We all know that for the most part, our characters are supposed to be fully fleshed out and multidimensional. That means we need heroes with things we don't like and villains with traits we actually admire. But how do you do that?
What's the danger of a hero who is solely heroic or a villain who is purely villainous?
Ef Deal: I would hope that writers take the time to study human nature enough to know that -- outside of comic books and Marvel Universe -- people are people. Once they become characters in a story, they require agency as well as fully formed humanity, with aspirations, plans, goals, and foibles. Doesn't matter if they're the pro or anti, hero or villain (I dislike those terms), they've got to be people first.
John L. Taylor: The danger of a purely "Lawful Good" hero is that it doesn't leave room for internal conflict that leads to character development. It's part of why Batman seems more relatable than Superman. Also, when the character is that rigidly good, they take on an authoritarian air that doesn't sit well with the modern reader. As for the purely villainous "Chaotic Evil": compare Thanos (the MCU version) to Jason from Friday the 13th. Both exist as avatars of death in their respective stories, but Thanos is also more relatable as he has some degree of moral ambiguity in his intentions. Heath Ledger's Joker was another prime example of this. Vile intentions wrapped in a layer of social criticism and acute awareness of the corruption of those who believe they are the "good guys." That's solid story material there. Bobby Nash:
Perfect characters are just that. Perfect. There’s a place for those types of characters, but you go in knowing exactly what you’re going to get. There are no moral gray areas so few surprises based on character. That said, having a heroic character do the occasional morally questionable act adds a new dimension to them. It doesn’t always mean the character will go that route, but we know there’s a line for them. Here are two examples from TV that stick with me:
In the Magnum, P.I. (OG version) episode, Have You Seen The Sunrise?, Magnum and friends are targeted by an old enemy from their time in Vietnam, a cold-as-ice killer named Ivan. The episode sees one of Magnum’s friends killed, another injured, another programmed to become a killer, and even Magnum gets shot and blown up along with his car. Ivan is a bad guy who does bad things, but he has diplomatic immunity so the two-part episode ends with him being asked to leave the United States and to never return. This does not sit well with Magnum or Rick so they divert the car and Magnum confronts Ivan. Ivan tortured all of them years ago as POWs and he tells Magnum that, despite all he’s done, he knows that Magnum is a good, honorable man who would never commit cold, calculated murder. Magnum shocks him, and the audience, when the episode ends with him pulling the trigger. Does this make him a murderer? Yes. He murdered the guy. Does it make him a bad guy going forward? No. Isolated incident, but one that added a new layer to the character.
The second is a Stargate: SG-1 episode titled “The Other Side” where the team meets an advanced race on another planet. They start the procedure to form an alliance when they learn that this group, who we’ve been told are under attack by a vicious force, are in fact the instigators, having tried to wipe out those on their planet they believe to be impure. The alliance isn’t happening and the team makes their escape as the other side attacks. Colonel O’Neill warns the leader not to follow. We are reminded earlier in the episode that, if the iris is closed on Earth’s gate, an incoming traveler will die when they reform against it. O’Neill enters and, knowing the bad guy is following, steps through and orders the iris closed immediately. His teammates look at him with shock as we hear the villain die as he hits the iris. As with the Magnum example above, the character did commit murder, but it did not irrevocably change the character going forward.
Of course, in both these instances, the characters were soldiers and had been trained to compartmentalize and do whatever needed to be done. I think those are great story examples of facing those shades of gray.
Lucy Blue: I write very character-driven fiction, regardless of the genre I'm working in, and I never stop to think if someone is a villain or a hero. I'm all about motivations. I start with a protagonist, someone whose personality or goals or situation particularly interests me, and I immediately dive into their motivations. What does this character want? Why do they want it? What would have to happen for them to have it? How are they going to make those things happen? What are they willing to do to make those things happen--and what are they not willing to do? What roadblocks am I going to create and drop in front of them, and how are they going to pivot to get around them? Coming up with the answers to these questions for my protagonist inevitably creates the other characters, some of whom will help them, some of whom will seek to stop or harm them, and I ask the exact same questions about those characters, too. (Incidentally, that's one strategy for avoiding racial and gender stereotypes in your characterization--focus on the individual characters' own motivations rather than what they're doing for or against your protagonist.
