Looking at Character: You’ve Been Designated, Hero!

After recovering from the horrible experience of trying to do a coordinated midnight release (which I will talk about in another blog post), it’s time to get back on track with what most people like to see here: talking about writing!  So, for today’s Looking at Character, we’re going to look at something that can either be a serious problem or a bit of clever writing: Designated Heroes and Villains (referred to for the rest of this piece as DHVs to spare my fingers).  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, DHVs are protagonists or antagonists that share few, if any, of the classic characteristics of their classification in the story, but is treated by the story and most of the other characters in it as the opposite of their actions.

For example, a DHV that is the ‘hero’ of the piece may commit multiple crimes, act like a complete jerk to his friends, and have several ‘kick the dog’ moments, but for some strange reason, his actions are heralded as heroic and his ‘victories’ are celebrated by the masses in the world of the book.  Simply flip the script for how a DHV that is an antagonist is portrayed: no matter how moral his/her actions and how much good he seems to do, the world treats him as the villain.  On top of that, in both cases, it is obvious that the author intends the reader to feel the same way.

On the surface, this looks to be just a case of very bad writing.  In some cases, it *is* just that: the DHV may be the result of a lazy writer who doesn’t want to actually portray his hero or villain as such or the author has a significantly different moral viewpoint than his readership, leading to a significant case of moral dissonance.  However, that isn’t always the case.

A good way to use the DHV can be to highlight characterization.  For instance, the ‘hero’ above may be celebrated early on because he/she hides his/her misdeeds behind good press or some legend or prophecy.  However, over the course of the piece, he/she begins to realize how horrible of a person they are and begins to rise to the expectations people place before them.   The ‘villain’ may likewise be obscured by societal expectations/bad reputation/etc. and over the course of the piece overcoming those barriers leads to an inversion of the book’s initial protagonist and antagonist.  In such a way, you can use these constructs for good dramatic and characterization effect.

Another possible way to use the DHV in an interesting fashion is in comedy and parody pieces, especially in deconstructions of older tales and themes that rely on DHVs.  I’m not a comedic writer myself, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I have seen such deconstructions and parodies be very funny and is a worthwhile use of the character construct.

So, when you write your protagonists and antagonists, make sure the consequences of their actions fits their deeds or at least be ready to explain why that isn’t the case, or you might wind up with a pack of characters designated into their roles.  If you aren’t going for comedy, you might find that your readers feel such a dissonance with the situation that they put don’t your book and don’t come back.  At the same time, don’t shy away from using DHVs if you utilize one of the dramatic or comedic structures to make them into truly interesting characters.

Feel free to comment and discuss below!

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3 comments

  1. What you’re describing is a lack of understanding of psychology and sociology. It’s like trying to explain the advent of Hitler, but without knowing anything about his personal history and the history of Europe between 1845-1945. Writers need to be well-versed in human psychology and sociology, through research and careful observation of human behavior.

    I can also see this being a problem for a writer who wants to portray a bad-boy heart-throb. One can’t just paste “deprived childhood,” or “dysfunctional family” labels on his background, and get away with it. Readers will hurl the book aside in disgust with the idiocy of the female character who got involved with him, and the writer will be condemned for glorifying domestic abuse. The writer has to know the psycho-social schema of the heart-throb’s whole back-story, as well as that of the love interest, and develop characters and situations that plausibly represent the human behavioral pathology.

      1. I do have the advantage of a health care professional’s background, so I acknowledge that it may not always be due to laziness. It may be a case of naïveté on the part of an enthusiastic reader-turned-writer, who fails to perceive the kind of work that goes into the exercise of written artistry (and who, perhaps, can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad). Psychology and sociology make up the foundation for character development: some of the concentrated study needed in these areas can be replaced by life experience, but that takes time. Try to write without them, and you get cardboard characters.

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