1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Villain as tragic hero, and the dual-narrative framework

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Gryphos, Jul 17, 2017.

  1. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    I've been thinking a lot recently about Tragedy and what it means in storytelling from a structural perspective, and this has had me develop an interesting way of looking at the relationship between a story's protagonist and antagonist.

    The basic conceit of this line of thought is that a tragic plot is one in which the protagonist fails in their narrative goal (yes, I know the discourse surrounding what defines Tragedy is literally millennia old, but this is my definition and it works with what I'm about to discuss). This is as opposed to a ... regular plot? I don't know what to call it, one in which the protagonist succeeds in their goal. Seriously, someone needs to come up with a viable term for the inverse of a tragic plot (I know that comedy is classically the inverse, but nowadays the term 'comedy' is too closely tied to humour to have more general use).

    But anyway, granting this definition, there are two types of stories, ones where the protagonist succeeds (regular plot) and ones where they fail (tragic plot). I propose that almost every story can be conceptualised as possessing both a regular and a tragic plot.

    Everyone knows the saying: "a villain is the hero of their own story". I would expand upon this line of thinking to suggest that in most stories, the villain is the tragic hero, inasmuch as they usually fail in their goal. And in tragic stories, the villain is a, uh ... regular hero (seriously, we need a better term). In other words, the arcs of the protagonist and antagonist exist in negative correlation. If the protagonist succeeds, the antagonist fails, and vice versa.

    I would take Othello to be a good example. What does the protagonist Othello want? What's his goal? I would argue, his fundamental goal, as established in the first scene, is simply to remain happily married to Desdemona. Iago's goal is to destroy that relationship. Othello, through the events of the narrative, fails, while Iago succeeds. It doesn't matter that Iago is apprehended in the end; he still succeeds in his original goal.

    So what's the practical utility of this framework? I believe it enables you to create a more compelling villain if you conceptualise them as a tragic hero. Enormous fulfilment can be gained from constructing a story in which the outcome is brought about not only because of the protagonist's development, but also the antagonist's — a combination of the hero's learned virtue and the villain's tragic faults. To put it simply, try thinking of your story as containing two narratives instead of one.

    Sorry if this was a bit rambling, but what do you guys think of this framework? Is there a benefit to building a villain as a tragic hero? And what the hell are you supposed to call a plot that isn't tragic?
    Demesnedenoir and Heliotrope like this.
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Yes, there are many ways to consider the villain. A tragic hero is a great one. Another way I have heard this put is that the books real "hero" is able to achieve the goal because they were able to adapt and change (I.e. They have a character arc), where the villain was not able to adapt and change, and so cannot win at the end.

    Tons of cool ways of looking at this.
    Creed likes this.
  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Hmm, by the end of book three, both protag and antag will be seen as winning and losing, depending on how you look at things, LOL. The antags evolution should be fascinating for me at least.

    Good advice in general, too many bad guys come off as flat, even if you get the idea there's more to them.
  4. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    Definitely. I would say that the villain's inability to change is one of the most common reasons for their 'Tragic Failure'.

    I would say that who 'wins' and 'loses' hinges entirely on the protagonist's main goal. If it is fulfilled, then the protagonist has won, regardless of any other circumstance. I used Iago as an example of an antagonist who, despite not getting away with it, unequivocally 'won' the story.
  5. I really like this way of looking at it. Especially since, in my own stories, I kinda see the villain as the Inverse Hero, or a mirror image of the hero. I like to develop their goals and conflicts in much the same way as i do the MC.

    This is especially appropriate when you want to play with the boundary line between "hero" and "villain." When you want to blur the lines morally and give both hero and villain good and evil characteristics, so that readers start to question who is really on the "right" side, or if there really is a right side.

    So yes, I really like framing the villain as a tragic hero. I think "every villain is the hero of his own story" is true, and I like to develop villains in a similar way to heroes.
  6. Eastwatcher

    Eastwatcher Dreamer

    I couldn't agree more with the idea of the development of the villain as 'the hero of their own story'. Simply making them a generic bad guy who wants everything that is opposed to the hero ends up creating a very two-dimensional villain. In my own work the story is written from multiple perspectives between those on either side of the conflicts, with some switching sides by the end. Developing each character's own drives and objectives allowed me to develop their story arcs organically within the events of the book just as real people grow and change. I believe that understanding what drives someone who to the protagonists seems a villain humanizes the reader's experience, causing conflict both within the characters and the reader as actions which seem evil are entirely justified when seen from a different perspective.
    Regarding the generic rule of either the hero winning or the villain winning, is there a name for a story where no one really wins? In my work the hero has a clear objective for the first two thirds of the book until circumstances change and he is no longer able to achieve this. After this point simply surviving becomes the objective. I was worried when I was writing it because most story arcs start with a single objective, with the rest of the book being the the hero's journey to either the fulfillment or failure of that objective. My work doesn't necessarily follow this structure, although the fact that the hero and his companions survive the various ordeals is a fulfillment of basic objective of living to fight another day. I think it works in my case, but I had to put a lot of effort into shifting the focus of the main character's struggle from trying to get to a place of safety to becoming strong enough to survive by himself. I suppose when it comes down to it, his overall goal was always at its heart just surviving, only the method through which he achieved this changed dramatically. I feel that this might end up losing some of the gratification the reader gets when a long sort after objective is finally achieved, but I hope that if the journey to get wherever it is they end up was entertaining and gripping enough, then it should make up for any lost gratification.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    There is another kind of villain. I call it the force of nature villain--mainly because that's what I used in my first novel. It's the classic of fairy tales--the villain is some kind of monster. It is essentially animal rather than human, so the inversion idea doesn't really work there.

