from his death have alienated him completely from humans, whom he sees mostly as arrogant and degenerate bags of blood. In this case the charade is double: he looks like a boy and he’s not, he looks like a human and he’s not (anymore); so much time has passed that he cannot nor does he want to pretend otherwise, preferring to shun society (and thus alienating himself even more) and showing clearly unnatural behavior when interacting with others.

Step 2: Characterization

This is the main passage, the one most commonly examined in other articles about creating villains, therefore I will not go into detail to repeat what others already exposed better. As I said before, the process to make a character composite does not inevitably imply adding sympathetic traits: the important is to add realistic and compatible traits; for a completely black villain none of them will be likable.

A common dichotomy that I would like to highlight in this instance is the Amorality vs. Malevolence dilemma in the creation of the villain.

Amoral Villain: With this term I imply a lot of categories, shortly it means that the villain in question does not comply to the objective moral system considered for the story (usually the real-life humans’). It has a various range of applications, but it pretty much means the villain commits seemingly evil acts justifying itself with one or more reasons. It can be an inquisitor killing a thousand innocents just to be sure to have caught that one sneaky witch, it can be a queen poisoning her husband to take over the throne completely, it can be a dragon eating a dozen men to satiate his appetite. The villain may or may not enjoy or suffer from the choice, but will have plenty of reasonable (at least from its point of view) justifications: the inquisitor? The witch was dangerous, I needed to stop her, if the others I burned were truly innocents, then they are in heaven now, I did them a favor. The queen? The king mistreated me, he bankrupted the realm, we are better off without him. The dragon? I was hungry. It really goes from a simple “the ends justify the means” to “I’m beyond the petty concepts of Good and Evil”, in both cases the villain does not consider itself a villain; it either has a different set of moral values or it lacks them completely. The inquisitor may enjoy burning people or may be horrified by his own act, but he’ll do it anyway because he believes it’s the right thing to do; even if he does find the sight of people burning at the stake hilarious, he is still burning them mainly because of reasons. This category also encompasses the sympathetic villains, with their (somewhat) reasonable excuses for vicious behavior, but there is no doubt this sort of villainy can be taken to its extreme and be even more vicious than true Malevolence, especially when the villain does not care one way or the other about the collateral damage of its actions on other living beings. If well exploited by the author, a completely cold villain might become more frightening than one with a grudge against the protagonists: the second type will at least have an interest in them, if not in their well-being, while the first will just say “I don’t care”.

Malevolence: It has been seen rarely in the last times, I would say fortunately, because this is another easily misused category, which, in its worst embodiment, is summed into “He’s Evil because he’s Evil/Crazy.” A malevolent being is one that actually revels in its despicable acts. It doesn’t have reasons except its own amusement or a desire to cause even more suffering in other beings, which could be seen as evil for evil’s sake. It’s also the one type of villain that could, in fact, admit that yes, it actually is a villain. While a villain can fall both in the black & white and the grey & grey morality and belong the amoral category, a malevolent villain is unlikely to be grey. Since the category is so restrictive, there is no surprise that it can be easily misused and flatten the character it is applied to. Devils and demons are the more common example of this type: they don’t gain anything from spreading misery into the world or from damning the souls of men yet they do it and enjoy doing it (of course, depending on the setting, they might be acting on behalf of a deity’s dispositions or have other reasons, but that’s another topic). I would admit it is hard to create a villain with malevolence as its main (or only) drive and give depth to it, but it can still be done with the proper attention. One first trick, as already repeated many times over, is to lean on the feature, have the other characters react to its unnatural and extreme tendencies: the protagonists are not going to dismiss it as “He’s Evil, nothing we can do.”, they’ll go question that possibility, they’re going to ask and say to themselves “It cannot really be this cruel, how is it possible? Why?” and so on. The second trick is to mix the malevolent urge with reasons. An example employing both of the tricks could be Heath Ledger’s Joker: he mainly acts out of fun, but he also wants to expose society’s hypocrisy and spread his nihilistic ideals about Chaos; it takes a while for both the protagonist and the other characters to understand how cruel and dangerous he can be, and for a long time they just cannot fathom his completely black morality.

