Heroes, Villains, Antis, and What’s Missing.

“I wasn’t begging for my life. I was offering you yours.” –Sylar, Heroes

I was researching villains this past weekend (I love my job), which somehow led to me re-watching the first season of Heroes, when in turn led to me searching for Sylar music videos on youtube, which finally led to me googling Zachary Quinto photo shoots.



Heroes and villains, believe it or not, comprised a part of my undergraduate thesis. The first part of the book I wrote and designed broke down classic archetypes into colors on a wheel, and inserted HERO and VILLAIN as the white and black on the model. The next section of the book was done in grayscale, as an examination of where most heroes and villains in pop culture fell on the spectrum. It shouldn’t be surprising that some of the most popular characters existed not at the extremes, but in the gray middle, the realm of the “Anti” hero or “Anti” villain.”

As a culture, we seem to enjoy our heroes with an inner demon, and our villains with a moral code.

And when I look at some of MY favorite characters right now, that holds true. Up there with Sylar and Elle from Heroes, I have Dexter, the Doctor from Doctor Who, Klaus from The Vampire Diaries, the Darkling from Shadow and Bone, Lex from Smallville, Magneto and Mystique from X-Men, Valentine, Sebastian, and Jace from The Mortal Instruments, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Leck from Graceling.

In the villains (except perhaps the last two), we see the character’s evolution TOWARD villainy. We see them at a time when they are not evil, and that glimpse into their formation humanizes them. In the heroes, we see their dark passengers, that thing they fight in a struggle to be good.

It makes me think that it’s the struggle we respond to, the inner war. When we experience a character who exists at an extreme, be it extreme good or extreme evil, we can’t fully care because we can’t fully relate. We can’t see ourselves in them, in their position. But when we see powerful people, heroes and villains, fighting battles with themselves, we can relate. Everyone reading this is fighting at least one battle.

I did notice one interesting/concerning thing.

When polling the internet, and looking at my own answers, I noticed a MARKED ABSENCE of female characters. It’s not there WEREN’T epically awesome female heroines and villains, it’s that they almost always existed at those white and black extremes of heroism and villainy, rather than lurking in the gray “anti” realm.

Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Mrs. Coulter (His Dark Materials), and Dolores Umbridge (HP) are pretty nasty, while Buffy, Sydney Bristow (Alias), Fire, and Tessa (Infernal Devices) are all flawed, but clearly heroines. I wanted to find more female leads with inner demons, characters shaped by complicated pasts, powerful women transforming, evolving from the mundane into the good, or the good into evil.

Can you think of some???

Also, I’d love your contributions to the greater list of FAVORITE HERO/VILLAIN. I’m always so curious to know who people are rooting for, and who they love to hate.

15 thoughts on “Heroes, Villains, Antis, and What’s Missing.

  1. What about Regina from Once Upon a Time?? I mean, we just saw last week that used to be okay, then she turned evil….. Hmm….

    I know other characters that go through this variations of evil/good/layered-ness. I think of Ruby and Meg from Supernatural. I’m not quite sure that’s exactly what you mean though…

    this is a surprisingly hard question.

    I can think of some characters who used to be witches before shows evolved! haha….

    ALSO I LOVE SYLAR/Zachary Quinto. πŸ™‚ He’s the reason I kept watching every season! hehehe….

  2. Dani Nguyen says:

    I love Zachary Quinto! And I miss Heroes so much 😦

    Klaus from TVD is another one of my favorites.

    As far as female characters go, what about Ridley from the Caster Chronicles? She’s constantly struggling with the good & evil inside of her. Also since you mentioned Buffy, I have to point out Faith. She was kind of good, then evil, then good again. I think characters that face these struggles are some of the most interesting.

  3. Umbridge was my absolute favorite villain to hate on. That HP book made me crazy while I was reading. I had to constantly restrain myself from flipping ahead to the part where karma came for her (in the form of the twins, centaurs, and a baby giant). (It was not ENOUGH though. She must be UTTERLY DESTROYED for my happiness.) (Yes, I’m still bitter.)

    I think Lila from Holly Black’s White Cat series is a great gray-area heroine. That whole book centers around the gray, really. And even when she’s dark-siding things, you still want her to succeed. God, I love those books.

    Anyway, this post is SO VERY RELEVANT to my current project. I love the idea of the anti-hero/anti-villain, and totally agree that we don’t see it nearly enough on the female side of things. I think that probably comes from how much harder women readers tend to be on female characters than male. Hopefully we’ll be able to challenge that in the coming years.