    Don't get me wrong, this is a great discussion and I agree on all points. I'm just mentioning another kind of villain. And it really is the case that this sort of villain fails exactly because it cannot change. Usually, the hero out-smarts it.

    I suppose there would be room for a villain who was sort of like this but also had some human villain traits as well. My orcs are something like that. They are adaptable and intelligent, but they who are utterly convinced their mission is to bring all other living creatures under their sway--a kind of Manifest Destiny of orcs. So, to humans and dwarves, they appear utterly evil, thus fulfilling the villain trope. Orcs can adapt at the tactical level, but not at the strategic level.

    OTOH, another sort of villain might be tactically flexible but strategically fixed, and you could portray that villain as having a strict moral code. I think there of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, where the admirably upstanding slides imperceptibly into dangerous monomania.
    Gryphos likes this.
  8. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    Totally, yeah. You can't really apply the dual-narrative framework to stories that don't feature an individual antagonist. Or perhaps you can but, as you say, that 'abstract antagonist' can't realistically have any sort of arc. It might be worth coming up with a term to refer to such antagonists who are functionally required to have no real development. 'Static Villain' perhaps?
  9. Ruru

    Ruru Troubadour

    Totally agree! A villain with their own character development and rationale for their actions makes for a much deeper and more complex character. I enjoy the conflict of emotions you can get as a reader when you suddenly find yourself agreeing with the villain.

    I read something about this some where, that talked about three basic story types. I'm not sure if I'm remembering this correctly, but I think it went link this: a Heroic Victory, a Tragedy and a Tragic Victory.

    A Heroic Victory was what most fantasy stories are: good prevails over evil and wins in the end. The hero succeeds in his quest and goes home.

    A Tragedy was where the hero failed, the villain was successful. I don't think this is the original definition of a Tragedy re Ancient Greek or Shakespearean, but you get the idea. See the end of Stephen Kings The Mist. I've only seen this one as its movie adaptation, but it definitely explained to me why most stories end with the hero showing up at the last minute, not after it...

    The last one was the Tragic Victory, where the hero succeeds, but at such cost to themselves, or their world or their loved ones that it almost doesn't seem worth it. The Lord of the Rings is like this: Sauron is destroyed in the end, but Middle Earth has been changed, and the old races are fading or leaving. One of the main characters, Frodo, and the remaining Elves, all leave.

    I know this is a simplification, but it seemed relevant to this discussion! :D
  10. Creed

    Creed Sage

    Definitely in agreement. I'd want to push this a bit towards Helio's point, which does sorta represent the more traditional structural forms of tragedy/comedy.

    A tragedy in this case occurs not when the hero necessary fails in their goal. A tragedy occurs when the hero succumbs to their fatal flaw / hamartia (i.e. jealousy, hedonism, etc.) and failure is commonly the outcome of that. This isn't necessarily the case. A hero could succeed in their goal and the story would still be tragic if they fell victim to their fatal flaw (a king without a kingdom kind of scenario, for example). This is a tragic victory, maybe in contrast the Pyrrhic victory Ruru mentioned above. Rare, but very powerful.
  11. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

    Villains are heroes. They are the opposite in values of what the hero would be like should he/she have chosen a self-serving path. At least that's my understanding.
  12. Malik

    Malik Auror

    My villain was originally my hero, and vice versa. My now-hero turned out to be far more interesting and fun to write, and it wasn't until I started really digging into him that I realized that the story I was trying to tell was about his redemption, not the other guy's tribulations.

    That first novel survives, albeit in an early form; it will eventually be a prequel and my villain's origin story.
  13. Holman

    Holman Minstrel

    As I understand it there are several possible outcomes that would meet the criteria of either Tragic plot or Regular plot in your thoughts and some that would be open to discussion.

    * The hero succeeds and lives happily ever after - the Villain is defeated - permanently - regular plot
    * The hero succeeds (happy ever after) - the villain is defeated - temporarily - regular plot
    * The hero succeeds but succumbs to a character flaw - unhappy for him - tragic plot (villains defeat could either be permanent or temporary)
    * hero succeeds but at a cost to someone else on the "same side" as him - tragic? or regular? - I guess this depends on the importance of the person to the hero.
    * The hero defeats the villain so he doesn't get to see the fruits of his labour but the villains plan is still carried out. - tragedy?
    * The villain succeeds - the hero is defeated - temporarily - tragic plot
    * The villain succeeds and the hero is defeated - permanently - tragic plot
  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    My brain melts a little considering all this, because there are different types of hero, villain, and plot, and I have difficulty conceiving of a simple, single formula that fits all the possible combinations.

