We grin and support John Wick as he ploughs through dozens of people per minute in his revenge quest over his murdered dog and ruined car, but we gasp with shock when the Wicked Witch of the East pursues a single person to take revenge for killing her sister with a house and stealing her property.
Why is that? As an audience, as individuals, we have a relatively set standard when it comes to ethics and what we approve and don't approve of in human behavior.
One element is that when we immerse ourselves in a story, we trust the creator to orient us as to who is the protagonist and who the antagonist- who is the hero and who is the villain. That is done to a big extent with cues. Some cues are pretty hamfisted and crude (e.g. the good guy wears white, the bad guy wears black), some others are nuanced, hidden in dialogue and behaviors we generally associate with alignment: rudeness, mostly meanness, towards people that aren't presented by the story as deserving it,
The other element is the genre of the story itself.
In general, the bigger the suspension of disbelief required by the story, the bigger the tolerance and expansion of the limits of what a character is allowed to do and still be considered ‘good’ or when he/she crosses to the area of ‘bad’.
So in a story like John Wick, or Kill Bill, everyone is expected to have a huge body count under their belts- ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters alike. Their position as the hero or the villain isn't affected by how many they kill, but by the context and the motivation- and selection- of who they kill. In many action adventures the same principle holds, as well as fantasy, fairy tales and spin-offs of the sort. In these genres, the body count is truly that- body count. The people that die at the hands of the main characters are unknown, irrelevant to the story, there only to be cut down, as spectacularly and entertainingly as possible. Deaths count (morally and story wise) only when they come to named, main or supporting characters.
On the other hand stories where the suspension of disbelief is not very demanding, the tolerance for the limits of what a character is allowed to do and still be considered ‘good’ thins out. The more realistic the story, the tougher it is to sell a killing as ‘okay’- and especially tougher to sell the lack of an aftermath after said killing, both emotional and social. The more realistic the story, the more any death counts, whether it's of a named character or a totally unknown extra.
Lastly, when the negative impact of acts that are morally ambiguous or objectively bad affects the main characters, then its weight carries even if the story requires massive suspension of disbelief. So the Wicked Witch of the East, therefore, is a villain because she's pursuiing and trying to assassinate Dorothy even though she leaves everyone else (except those trying to help her) alone: her action affects the main character AND she is presented as having judged the main character unfairly, accusing her of murder when it was an accident (though the theft of the ruby slippers was no accident).
The musical Wicked displays beautifully how, when the Witch is the main character, her actions suddenly seem a lot more understandable and defensible, or downright warranted.
How would you consider the villains in your story? How about the heroes?
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, May 9, 2020
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