John Morgan Neal: I don't see why we can't have both. It seems there is too much either or in our culture sometimes nowadays. Old grumps not liking the new-fangled stuff and kids dismissing all the old stuff as has been. My mantra has always been 'variety is the spice of life' If everything is the same, that can get very dull very fast.
Richard Knaak: In my Rogues Gallery, the hero is missing, so the villains are falling all over each other. Not great for 1930 Chicago -- well, an alternate one -- but not every villain has the same motivation. Some just want to steal nice things, for instance, not try to take over. It's the backgrounds of the various villains and the choices that they make based on both that background and their overall desires, that brings them into conflict with one another... and makes some even a bit heroic. I think that rounds them out better overall.
Brian K Morris: The problem with a solely heroic hero is the problem usually given to characters like Superman and most comic book protagonists, that they're "Boy Scouts" and thus, "dull." Heroes need a quirk to help make them interesting (Batman hates guns, Doc Savage is emotionally reserved, Frank Castle and Mack Bolan are motivated by revenge, Indiana Jones hates snakes, etc.). They can be interesting for a while but mostly become tedious after a time because there's nothing to get to like the character on a personal basis.
The same with villains, except you don't have to empathize with them as you would a protagonist. But you should understand why they do what they do, simply beyond the mere accumulation of power/wealth/influence.
Nancy Hansen: I prefer reading stories that have complex characters, no matter whether we're supposed to root for them as they bumble, blunder, and batter their way through the situation or wish someone would flatten their faces with a sledgehammer because they are so incredibly detestable.
Emily LaFlame Jahnke: Funny you mention that because I’m working on a character who did horrible things but is on a journey of redemption.
There are really good examples of good heroes and bad villains, (i.e. Doc Savage, Superman, the Joker, Lex Luthor, etc) but really good writers focus on what makes them heroes or villains.
Pól Rua: For mine, one of the dangers of an 'infallible' hero is absolute conviction. And what's worse than that is when that absolute conviction always pays off.
A character who is 'solely heroic' is not a problem. That characters like Superman, James T. Kirk, and Doc Savage, for instance, act in a way that is 'always good' is entirely plausible. Where it becomes problematic in terms of storytelling is when those characters act in a way that suggests they are supernaturally aware of the best course of action.
In a standard narrative involving this sort of character, the crucial dilemma for the hero should be discerning what that course of action IS.
Most Doc Savage adventures, for instance, begin with some sort of impossible situation or cryptic warning. The goal then, is to use the character's considerable talents, resources and intellect to investigate and gather information. His greatest virtue is intellectual curiosity.
In the case of James T. Kirk, he is often placed in a situation where he is not in possession of all the facts. Because he is confident in himself and in his trusted allies, he will quickly act based on what information he has, knowing that inaction could lead to disaster. This confidence also means that, in a case where his initial response was incorrect, he and his allies can gain new information and perspective and change their strategies accordingly. His greatest virtue is self-confidence.
Superman, on the other hand, is often forced into dilemmas based on the scale of the situation he is forced into. Despite his abilities, Superman doesn't consider himself better or more important than others. He sees a capacity for heroism and goodness in everyone, and while he appreciates that his powers give him the ability to act on a larger scale, he rejects the idea that his actions are more virtuous or important than that of any person who chooses to help someone out in a time of need or who puts another's wellbeing ahead of their own. His greatest virtue is humility.
But if you have a character who ALWAYS seems to always make the correct decision, even when not in full possession of all the information necessary, then it begins to feel less like competence and more like author fiat. At that point, you're not playing fair by your audience, and consciously or not, audiences can sense that.
What tips do you have for creating heroes and villains who defy simple one-note portrayals and are able to appeal to readers as much than just flat, cardboard cut-out caricatures?
Bobby Nash: For me, it always starts with character. I work hard to make my characters as three-dimensional as possible, as fully formed as possible. That means the good and bad. As the writer, I know those things, even if we don’t always show it. All characters have bad days. How do they handle it? Does the character shrug off problems or do they piss them off and spoil the rest of their day? Those are important character-defining traits I like to know upfront, but I’m also open to learning new traits and tidbits about my characters as we move through the story we’re telling. Once I get to know the characters, they will tell me what they’ll do and how they’ll react.