    I'm curious about The Villain's Journey as opposed to The Hero's Journey, and how it might be different; but, this is a melting point for me, which is another way of saying it's boggling my mind when I try to fit it to every case of villain.

    Some features I commonly see in villains (not meant to describe every villain):

    Villains tend to be more proactive than heroes, especially at the beginning of stories.
    Villains seem to be more self-directed than heroes. (Relates to proactivity.)

    [Edit: Perhaps this proactivity and self-direction ought to be considered through the lens of the central plot, not general proactivity and self-direction.]

    —These two in combination lead me to wonder if a villain begins the story at the end of his personal Hero's Journey. He knows who he is (or thinks he does), he has a treasure/life situation he's gained through his previous Hero's Journey to continue protecting (or expanding), etc. Much of this could explain why villains seem unable to change and why their lives seem tragic. They can't grow anymore, at least not on a fundamental persona, psychological basis. They only succeed by ensuring the continuance/expansion of that state forever, or they fail when this state unravels.

    Heroes may begin a story in a seemingly stable Old World, but the call to action means leaving it, and they have to discover themselves in this New World. But maybe the villain's current world at the beginning is precisely that old New World, heh. He's already made that journey. He's already invested so much of his energy and life into it; there's no going back, even no going in a new direction because that'd mean turning the world he's gained into an Old World to be left behind.

    ^^All of this is just musing. I also like characters who can transition from hero to villain, villains who can transition to antiheroes or heroes. So there are many ways to use a villain archetype.
    DragonOfTheAerie likes this.
  15. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    ^There are a couple of other things relating to this that popped into mind:

    "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."


    Many villains are given backstories that show how they became villains. These backstories often seem like hero's journeys, or maybe sometimes failed hero's journeys.
    DragonOfTheAerie likes this.
  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    It is interesting because I try to fit my antag into any normal paradigm and he doesn't quite fit becuase the plot doesn't quite fit. He is what passes for a Chosen One, for a start. There are truckloads of tragedy and victory, and in the end, while the protag does not succeed at the original goal, the shifting goalposts makes it so that in the end the protag has been forced to want what the antag wanted all along, even if they both want each other dead and for different reasons... And that goal is met, making both winners and losers, in a sense. On the personal side, the protag wins and wins, but in tragic ways, a bit like Gladiator where Maximus dies to see his family again, but in this case the protag doesn't exactly die. Everything isn't cut and dry, but for the most part it should feel like a positive ending.

    The other note is that the antag won't really change all that much (they are not POV) but the reader's understanding of the antag will change. How the reader feels about the additional knowledge will vary, of course.
  17. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    Yup, I would consider both of these as regular, non-tragic narratives.

    Actually, I would still refer to these as regular narratives, since I'm working with a definition of tragedy that solely cares about the ouctome of the main narrative goal, regardless of any other circumstance. I would also posit that it's impossible to succeed while simultaneously succumbing to a fatal flaw. In order for it to be a fatal flaw, it must lead to the failure of the character to achieve their goal.

    Although, on a side note, I tend to use Aristotle's original definition of Hamartia to mean a fatal error rather than flaw. It's something a tragic hero does rather than is.

    If the villain achieves their goal, then by definition the hero has failed theirs, so the narrative is tragic, regardless of whether the villain lives to see it.

    I should probably elaborate here that I also define the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist to be that their goals are mutually exclusive. The hero and villain cannot both win. They can both gain and lose, suffer and grow, etc. but their main driving goals cannot both be achieved. A common example: villain wants to take over the world, hero wants to stop them taking over the world. These outcomes can't exist simultaneously. There must, in a story like this, be one regular and one tragic narrative.
  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I think of hero and villain differently than I think of protagonist and antagonist.

    Villains can be, and often are, protagonists in stories, because their actions may drive the plot forward—even if they are still the villain and there's a hero.

    Plus, I think many types of story won't have a villain. (Whether we can say the same about hero...I'm not sure.)

    For me, villain is a very particular thing, not equivalent to antagonist, although a villain can be the antagonist.

  19. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    The antag is pretty much a villian in this case, but one can always dance around definitions. So, the villian wins becuase he forces the hero to need what he wants, and the hero achieves what he needs to be done, both the same thing... but the villian is killed, which would be okay with said villian, because sacrifice of their life for the goal was an acceptable risk. Hero and villian both win, so to speak.

    FifthView likes this.
  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I could have pictured two characters, who are antagonists to one another, both sometimes protagonists, having the kind of interaction you described, without having a villain in the story. So it was a little unclear for me how to fit together what you described.


Share This Page