Let us return to Alec, we’ll take the hardest course again and make him a malevolent villain. In his first two centuries our vampire followed the common vibe of his kind to search among the living for those who embodied what he valued most to feed on and eventually turn them: in his case such features are noble blood, old age, and respect for knowledge and tradition, which made old wizards and teachers some of his favorite targets. Then, in the first fifty years of his third century as undead, he shifted to old nuns and widows that could have worked as surrogates for his mother after she was staked by a hunter. But right now, in his seventh century, Alec has long grown bitter with all of humanity: he cannot find the slightest amount of interest in them and therefore drinks from any random unfortunate he stumbles upon and has started turning the people who disgust him the most, so that, as enthralled undead, he can force them to a more favorable behavior. And he does go to great lengths to prolong his victims’ agony as much as possible and bully them once they are forever bound to his service. He doesn’t have his thirst for blood as a justification, because he makes his thralls suck dry and turn the special victims for him; sometimes, after one of them has learned his lesson and started to appreciate the dark gift, Alec will have it burned. This is a particular form of malevolence dear to undead: Alec doesn’t really enjoy killing and tormenting anymore, but since he cannot find anything to be entertained, he wants everyone else to be scourged by a hundred times his misery: this way, compared to them, he’s happy. He doesn’t seek death either, he likes being annoyed and melancholic and going on unliving like this, spreading suffering to mortals for the sake of it.

Step 3: The start of darkness

That is, the background story of the villain. When the villain’s life before the Plot is explored, there is little chance to make something more shallow (as opposed to, well, nothing), but there is also high chance of creating, even unwillingly or unconsciously, sympathetic traits. This happens I believe because there is the common vibe of creating a tragic backstory for the villain, which obviously is bound to stimulate the empathy of the public one way or another. While it is true that a tragic backstory can realistically justify a villain’s current behavior in the main story, it’s not the only way of doing it. Let’s see:

Tragic Backstory: Already introduced. In this category the villain either lost or outright killed his family (or equivalent) or was mistreated by them. Else there was no family and it had to crawl its way into the harsh harsh world by its own and was poor or a slave or something like that. If the villain was a normal child and its father/mother/step-whatever abused it or brainwashed it, the audience will see the parent as the real evil person and the villain as an innocent victim who finally gets its revenge when it kills him/her/it. It’s really the same if the villain’s an orphan: it just becomes a victim of Fate. If someone wants to use the tragic backstory and maintain an unsympathetic villain there is a surprisingly easy way to do it: you make it go like Xykon and kill his parents even if they are normal people who wish him no harm.

Cushy Backstory: This is really the opposite and, I would say, a more common one for the axiomatic villain. In this backstory it grew spoiled in riches, with servants answering its every whim, a fine education, healthcare and possibly a hereditary position of power waiting for it. There is still the possibility of laying the real blame on the parents: after all, if someone assured to make its priorities straight, the baby villain wouldn’t have turned into a princeling with godly delusions. But it’s much less probable for the public to feel sympathy for the villain itself, only for the circumstances. The main story doesn’t dwell on it much, but, as a recent example, Joffrey from A Song of Ice and Fire has one of these and isn’t he charming?

Zero Backstory: This is mostly for non-humanoid monsters and is highly unlikely explored. It is when the villain was born exactly as it is during the main story (although maybe somewhat smaller): it either was generated by a deity or other supernatural being for a purpose or it emerged by itself from primordial ooze or existed from the beginning of time or it was just a lonely savage creature living in the wilderness which passed from hunting bugs and lizards to men and horses. Since it hardly is a story by itself and doesn’t add much, it’s improbable it may fall into sympathetic territory, but it does have the risk of going on the shallow side of the characterization.

Back to our example, I will go with the classic Tragic Backstory: in fact, contrary to what somebody might have started to believe at this point, our Alec was not a nobleman. He lived in a castle in 14th century Europe, but he was the son of a cook and a handmaiden, and served as assistant for the court wizard. His parents were fine people and so were the wizard, the Lord and the Lady of the castle and their heir too, which was some sort of childhood friend for him. As an actual boy Alec was bright and curious, but also diligent and patient. He had a certain dose of envy for the nobles, but he remained loyal to them and was hopeful the old wizard would take him as his apprentice when the right time came. When the bubonic plague came to his country, the Lord quarantined the castle to avoid any risk, letting his subjects starve outside the walls. Alec was fine, hidden inside with the other palace servants, but, when the rabble outside revolted, he was sent with everybody else to repel them at the main gate before they could break in. Even if the revolt were prevented and the people in the castle were still safe from the Black Death festering in the land all around them, it wasn’t many days from the episode that Alec started feeling the effects of the disease. Fearing for his life, the young page sneaked into the wizard’s tower, using what little knowledge he had to invoke supernatural help. A demon answered his call and swore it would save him from death if only Alec give it the life of the Lord’s heir. Alec accepted, but, with the paranoia created by the malady, the Lord and his family were guarded more than ever and didn’t leave even their own chambers anymore. Too scared to sneak in, fearing that, as weak as he was already, the heir could outmatch him and call for help or that someone could have found him with the corpse, Alec decided to use his father’s keys to gain access to the kitchen and polluted all the food piled inside with the plague. In a few days the whole castle was infected. Alec was the first to die in agony, followed shortly by his father and the Lord. When the heir passed as well, the demon fulfilled its promise and Alec crawled his way back from the grave, his first action being killing and turning his mother so that she could care for him for the rest of eternity, or so he hoped. As second move he killed and turned the wizard; he would have kept him for the next fifty years before deciding to destroy him after having learnt everything he could from the old man. Alec passed his first centuries exploring and experiencing the pleasures of undeath, creating dozens of thralls and killing thousands of people; his mood darkened from the 18th century and has grown bitter ever more from there on, as the vampire wasn’t able to relate anymore with a society he found more and more disgusting.

