I recently came across the book 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I’m forming a definite opinion of the book which I won’t go into here (in part because I haven’t finished it yet) but there is one aspect of it I want to discuss.
The book presents character archetypes, mostly as pairs. You can think of each pair as the hero/villain versions of the same character, or as the “good” / “evil” versions. What I find interesting is how she characterizes the differences.
Take for example the Matriarch/Scorned Woman pair. The Matriarch is described as:
The Matriarch is the woman in charge. She sees to the needs of her family and demands respect in return. She needs her family just as much as she would have them believe they need her. She has no identity outside of her role as wife and mother, but unlike the Nurturer she is extremely strong, resourceful, and tough skinned. She doesn’t take it well if her husband is unfaithful, and she will not just sit by and ignore the wrongs done to her.
Later, the Scorned Woman is described like this:
As a villain, the Matriarch’s rage and power tend to come out when she feels abandoned by her husband or family. If her husband has an affair, no one near her is safe against the anger and revenge brewing inside her. She’ll most likely take out her feelings on the other woman before taking it out on her husband. Her identity is so wrapped up in her husband that she has to believe it was the other woman’s fault and that the marriage is salvageable. She’s the one in charge, and she’ll take control of her husband again.
As I was going through the major character archetype descriptions I was struck by how little difference there was between the “good” heroes and the “bad” villains. While I agree that most villains don’t think of themselves as bad guys (except in comic books, where they all seem to be psychopaths), according to this book the difference seems to be mostly one of degree.
At the end of each pairing is a list of example characters taken from recent TV shows, films, and books. Not being as steeped in pop culture as the author I was somewhat puzzled by many of the examples, since there’s no distinction made of the “good” vs. “evil” characters. I’m left to puzzle it out on my own.
From what I can tell, good vs. evil is distinguished only by a few characteristics:
- Selfishness. The “good” hero is considerate of others, at least some of the time. The “evil” villain considers no one except him or her self. Even when the villain is saving someone, it’s because that someone is important to the villain’s goals or identity.
- Self control. Even when the hero is under great stress, there is a line that he or she doesn’t cross. If the hero should snap, regret, doubt and self-recrimination is sure to follow. The villain either doesn’t seem to care, or adopts a “the end justifies the means” justification.
- Relationship to the Protagonist. If we’re talking about the main protagonist of the story, this character is always “good” (even when it’s an evil, twisted anti-hero). This places a bit of a crimp on the character types used for your protagonist, unless the story includes some major transformation at the climax.
I wonder what this lack of distinction between good and evil says about our society?