Mar 4, 2012

Heroes are Extremists (Part Four: Evil)

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

An evil hero!? Gasp, oh dear, my brain has exploded!
... Is what you may be thinking, having seen my series so far and knowing I intend to provide both antagonists and protagonists on all ends of the alignment spectrum.
... Or you already read my segment on good antagonists and knew this was coming all along. Either way here is is: the final segment of my rant of daikaiju-esque proportions.

The evil character, on my handy Axis of Intent, is a character who, opposite the selfless good, serves only his own interests, often at the expense of others, who are if not tools only obstacles for the evil character.

Lawful Evil- my dad, himself Dungeon Master "back in the day", always defined the seemingly paradoxical lawful evil as a politician, and though I didn't quite understand as a kid, it seems now an apt description. The lawful evil can easily be a villain; taking the system we depend on every day and twisting it to his own advantage. The lawful evil is the scheming banker who can't be charged for slipping expensive agreements into your contract, the attorney who admits no evidence against his client because he can work the technicalities to make it inadmissible. The lawful evil is difficult to pin down because his greed and ruthlessness are all woven perfectly into an unbeatable system. Action against him is nearly impossible through the web of bureaucracy, and even then he has broken no laws.

This same character can be our ruthless protagonist if pitted against his own kind. As much as we may dislike this character, we for the same reason like seeing his kind get screwed, and who better to do it than the lawful evil himself? Sure, he is only helping himself, but that hardly matters when a corrupt industry collapses under the pen of our grinning anti-hero. Not quite a hero, but certainly a compelling protagonist.

Neutral Evil- The neutral evil is an average guy who looks out only for himself, not caring who he hurts along the way. This character is too moderate to be hero or villain, but in any case is easily an antagonist.

The only way to make this character compelling as a protagonist is to show us how he changes. No example comes to mind right now, but I'm sure someone in the comments can provide a clever allusion. By providing us with a cruel character, we want to follow him to see how he will change, how our values will prevail and he will see that he is wrong.

Chaotic Evil- The chaotic is the classic uber-villain. This character has no rules, and no regard for others. This character uses others as tools for his own gain and destroys those who have become an impediment to his goal. The most recent (and extreme) example of this character in popular media is Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, and it takes little explanation to see exactly what I mean in that case.

But even in the farthest corner there are protagonists, and those who some would call heroes. I mentioned earlier The Road Warrior, but this applies to many post-apocalyptic settings: the protagonist at the end of the world is chaotic evil. A character who is alone in a world with no resources has only himself to look after, and by my own alignment definition is therefor evil. Max needed his gas, and without that need would have continued his morose wanderings and left those nice people to die. There are no laws by which to abide and therefor he can only be chaotic, having not even his own rules to follow.

For an example less steeped in technicality, let's consider Whedon's amazing Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. Dr Horrible is obviously a villain, or so he claims. He is a criminal, landing him in chaotic territory, and who else is he acting for? He wants his own prestige to join the League, and has few other goals. So a villain, or at least an antagonist, right? Then why is it our hearts sink when [Spoiler Warning] Penny dies?
Because even in these qualities we saw Dr Horrible as a hero. The super "hero" was a jerk and Horrible deserved the girl, and in his love we could see our own values, so that the slightest flaw in his evil was enough to make us a hero of him.
Examples in graphic.

The evil alignment holds mostly villains and almost never heroes, but that never means such a thing is impossible. You can see that a well- worked character can come from anywhere and, with variety as the spice of life, you owe it to your players to toss in all sorts of enemies and allies. Make them question their morals, or give them ample reason to break some face; either way, show them not every baddie is just a punching bag and not every partner is just an especially fleshy shield.

Now on the matter of titles:

I title this article as I do because throughout this veritable novella I write on alignments we can see a pattern. I told you that heroes and villains lie everywhere on Gygax's old dual-axis spectrum, and I have been trying all along to prove it to you, yet I must admit at least a partial defeat:
You see, protagonists and antagonists lie strewn all about the scale like so many sprinkles on an ice cream cone, almost evenly distributed, but our own generalizations have not come from nowhere: heroes and villains do tend toward certain points. Why?

Because heroes (and villains) are extremists.

Rarely do we see a truly great villain lingering in neutrality; breaking the occasional law but cautiously following the others. Rarely do we see a true hero try only to save some members of the crowd, and not striving to protect all the others. We need, to be truly memorable, for heroes to be clearly heroes, and villains to be clearly villains. We need the perfect image we love, and the sordid devil we hate, and these are the characters in the myths that have survived generations. Superman is perfect for a reason, and the Beelzebub we all imagine today is not known to have a kind bone in his body.

We have a knack for remembering the extreme, and so thence are our heroes drawn. Ironically, this is why it is also so memorable when the hero slips, when we call out a flaw in our great Superman, or we meet the ruthless Rorschach.
Balancing the memorable conventions with the startling contradictions is a difficult practice, but luckily as dungeon masters ours is an imperfect art and your players will love your variety even if you can't pull off a Watchmen or V for Vendetta.
So have fun with this wide cast of personalities and let me know if you have anything to add.

Good luck and keep rolling.

No comments:

Post a Comment