Step 4: Development

Here we go with another underrated point: when someone talks about a protagonist, the character development is usually assimilated as that which it undergoes during its voyage and turns him into a different and most of the times better person, at the end of the plot. When you start talking about a villain’s character development, then for some reason you are only supposed to talk about either Fall or Redemption.

Why is that?

In the mind of many authors and readers a villain either was a good or antiheroic character who fell to the dark side or a wicked creature which will redeem to light before the end. And from what I’ve seen, this goes even for those who follow the grey & grey & composite characters courses. I would say a villain can change without necessarily redeeming itself, it could go from one type of evil to another one, equivalent, worse or a little better (but still on the darker side of the scale). Of course this applies to a completely black villain, which can radically change and still be a completely black villain while acquiring more depth. As a classic example I’ll provide Frollo (not the book version, which was an antiheroic Fall, the Disney cartoonish one): he starts as a racist religious fanatic bent on genocide and, when he goes crazy out of lust, he manages to become even worse!

What about our Alec? Well, I already leaked something, but let’s get more specific: when he was a living kid he had a white-greyish morality which turned pretty dark grey when he decided it was better to kill not just the heir but everyone else in the castle, and most gruesomely, only to save his own skin, but that’s another matter. As a vampire he didn’t take much to reach the deep end of the alignment pool already in his first centuries of unliving: he walked around the Earth feeding on innocents and enjoying both immortality and refined nobleman blood without any second thoughts or remorse; we can imagine he passed part of the 17th century depressed, killing and turning old women to replace his now fully-dead mother, but that phase passed in less than a century, mostly replaced by wrath at the ongoing great conflicts. After the American and French Revolutions his hate and alienation from mankind started to grow faster: he was angered with peasants revolting against the natural order of society and disgusted by aristocrats dying and compromising with them. Since he lived during the supremacy of the feudal system, such a change he could neither fathom nor accept. He passed the next century on a rampage trying to revert humanity to its previous condition, another common trait for undead and other immortals: they don’t change, the world does and they try to unnaturally and forcibly stop it. At the time of the Russian Revolution, Alec was too tired and bored to fly crosscurrent and decided Earth was beyond what he considered repair, thus he calmed himself, closing off even more from the outside, repulsed by science, technology and modernity stomping over magic and fear and cheapening the intrinsic value of blood and birthright. He passed from being a ruthless artist of assassination killing for kicks and fun to a disillusioned bitter creature who hates everyone and wants to make everyone suffer as much as possible, content to revel in his own disappointment.

Step 5: Effectiveness

This isn’t wholly about black & grey & white morality, but since not many articles talking of villain-building examine this point, I’ll spend a paragraph to make my case.

If you want the villain to leave a mark, it has to be effective.

It doesn’t matter how complex it’s, its background, or how many things it has done inside it, or if it is “realistic grey” or “realistic black” and it’s composite and deep and all the rest: the public will remember a villain who does something relevant on paper/screen. And this is a point where too many villains fail miserably. The live action is what makes them credible: doesn’t matter if the author or his NPCs say Overlord X kills angels and rapes puppies, unless we actually see him in one chapter killing the heroine’s angel boyfriend while raping her puppy, for the audience it’s like it’s never happened. It’s just fluff blah blah background fluff. The author might use those sorts of rumors as a buildup, but, if he doesn’t deliver with the villain when it actually shows itself, it turns into an epic failure. This works for grey villains as well, like when the reader would assume they’d kill someone and they let him go (or something analogous), but it should mostly be about showing how despicable and/or dangerous the villain is. It’s really what defines it. Retaking the Star Wars example: Tarkin needs just one action to establish both in and out-universe what kind of character he is.