Emily LaFlame Jahnke: My biggest tip for creating good villains or bad heroes is to show their heroic sides and to make them compelling. Scarlet O’Hara for example is no Angel. But she’s still compelling and interesting.
Brian K Morris: Give them a non-standard quirk, both heroes and villains, that make them a little more interesting and might even be an impediment to accomplishing their goals every now and then. Or give them an almost redeeming quality, such as when Dr. Doom killed his flunky for attempting to destroy the Fantastic Four but risking Doom's stolen art treasures in the process.
Alycia Lynn Davidson: Make them human, even if they aren't. Even the most heinous of individuals will have wants, needs, desires, and goals, and the most pure of heroes (the interesting ones, anyway) will have flaws, quirks, moments of doubt and growth. They all have relationships and routines, things in their childhood/creation that shaped them. I take those small things and use them to ground my characters to reality. My favorite character in each project shares my birthday. One of my novella characters is a type 1 diabetic, like myself. The big bad of my space opera gets his own prequel novel to help flesh out his powerful, decades-long arc. Find the small traits that add depth and weave them throughout the narrative in the way they speak, act, and think.
John L. Taylor: A tip I have in creating rounded heroes and villains is this: give them both a conscience, but a tendency to self-interest. Each should believe they're working for the good of someone, but their motives for that don't have to be altruistic. Put heroes in situations where they have to cross the line they swore they never would to get the job done. Give the villain someone they truly care about (Not Joker and Harley Quinn style, really cares about selflessly). I can tie this off my picks for best-written heroes and villains. Best Hero: Indiana Jones. Morally ambiguous but would never side with the true evil of his time. A self-interested adventurer who's worldly wise but never lost the sense of wonder and leaves a trail of broken hearts in his path. The best villain will be controversial: Jenny from Forrest Gump. Though the story has a very patriarchial moral, Jenny is the villain of the piece. Everything she does has contempt for Forrest, and even in the end, he doesn't "get the girl" as Jenny only marries him when she knows she's dying and won't have to live with him for long. Yet anyone in the audience would probably have done everything Jenny did if put in the same situation. The Hero and Villain have intimately connected sources of conflict in each other's lives in Forrest Gump. to the point you don't even realize that's what their relationship is. That. in my opinion is the highest level of writing such characters.
John Morgan Neal:
I tend to write villains both ways. It depends on the story, character, genre, and medium. For comics, I clearly go for the classic over-the-top villains. I try to bring a new wrinkle to them and add a bit of gray and nuance. But I fully admit the fun part is being evil because it's fun. My character Aym Geronimo's main nemesis Sean " The Rooster" Riley is a perfect example of my take. He is Aym's ex. A reformed terrorist whom Aym fell in love with and tried to help him by fixing his brain and making him far worse. Now Sean is THE terrorist of the planet and loves playing the villain and loves dirigibles as all classic villains should.
However, in the Westerns there is a bit more nuance as I write Spaghetti Westerns and mean 70s paperback-style Westerns. There isn't always a lot of room between good, bad, or ugly as my favorite western I just paraphrased demonstrated.
Lucy Blue: Remember that nobody is an NPC in their own story, and every character has their own story. What makes them a background character isn't that they exist to serve the protagonist but that our story isn't focused on their journey--they're incident, not throughline.) I usually write in limited POV third person, meaning I follow my protagonist from inside their head. That usually results in the protagonist and those who help them coming across as heroic within the context of the story and those who hinder them coming across as villainous. But because even the villains have their own goals and reasoning and even the heroes are serving their own needs and desires (which may or may not serve a greater good), nobody is purely a hero or a villain.
Nancy Hansen: Because of that personal preference, I try and write them that way as well. One-dimensional heroes or villains tend to bore me. I want to know not just what they're doing, but why they're doing it, because that adds a layer of reality to a story that pulls you in. It doesn't have to take up a lot of room, I try to drop in just enough insight here and there to get a peek at those clay feet or the traumatic motivations that made them who and what they are today.