Breaking the Hero and Villain Canons

In fiction, villains are often flattened into two-dimensional characters who do nothing but wreak havoc and cause evil. People often do not realize that not all villains or to put it more lightly, bad characters, are immediately recognizable at first glance. Personalities are complex; just like their roles and purposes, they’re not as clear as black and white. This was hard to understand as a kid who was [is] an avid fan of Scooby Doo, Totally Spies, and other similar, classic weekend cartoons. Every new episode features a different villain with which we are told little to nothing about except their evil scheme for the day and that we must focus on conquering this wicked being by the end of our twenty minutes.

Fast forward to present day and I realize now that I was blinded by my own perceived image on these characters; I only saw a “single story” to their personality. These villains are the heroes of their own stories, as they often start their journey with good intentions until the situation becomes so extreme that they can’t turn back. For example, the supervillain Joker who is known as an abusive and twisted serial killer by most. For those who delve into his origin story, they learn that he was an ordinary man who was an unsuccessful comedian trying to support him and his pregnant wife. Pushed by financial ruin, he is forced to assist in a robbery in a chemical plant during which he is notified that his wife and unborn child has died in an accident. While fleeing from the Batman, the comedian falls into a chemical vat and survives, albeit horribly disfigured. The combined traumas make him go insane and he transforms into the Joker. I’m not validating the Joker’s heinous nature or actions, but rather demonstrating that there is always two sides to every coin.

In fact, the main character is often immediately assumed to be the “hero” of the story as well. For my generation, our definition of a hero has been built on numerous Disney films like Hercules and Mulan, in which the lead characters are essentially honorable soldiers (the most fitting word I can think of is the German word mensch) fighting through whatever misery these villains throw their way. They are depicted as knights in shining armour, with not a single fault. If left undisturbed, this assumption can prove to be harmful if the reader inadvertently looks for the character’s positive aspects rather than all their dimensions.

In reality, all types of characters often have a mix of innocent and stained histories. Toni Morrison excellently executes this motif in Home through Frank Money. In the beginning of the novel, the reader is figuratively dropped into Frank’s life with no knowledge of his person. Morrison purposefully makes the reader pick up pieces of Frank in each chapter, allowing us to slowly put him together. We are first introduced to Frank as a war veteran with PTSD trying to escape from a prejudiced society, which naturally evokes sympathy and pity for his trauma and fear for his struggle to find a safe place. This also casts Frank in a very innocent light as a victim due to the lack of control over his life.

Near the end of the journey, Frank’s image becomes muddled as he confesses that he became a soldier to leave Lotus, not to fight for the country. When the soldier who shot the Korean girl in the head is revealed to be Frank, I was left speechless and the initial feelings of sympathy begin to disappear. But then, we are shown the horrors that Frank experienced as he was witness to his best friends’ gruesome deaths and who knows what other violent carnage. Even now, I still feel conflicted on the character of Frank Money as I can neither disregard the violence he’s done nor the discrimination he faces as an African-American man. This is why Frank directly warns his audience (which could be the interviewer/author or the reader) right in the first chapter that his story will not be understood and that it will be misinterpreted as people tend to fixate on only one side of the story, just as Lilly focuses on his post-trauma self rather than understanding the root of his trauma to begin with.

Therefore, if you decide to take a step back and look at all perspectives instead of fixating on just one, there are no real heroes or villains in any story.

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