Normally in a grim vampire story we’ll have the protagonist lose a friend and having him/her turned against him as a vampire in the service of the antagonist… Screw that, not enough. When the protagonist will meet Alec, the vampire will almost kill him, forcing his band to a shameful retreat. Sadly, when the protagonist will reach sanctuary, his friends will discover that he’s not only seriously injured, he was also infected. With this solution we’ll have covered four sensitive points in one move: we established the danger posed by the antagonist in direct combat, we provided the protagonist with a permanent damage and constant suffering (which is always good for protagonists), we provided the protagonist with a good reason for angst (his imminent death and the awareness he’ll need to pass what little time is left of his life alone, far from his friends, to avoid infecting them too) and we provided the protagonist with the need for a race against time to stop Alec before the bubonic plague stops him, which also possibly prepares the narration for some old fashioned heroic sacrifice, to avoid an agonizing death by disease.

The Incorruptibly Virtuous

Well, that was easy. Now comes the hard one. And I don’t think I’m the only one thinking it, considering there are so many articles and manuals describing all possible ways to make bad guys and so little for good guys.
Someone might argue there’s a lot of written stuff about how to create heroes, but, for what is my concern, that is another topic regarding the Plot and does not necessarily apply to purely good characters (especially in last years…). The main problem for the axiomatic good that we will examine at length is that he can become or just be perceived as not-really-good-after-all, with Eragon being a prime example of this, but far from the only one. A character that is just so good has the impending threat of contracting marysuism and, even if, inside its setting, has only brought joy and prosperity to everybody, the readers will be hating it deeply and consider it either an obnoxious self-righteous brat or some unrealistic naïve idiot who (in both instances) just got lucky.

As an inverted suggestion, whereas the villain is recommended to have redeeming features to humanize it, the hero is suggested to have flawed feature (also, to humanize it). Again, nothing inherently wrong with that, when creating a grey or light-grey hero, but what if we want (and have a compatible setting) to create a pure white hero? The moral requirements are seemingly even harder to meet, since there are many acts which can be objectively considered as questionable (slavery, torture, genocide, etc.) but there are not that many actions that could be objectively considered virtuous (you saved someone’s life? Why? Did you wanted to be rewarded or become his friend? And who was him? What did you risk or lose by saving his life? etc.); to see a truly evil action in a good light may be really hard, but it’s just so easy to take any good action and see its flip side, making it less of a completely good action and the topic shortly falls into moral quandaries of various sorts.

Step 1: What is it?

We start the same way, with same possibilities and yet different implications:

Non-humanoid creature: And let’s start with one of the many inversed categories… I know there are some characters of this kind.. somewhere.. but right now I cannot even recall a non-humanoid creature of pure good who was an important character. They are a lot fewer than their evil counterparts, I’d say mostly because human form is more palatable to human eyes and mind and therefore more easily assimilated as friendly. It’s not like there aren’t at all, think of unicorns in both medieval legends (well not quite, but still…) and modern fantasy, but they are rare, especially as sentient characters, especially as protagonists. I mean, unless we are in a cartoon with animal characters, but when was the last time you read a book or saw a movie with an epic adventure setting, humans as the main species and a non-humanoid pure-good protagonist? So, the problem of this category is that is not used at all? Again, as for the previous paragraph, while employing it, it is fundamental to remember the differences should be both outside and inside the creature, his mentality should be influenced by the different nature, it should not just be a human-by-any-other-form, it should have different reasons to act kindly or to protect the innocents (or even every living being disregarding of their actions). Not necessarily it has to be a shining paragon of perfection and beauty: it could be monstrous and threatening or outright ugly for an human viewer, just as an evil creature may look majestic. As the evil types have the eldritch abominations, surprisingly enough there can be unknowable beings who act unnaturally good without any discernible reasons in various settings: the numerous facets of deities (of course those that are not wrathful, crazed or most clearly fuelled by the mortals’ belief in them). Wait, that gave me an acceptable example: Aslan from Narnia.

Monstrous humanoid: This is the Gary Stu/Mary Sue category. Each and every stereotyped hero will either start here or get here before the Plot ends. Like for the evil counterpart it is the more used one and even more misused and poorly treated one. The same reasons explained before apply: if it’s not really human, it will not act as a human. You do not just stich wings on its back or sharpen its ears and pretend it can still act as a human being. As the features of fully evil monstrous humanoids should inspire a sense of disgust and wrongness as attached to an otherwise humanoid being, the features of fully good monstrous humanoids are most likely to inspire an aesthetically pleasant reaction and something of a more idealized version of humans (like Tolkien’s elves). Sometimes there might be the contradiction of having an unsavory appearance hide the inner beauty like for the previous category, but I’ll not dwell too much on it as it would be another topic entirely. As an example I’ll report Kaelyn from Neverwinter Nights 2, a winged half-celestial constantly struggling to emulate the pure Good conduct an full-blood angel should empower, even when it put her against her first patron god and kicked out of Heavens. She’s half human, but the part of her that is not so can be perceived in the way she thinks; example: if the player character approaches her with the option of starting a romance, she will kindly decline and apologize, affirming that she does care a lot about the protagonist and she does love him, in her platonic sort of way, but just as much as she loves every living being and she could not bear to enter a more restrictive relationship with the character because it would be for her a selfish act against all other creatures everywhere that might need her assistance and solidarity in the probable future. (I will restrain myself to make a Don Giovanni joke here).

