Ask any established actor, and s/he will always say something along the lines of, “it’s much more fun to play a villain than a hero.” It’s no wonder: villains tend to get the best lines (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”), certainly their share of the trophy companions, have a higher standard of living, enjoy life more, and many go to their eventual demise laughing.
There’s another difference, though, that strikes at the very core of the hero/villain dynamic. The villains get to be pro-active. That means that traditional heroes are always re-acting.
It’s in the nature of heroes to simply sit around and wait to be needed. The most vivid example of that is in Batman Returns, when Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is shown sitting alone in the dark until the bat signal calls to his alter ego. Superman can’t act until Lex Luthor unveils his nefarious plan. Philip Marlowe has to wait for a client to walk in the door.
And this goes against one of the great Rules of Writing, which is to never let your hero be passive. But it’s in the very nature of heroes to be passive, to wait until the villain makes a move, to respond to a threat. After all, how do you act like a hero pro-actively?
Or any heroic fantasy hero, actually. It’s one of the cornerstones of the genre that heroic fantasy heroes go forth looking for adventure, danger, treasure, whatever they seek.
Perhaps that’s why heroic fantasy, as in many other aspects, doesn’t obey the rules of traditional storytelling. In my last post, I pointed out that it doesn’t follow the traditional Campbellian Hero’s Journey and now I’m saying it doesn’t even follow the rules of popular heroes.
This, to me, is one of the great joys of the genre and differentiates it (in a good way) from more traditional fantasy stories. Frodo has to wait to step up until there’s no one else to take the one ring from Rivendell to Mordor. Katniss doesn’t act until there’s a threat to her sister. Even Tony Stark is content to sit in his tower doing R&D until something requires Iron Man’s appearance. But Conan, and most heroic fantasy protagonists, strides forth looking for trouble, actively seeking the bad guys.
Can you think of any other examples of pro-active heroes?