Today, I’m excited to welcome back to Bookwraiths C.T. Phipps, author of such book series as The Supervillainy Saga, Cthulhu Armageddon Series, Agent G Series, Lucifer’s Star Series, and Bright Falls Mysteries. He has stopped by to talk about a subject we’ve all pondered at one time or another: Should heroes always be good?
To be honest, I’ve always had a fondness for anti-heroes; men and women who struggle against their baser nature to do what they perceive as right. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that what is viewed as right or good for one person (or by one culture) isn’t necessarily viewed as good or right by another. So my initial answer to C.T. Phipps’ question would be that heroes aren’t always good whether they believe they are or not. But let’s see what our guest has to say about the subject!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
SHOULD HEROES BE GOOD?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I have noticed something about my books: all of my protagonists are bastards. They may have likable qualities, sometimes noble goals, and close friendships–but they’re all people who would be villains in other people’s books. They have motivations for what they’re doing but they also have guilt for their actions. They also sometimes make the wrong choice for selfish, petty, or emotional reasons. Which is why I believe it’s sometimes good to invert the default alignment in your protagonists. Yes, it’s sometimes good to write the bad guy as your hero.
Part of the reason for this is because it’s simply a good idea to go against the grain every now and then. Most readers assume the narrative is on the side of the protagonist whenever we begin a story. We assume Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf are the good guys so they’re doing the right thing by trying to destroy the One Ring. It would be a very different sort of book if it turned out Boromir had been right all along and it would have been better to use the ring against Sauron. That’s the kind of twist you don’t expect in books and very rarely happens.
Indeed, one of the things I’ve learned about in my own writing is that a protagonist is never more interesting than the sum of their flaws. While some characters transcend this like Superman and Captain America (I used to be able to say Luke Skywalker), this rule is one which dates back to Gilgamesh and the first novel in his epic. There, Gilgamesh was the man who invented the “sleeping with brides on their wedding night” legend which Braveheart popularized and spent the last third of his journey pitifully trying to avoid death by any means necessary.
When I wrote The Rules of Supervillainy, I was interested in exploring the ups and downs of a superhero world. What would motivate people to want to be a supervillain? Couldn’t they make more money as a hero? Why would they hate the kind of people who would be colorful cops and EMTs in real life? That helped me create Gary Karkofsky a.k.a Merciless: The Supervillain without MercyTM. I realized I wanted to tell the story of a superhero world from the perspective of a villain rather than from the perspective of a hero.
I made Gary a person who was prone to short-sighted decisions, full of anger over the death of his brother, greedy, and carrying guilt over the fact he’d “avenged” his brother by killing a man when he fourteen with a stolen gun. In short, he was a ticking time bomb of various issues who was bound to misuse his powers yet could be persuaded to use them for good or evil depending on the situation. Also, what was good for one group of people might be bad for another. In other words, his flaws made him interesting.
This philosophy even benefits even characters who are supposed to be good and just. Eddard Stark is a great character of fantasy but he’s a man who is very much noble and heroic by the standards of Westeros versus those of a modern day society. His unbreakable honor, refusal to compromise, violent temper, and desire to maintain his friends’ status results in his horrible downfall as well as the end of his kingdom.
Indeed, the opportunity to explore different kinds of morality and values is one of the best things you can do with fantasy. One of the earliest lessons of writing I picked up on was ‘everyone is the hero in their own story.’ The Punisher is a villain to someone like Spiderman but functions because he’s fully committed to his private war against evil. Magneto has enthralled plenty of fans with his questionable extremism. After all, if you really are being hunted by the government with giant robots then what options suddenly become justifiable?
In addition to Merciless, I’ve written stories from the perspective of professional killers (Agent G: Infiltrator), Ring-wraith like monsters (Wraith Knight), ex-Space Fascists (Lucifer’s Star), and even the occasional not-cuddly vampire (Straight Outta Fangton). It’s fun to walk a mile in the shoes of the bad guy and see why they think they’re justified. It’s also great to be able to have fun with their story going completely off the rails. Paragons almost always do the right thing in the end and that can get a little boring while there’s more freedom to be had with antiheroes who might deserve what happens to them.
Being the bad guy doesn’t mean that you can’t have comrades in arms, friends, loved ones, or even a code. It means that you aren’t bound by society’s rules or maybe are bound by those of one which isn’t our own. Plus, let’s be honest, a lot of us would rather rule the world than save it.