Humanoid: How does a hero become completely pure whilst retaining its humanity? Just as for the villain case it needs to be deeply explored and one’s need to be assured it is something consistent with the setting, that there are reasons allowing such an unnatural condition to come into play: there are good people in real life, but everyone has its imperfections or an hypothetical breaking point, an incorruptible character has none of that. It should be someone to inspire by example and to be looked up by people; an analogue process as for the humanoid villain, inverted: the first will be seen as too twisted to be human, the other too virtuous to be real, one stirs creeps, the other stirs wonder. As an example I’ll put Parsifal (not the Arthurian one, the one from the Black Moon’s Chronicles), a Paladin of the Order of Justice. He did have a direct hotline with God, whom he could call for help basically anytime to receive the most straightforward advices and assistance deity ever gave to mortal, but he never misused his position and he had his own original ideas to prevent conflicts at any chance, even if he technically was a warrior.

I went for an attempted rejuvenation of the most clichéd archetype in the previous example, this time I’ll be as original as it gets, therefore, Etah, our pure good prototype, will be a magical giant celestial awakened eagle, descended from the heavens to aid mortals at the best of her capabilities. She spontaneously came into being when an old ill watchman sacrificed himself to stand guard and keep his light-tower lit for all night during a vicious storm, thus safely guiding ships to the coast before dying. She is as intelligent as a human being, with a wingspan of nine meters, capable of speaking and understanding any language, controlling weather to a certain degree, shooting lightning from her talons and, of course, moving back and forth from world to heaven.

From whence she came down, Etah spent a lot of time using her powers to help in all possible ways mankind: she brings sun or rain whatever one is required for crops to grow fast and strong, she sends steady and favorable winds to ships and helps lost travelers to find their way back home. Most of the time she’ll stay hidden, showing herself only when absolutely necessary; when forced into a quarrel, she might act threateningly, but only in the hope of preventing a real physical conflict. It is more the type of creature that will secretly slow down an enemy army with rain and strong winds to break its morale and force it to retreat before reaching destination, rather than one which will rain bolts from the sky to smite it down.

Step 2: Characterization

This is a tricky passage that goes always into the unsavory problem of deciding what can be considered good. For example: if an angel is created only to tend to what is virtuous, does that really give it the moral high ground, even if it doesn’t really have a choice to act differently? If a person commits a good act because it makes him feel better, could he be really considered of a good heart or is he only searching his personal pleasure and sense of self-fulfillment? If the hero sacrifices itself for the greater cause, fearing no death and knowing it’ll go to a better place, is it really sacrificing for others? Is it really sacrificing itself in the first place? It’s going to heaven after all (or it thinks so), eternal beatitude doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, where’s the actual loss which defines the meaning of sacrifice? Considering the complexity which lays in the definition of what is good, I’d say that just taking time to dwell on it is enough to make the character composite even without adding outright flaws. I could go with a Virtue vs. Benevolence dichotomy, but it would not really serve the purpose here and be just a repetition of what was said before, so I’ll rather provide some sensitive points to be hopefully used as hints:

Does the purity of the hero comes because he was born or created with a strong inclination towards good? If so, how does he react to evil? It might be astonished and incapable of even understanding why other creatures decide to commit or revel into cruel behaviors. Even a normal grey society like the humans’ could leave it shocked and confused. How would it react or try to relate to them? If it was created maybe it has already a preset of responses, if not, it should instinctively apply, at least at first, the same moral scale it uses for itself, which could, in turn, be seen as exaggerated from the other characters’ point of view (and the readers). At this point, if the hero either copes with the fact others may not be able to reach its integrity or it doesn’t and tries to still force its conduct on everyone around it, it would be showing pride, ideological racism and oppressive behavior, thus not being completely white anymore. Such a situation therefore should be avoided and another solution found (unless you’re creating a grey character).

If the purity of the hero comes as a detachment from a previous condition of imperfection, be careful not to make it insensitive (a common feature in modern depictions of angels and angelic creatures): it’s true that it has left its humanity, but, even if it doesn’t remember who it was, it still is supposedly ascended to a higher grade. Making it cold brings it closer to an amoral evil archetype (he doesn’t care): it’s self-indulgent, once again not really wholly white.