  4. JP says:

    Amanda from Revenge. (Real Amanda). She is a heroine. Sort of. The whole spark of her mission is revenge, which is in that gray area (at least to me), and which also puts Amanda in that gray area as a character. I believe she’s a good person, but she is also fighting an inner war as to whether all this revenge is worth the cost, and whether it was/is the right thing for her to do.

    Some of my favorite characters are Amanda (Revenge), Puck and Sean (The Scorpio Races), Cole (Shiver trilogy), the entire crew of Serenity, and The Doctor. I could go on for hours. πŸ˜›

  5. Sara Walker says:

    Jean Grey from X-men


    Willow from Buffy (particularly when she goes dark)

    Anita Blake

    Ivy from Kim Harrison’s series

    Jo/Olivia from Vicki Pettersson’s series

  6. ek_johnston says:

    Olivia Dunham, Fringe: hero, villain, and everything in between.

    Helen Magnus, Sanctuary: Mad Scientist, Doctor, Mother, Activist, Pinnacle of Style since 1886. Also, quite likely to screw you over for reasons passing understanding, but having something to do with Jack the Ripper.

    Mother Gothel, Tangled: Disney’s psychological villain.

  7. Hmm, good points. I suspect it’s hard to find complex female villains because female equality is a relatively recent movement. Storytelling draws inspiration from older stories, so it’ll take more time (and more stories) for strong female characters to be well-rooted in the cultural consciousness.

    The only thoroughly grey female villain I can think of right now is the dragon Lien from the Temeraire series. She only antagonizes the titular character because he ruined her life and got her exiled from her home country. And Lien initiates major civil rights change and improves the lives of many fellow dragons — as a side effect of helping Napoleon Bonaparte conquer Europe. It’s hard to hate her.

  8. Maggie says:

    Ooh, Sylar was such a great villain. As for girls, how about Katherine from Vampire Diaries? I think she’s a good grey-area villain-ess. πŸ™‚ TVD does a lot of good grey characters, come to think of it.

  9. I second Helen Magnus! But I was also thinking of Irina Derevko from ALIAS and how disappointing it was when they turned her into a black-and-white villain in the last season. She was so much more interesting (and sympathetic) when you had the sense that she really loved Jack and Sydney on some level, but that her loyalties and ambitions were too murky to allow her to come over to their side.

    What about River Song? She’d certainly fall into the “inner demons”, “complicated past” and “woman transforming” categories.

  10. Oooh, if you want complicated villains and heroes that could easily be confused for villains (cough–NICK–cough), look no further than The Demon’s Lexicon series and Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan. She understands how important shades of grey are.

  11. rklipman says:

    Oh, thirding Helen Magnus who is seriously the baddest BAMF around. She’s brilliant and compassionate but her self-righteousness and hubris drive her into some EXCEPTIONALLY gray places, morally speaking. I hope that show sticks around for another 300 seasons or so.

    Also seconding Irina Derevko. Lena Olin killed it in that role.

  12. briwrotethis says:

    Faith from Buffy. Regina/Evil Queen from Once Upon a Time. Those are two my favorite bad girls.

  13. This is a really good point about women and villainy. The examples that spring to mind for women characters who might be comparable to characters like Magneto or even Dexter, usually aren’t painted as villains, but as understandably distraught and somehow vindicated in their villainy.

    There’s the troupe of the woman abandoned by the law and society, forced to go on the offensive to protect herself and her loved ones (ie in movies like ENOUGH or THE BRAVE ONE). And the troupe of the woman abducted by society who isn’t responsible for her villainy, but is largely villainous nonetheless (ie any of the NIKITAs). In both cases, these characters are painted as struggling heros – their villainy us never quite committed.

    What an interesting topic. I’m going to be pondering all day.

  14. Mia (@SuperSpecs) says:

    Regina and Faith are great examples.

    What about Cersei in Game of Thrones? She’s power hungry and manipulative, but not evil and at times I’ve felt downright sorry for her. She actually reminds me a lot of Lady Macbeth, another great sympathetic villain.

    I’m also thinking Adele DeWitt from Dollhouse is a good example of how many evil actions a person is willing to justify in order to convince themselves they’re still a good person.

    Catwoman is the ultimate anti-hero. She flips sides so often and spends so much time being conflicted that you’re never sure what she’s going to do.

    And from YA there’s Mary Hightower (Everlost by Neal Shusterman) or any Dia Reeves protag. The girls from Slice of Cherry are basically Dexter if he was a teenage girl.

    I don’t think the anti-hero or the sympathetic villain archetypes are as prominant when discussing female characters, but they’re there and I think we are starting to see more of them.

    Great topic!

  15. Jordan E. says:

    Regina in Once Upon a Time is particularly nasty, but the previous episode kind of revealed the evolution behind that. Maybe that’s one, though it doesn’t feel as close to the mark.

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