by Jay Wilburn
Every good apocalypse struggles with coming up with a great Big Bad. The villain needs to provide the right challenge for the heroes and interest for the audience. They can be crazy or zealots of their own system. That excuses a lot of bad behavior which fits perfectly into an apocalypse. Their world can be too pristine. You don’t want them running a city, refrigerators, and TV’s off a power grid they don’t have the manpower to maintain. Where are they getting all the fuel for this helicopter armada? You don’t want them wearing armor made out of tires and worshiping the Moon a few days after the lights go out either. A Big Bad needs to be doing the business of evil in a realistic way for more complex motives than that’s just what they do and it’s what the story needs. The characters and action will come off a little flat otherwise.
One common trick is to mentally flip the narrative. If the readers followed the villain from their perspective and our heroes became the Big Bads, how would that story be told? If a writer can get into the head of the bad guy from that perspective, it is possible to write a fuller, more interesting bad guy from the view the audience sees the story. Actions may not be excusable or acceptable, but they need to be justifiable from the actor’s perspective. They need to be the acts which flow from that character for reasons they have formulated.
This is often accomplished by saying every character is the hero of their own story. Max Booth III, a talented writer, described it this way in one of his articles. He told the story of being a night auditor at a hotel desk checking in an irritated customer. From his perspective, he had an obstacle to overcome and a challenge to complete to deal with an angry guest and a fouled up reservation. The guest was the villain attacking the hero desk clerk for problems not of his making, but always his to solve. From the guest’s perspective, the desk clerk was a minor character and an obstacle to an ongoing adventure where checking into the hotel was a minor, but irritating piece. Both their stories continued with the other off the scene. Both were the heroes of their own stories, finding their way through the other, standing in the way of their progress on their personal quests. A rich story could be written with either character being the focus and both stories could be interesting, if the writer takes the time to fill the minor character across the desk from the chosen hero with the life and motivation which fully informs their actions and reactions. Readers could sympathize with both and be lost in the simple exchange entirely because hero and villain were given real dimension to their actions and words.
I question a full commitment to the doctrine that everyone is the hero of their own story. Everyone is their own perspective character obviously because we see the world primarily through our own eyes and then develop empathy as a secondary skill to different degrees. But is it true to say that everyone is the hero even from their own perspective? It is a good trick to gain an entry point into a character and especially in trying to build out a fully formed and justifiable villain. Is it an oversimplification though? Some say nobody thinks they are the villain. That is largely true of our daily lives checking into hotels and yelling at traffic, but maybe it is not always true. Dictators may often think of themselves as gods and messiahs – brilliant men doing important things. Many of them probably paint themselves as heroes in their own minds. Can a man justify his actions, but still understand he is a villain? Not always, but sometimes maybe. If a king orders the death of his own brother to save his skin, can he recognize that he is vile and a lesser man than others think he is? Might he struggle with that reality even if he is able to push it down later? He might ignore it in order to go on with the business of being king, but might he know he has crossed a line that makes him no more than a man pretending to be the hero of his people?
I think there are some interesting shades between hero and villain when looking at the perspectives of major and minor characters. I imagine there are plenty of people who view themselves as minor characters even from their own perspectives. I would not write every character as that fully self-aware of their places in a story, but a few of those might add texture to the other characters painting themselves as heroes from both sides of the apocalyptic battlefield.