Etah isn’t shy, but she doesn’t want to be seen by humans mostly because she thinks receiving recognition would taint her actions: she is working for the good of others, it wouldn’t be the same if they paid her, whether with compliments and praises or actual tributes. She also doesn’t want the mortals to become dependable on her, which could be a possibility if they knew she was watching over them, ready to help at any time. Even if she was born pure, she actually is pretty vulnerable to evil since she finds it hard to understand and recognize, therefore she spends always a great deal of time questioning her every action to be sure she is taking the best possible choice in the given circumstances. She’s amazed by the variety of behaviors shown by humanoids and, even if she never experienced it, she is confident that, with such a diversity, pure virtuous may come into being by themselves, without any help; as for the rest, many have good hearts too and are certainly not blame for small flaws.

Step 3: Credibility

This is the main problem in the creation of a pure white character, the one that hides the risk of marysuing it. If the unnaturally good conduct of a white hero is not justified or in-name-only, instead of being an inspiring figure for the readers/public it’ll be strongly despised and rejected as unbelievable and hypocritical. If the character is human it will be shunned as unrealistic, if it isn’t it will be shunned because it proposes an unreachable idealized model. In its perfection lays its imperfection, that is to say: making a character seemingly perfect will get the public hate it, if the public hates it then it is not perfect in the first place. While in the axiomatic villain removing the grey traits (qualities and redeeming factors) helps in its build, making it less sympathetic and relatable, for the axiomatic hero it works the same, but for its disadvantage: removing its grey traits (the flaws and compromises) will also make it unsympathetic and distant from the readers, which becomes an unwillingly added flaw by itself.

How to solve this?
I don’t know, it’s a very hard problem, I suppose I can give hints.

The first is not to try and hide the fact that the hero is pure white: it has not to boast about it, but it has not to angst about it (“Oh, he is Mr. Perfect and angsts? What more does he freaking wants from life?”), it just makes it worst.

Another common mistake to avoid is the borg proselytism that both white and grey heroes tend to have: “You will embrace Good or face rightful punishment. No middle ground. I’m sorry and I pity you. Now choose.” Not only there is the common assumption that the villain might be only redeemed or defeated, but also that redemption will only ever mean joining the side of the hero. It is a very narrow attitude which makes the hero look like a religious fanatic who will either push you into its personal way of thinking or out of society (one way or another). What if the paladin faces the evil wizard in his tower and manage to resolve peacefully the conflict? The wizard will not go on with his plan, but still will not bear the sight of other people (or the paladin) and continue to pass his life in happy seclusion in his tower, with his experiments and studies, just as he was doing before. And the paladin will respect and accept his choice: he will neither see him as a crazy old loner nor will spur hypocritical compassion, assuming that, since he is alone he has to be sad and needing of help (because the paladin would if he were alone, so why the wizard wouldn’t?).

The other common fanatical trait to avoid is the one of the supposedly white hero smiting anything that is either impure or considered evil beyond salvation, without showing second thoughts or with false pity. I will explore more about this point in the next paragraph.

Finally, sometimes a white good character, even if doesn’t create hate, might just happen to be extremely dull or predictable. On this instance the small differences in physic, psyche and behavior are those that really help set them apart.

As said before, Etah doesn’t judge the mortals, she appreciates all their differences, while still being careful to constantly check her own conduct. We’ve already seen her actions are those of a benefic spirit of nature, helping individuals in their daily struggles and providing abundance for people in general. She interacts little with mortals, letting them search their own way up or down the moral scale. When she stumbles upon someone with a detrimental influence on other beings, Etah will both try to protect those harmed and, at the same time, search for what does the individual want to try and appease his spirit by giving whatever is the object of his desires. If it’s not possible to appease the enemy or he’s not satiated by what was given to him and craves for more, she’ll try to lure him someplace where at least he couldn’t be of harm to others. As an example perhaps a greedy young Lord has just inherited his land and starts squeezing his subjects. Etah will both provide food and resources to the peasants, scare away guards too violent in their collecting and at the same time secretly have the Lord find a treasure. If the Lord stops vexing his subjects, her work is done, if he wants more with no reason but his greed, she’ll provide either the peasants with enough riches to leave the feud and start a better life elsewhere or subtly bait the Lord away, maybe searching for another vast hidden treasure on the other side of the continent, hoping the long voyage and struggles will satiate his thirst and give the subjects a break.

Step 4: Hard Choices

There are a lot of opinions and material regarding this point: true heroes should be forced to make tough choices, which can inevitably shatter their alleged purity.

