Black Hat / White Hat

I had heard somewhere that in the great Western films of old, the HERO would always wear a white hat, and the VILLAIN would wear a black one. This color difference made it easier for people to differentiate during the development of the storyline.

Because the colors are so different (one being the lack of any color and one being the presence of every color), it made me think about the difference between HERO and VILLAIN. Honestly, a part of me feels that this is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Yes, there are VILLAINs in stories that are truly outlandish. The power hungry insane scientist looking to drown the world by melting the polar ice caps, the unruly thug looking to take down the police and any so-called “do-gooder” by forming a mob. There are the jealous second sons of Kings wanting to dispurse of their brother and his offspring to ensure they rule the flourishing kingdom.

It all seems very tired. These stories all possess the same formula. Introduce HERO. Introduce VILLAIN. Spend much of the novel dissecting the HERO to form a bond between them and the reader. Many authors glaze over the true intention of the VILLAIN by only sharing the nasty things thus ensuring that the dynamic between the two is as vastly different as black hat/white hat.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I am writing I strive to understand WHY a VILLAIN is so much more than the antagonist to the story’s protagonist. People are a myriad of colors, not just black and white. I often find myself sympathetic to the plights of the “common VILLAIN”. What was the driving factor to their spiral into the negative spectrum of humanity. Why was their humanity lost? Most importantly, how can I convey the point of view to the reader?

In much of American storytelling, there always is a winner and a loser. Sometimes, the end result is not what you expect but there is always some sort of definition.

In the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the protagonist of the story is Harry Dresden. Harry is a wizard who has made it his lifes work to not be the person that his twisted Uncle wanted him to be. He is flawed, but I believe those flaws to be necessary to endear you to the subject. Harry is not the shining beacon of virtue, nor would he expect you to believe that he is. He is hardened by his past, and when he lets someone in it is an extremely intimate look into the psyche of someone damaged trying his hardest not to introduce this person into a world of pain.

Butcher has done an amazing job in slightly fleshing out his darker characters in the story as well. Marcone is a gritty crimeboss whose soul you wouldn’t want to look into. However, there is something in him that makes you want to learn more of his past. His ties to a comatose teen girl. His desire to keep his own semblance of order in his city. Yes, he does fully believe that it is HIS city and has absolutely no faith in the police or governing body. His means are ruthless, but that fraction of a moment where you see the vulnerability in this character made me always want to learn more.

I digress however. This post isn’t intended to be a Dresden love-fest.

What I would love to see is a story written from the perspective of the VILLAIN. But it would have to be so well crafted that you wouldn’t know the person was actually the assumed VILLAIN in the story. It seems too often that many VILLAINs are swiss cheese. Sure, there is some substance, but it is racked with holes.

I want to see a story through the eyes of Jayne Cobb during his heyday. While I have probably raised the heckles of many a Firefly fan… let’s face it. This guy is a criminal. His main motivation in life is greed. He chose to work with the crew of Serenity because they didn’t judge him for that (which says something about the crew ultimately). But… We approved of the crimes committed by the Serenity crew and made the Alliance the VILLAIN. I did it too.

I think that’s because we force ourselves to make the distinction between HERO and VILLAIN. We want to feel like we’re following the right cause and opposing the wrong ones. In a world of black and white hats… we’re afraid of grey.