Usually a white (or supposedly so) hero will find a way to avoid the choice, the famous third option. While it can be well played, a similar trope can also be employed cheaply and the hero, instead of appearing as the one who epically refuses to play the villain’s or Fate’s game, seems just like the one who weasel is way out of a decision he’s too scared/self-righteous to make. It is particularly true when the character manages to take his third option due to supernatural abilities a normal person could not employ.

I will not go further on the matter of particular circumstances deeply influencing the situation in this case, but I’ll point out that, surprisingly enough, an actually completely white character is a lot easier to add in a grey & grey setting rather than in a grey & black or black & white one from this point of view. Why is that? How does the hero treat the villain? A grey villain can always have hope to redeem itself and be no longer a threat to others; a white hero will be free to struggle with all its forces to save it. But what does it do against a black villain? Even if its setting provides a chance to redeem such a creature, the hero would know that such a change will be so radical it would not be different from physically destroying said villain (as Malack from OOTS puts it: “Bringing me back to life is just a very complicate way of annihilating the person I am today […] Stake me instead.”). And if the white hero decides to kill the black villain, it is still killing another intelligent being (doesn’t matter if it is an undead or a devil or the like, it is still a person, albeit with twisted objectives and desires); doesn’t that technically falls into “the ends (saving innocents) justify the means (killing someone)”? Another option could be to contain the black villain somehow, but to what end? Incarceration in our world is based as a mean to reeducate and reinstate into society the guilty party, yet a black villain will never change: the moment it’s out (either because it served its time or because it broke out) it will go back to what was doing, maybe even more viciously, and the hero will be responsible for all the damage it’ll cause, because it spared it before (how many people have died because Batman will not lower himself to kill the Joker?). The hero could consider trapping it forever (to the end of its life or eternity, depending on the nature of that particular villain), but won’t that be a fate worse than death? What about those species that are beyond compatibility with average peaceful humanoids? Let us say the white hero lives in Faerûn and has to fight against a Mind Flayer plot: its enemies are aberrations who reproduce themselves by infesting humanoids, who feed on their brains and plan on brainwashing into submission every other living species and turn off the sun. Compromise cannot be reached, should our hero approve of genocide? In a grey situation maybe yes, but we are talking about an idealistic axiomatic good character.

Etah was horrified by her first encounter with undead: she could not fathom why would a lich kill indiscriminately and without reason every living being and reanimate them as shambling corpses to serve his bidding; he was not interested in riches, lands or people, after hundreds of years of existence he had learned everything he could care about magic too and, when she met him, his only joy left was in killing and perverting all which was natural. She tried to divert and to reason with him but with no result. In the end she was forced to confront him but, after managing to destroy his body, rather than smash it, she dragged his phylactery on an isolated uninhabited world. The lich reformed his body there and was unable to leave. Etah flies on a regular basis over that vast land to check on his status, throwing in abandoned corpses for him to reanimate once in a while.

Step 5: Suffering

What was said for villains works for heroes too: tragic backstory, psycho-physical pain and so on generate sympathy. Since an axiomatic good guy doesn’t have flaws, the only thing left to make it sympathetic is suffering, so hammer hard.
Hurt them, their feelings, their friends, everything they could care about and, most importantly make it show: as for the villain effectiveness, saying that a hero has lost what he had most dear isn’t the same as making it lose it on the page/screen and have us experience the pain it’s put through. In this case the common mistake is some sort of inverse: remember for the villain? Describing his effectiveness out of stage and then being incapable to deliver on stage? For the hero is the same thing when the reason of its suffering is not presented as something really heart-wracking and yet the character moans and angsts too much over it. It is possible to err on the other side (the hero loses someone dear to it and forget about it a chapter later), but I think it’s more annoying and common the first one, especially in modern literature where angsty heroes are so numerous.
As a specific case, when suffering takes the form of sacrifice, I’ll put my exclusively personal opinion, that is: if one wants to value the hero’s sacrifice he does not have to reward it. The hero wants to die to save the world? Let it stay dead. It wants to fall from grace or lose its powers to save a loved one? Do not give said powers/grace back to it right after it does the deed. Let it be permanent and it will be a proper sacrifice.

What about Etah? Well, she had no real parent nor close friend, but she loved and believed equally in all living beings. On the other hand we have established that precisely because of her heavenly nature she was even too sensible to all kinds of suffering and injustice. The struggle to help the mortals without force their free will nor to hinder some of them to save others can already be, if correctly explored, a soul-crushing task (consider the mere numbers of humanoids which could inhabit her world, the relations between different governments and different species, the problems presented by nature and magic, and so on…). She will strain to exhaustion and still go on, ignoring her well-being, just as the man who caused her birth, ending sacrificing herself, this time for the good of all mankind. As she dies, she knows nobody even knows she ever existed, but that’s fine for her, she just hopes she was able to make a difference.

*****************

Why, yes, you can mix-max features from both paragraphs to create your overly complex and torn grey squid monster trying to suppress his urge to suck brains to be accepted by human society while being aware it would most likely mean condemning his cannibalistic but otherwise pacific and wise species to extinction… but why would you do that? Ugh…

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Comment

  1. Potatoman on 11 July 2013, 04:15 said:

    Genius article, illustrated everything I wanted know about morality in fiction in a concise, easy to understand format. Well done.

    The hero wants to die to save the world? Let it stay dead. It wants to fall from grace or lose its powers to save a loved one? Do not give said powers/grace back to it right after it does the deed. Let it be permanent and it will be a proper sacrifice.

    This is so true. If everything ends as the reader has predicted, the impact won’t really be there and it’ll end up dragging the book down. The true impact in a story lies in demolishing the happily ever after stereotype. Also, if the writer is sentimental (like me) you can always give the hero its powers back through working for them. Nobody said a hero’s life was easy, after all.

  2. Sìlfae on 11 July 2013, 09:24 said:

    Genius article, illustrated everything I wanted know about morality in fiction in a concise, easy to understand format. Well done.

    Thanks, glad you liked it.

    This is so true. If everything ends as the reader has predicted, the impact won’t really be there and it’ll end up dragging the book down. The true impact in a story lies in demolishing the happily ever after stereotype.

    Of course, while the happy ending is not implausible per se (depending on how it’s presented), the happily ever after certainly is, as, sooner or later, things are likely to go awry again in the plausible future.

    Nobody said a hero’s life was easy, after all.

    On the contrary: an hero should always have a hard time in the Plot, it’s part of his base characterization.

  3. Fireshark on 11 July 2013, 10:51 said:

    Man, I’d been wanting to write something like this. Your version is way better than what I would have come up with, though.

    I also like that you weren’t dismissive towards the idea of good and evil; it’s become a bit trendy to go for extreme gray-and-gray and I have a hard time getting invested in such stories.

  4. Sìlfae on 11 July 2013, 11:25 said:

    I also like that you weren’t dismissive towards the idea of good and evil; it’s become a bit trendy to go for extreme gray-and-gray and I have a hard time getting invested in such stories.

    Thank you, yes, that’s exactly my point: excessive use of Grey & Grey Morality and the assumption that it will always be the more realistic choice in any given setting, only because it is so in our reality.

  5. swenson on 11 July 2013, 12:45 said:

    I also like the defense of true good and true evil in this. Shades of gray can be quite interesting (not Shades of Grey, though the spork is rather funny), but all gray with no black or white for contrast makes for a pretty boring picture. Or at least an incomplete one.

    Having shades of gray might make for an interesting character, but it’s not the only way to make an interesting character—as I think you showed quite well in this.

  6. Sìlfae on 11 July 2013, 13:02 said:

    Yes, precisely so. I can imagine the ‘shades of grey’ trope became a trend to counteract the shallow depiction of only black and only white characters, which obviously most of the time can be even more unbearable, but right now the Grey & Grey policy is becoming too strict (at least from what I see): especially for villains in the last years there seems like there cannot be one without a dozen sympathetic traits that should make you feel bad for when he dies/loses. The redundancy and forceful placement made it a shallow representation as well.

  7. Sìlfae on 14 July 2013, 04:06 said:

    Yersterday I saw Man of Steel, sad I didn’t before, there was a fitting example for what I was talking about in the “Incorruptible Virtuous” chapter, I’ll add it now:

    Man of Steel Spoilers (for what concerns 4: Hard Choices)

    See how harder is for an axiomatic good character to deal with an axiomatic villain you cannot reason with? A graish Zod could have been stopped or persuaded to go on its way and leave Earth in peace, making the job morally easier for Kal’el, but this wasn’t the case: “Stop!” “Never!” The white hero is forced to stain himself because the black villain does not allow a moderate resolution to the conflict.

  8. Kyle Phoenix on 14 July 2013, 06:53 said:

    Thanks for this article, Silfae. It’s all-around descriptive and thought-provoking.

    Why, yes, you can mix-max features from both paragraphs to create your overly complex and torn grey squid monster trying to suppress his urge to suck brains to be accepted by human society while being aware it would most likely mean condemning his cannibalistic but otherwise pacific and wise species to extinction… but why would you do that? Ugh…

    Sounds like a plot idea for a Bizarro -story .

  9. Sìlfae on 14 July 2013, 07:45 said:

    Thank you again, I’m glad to be of assistance.