Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Heroes and Villains

I've been noticing that all stories we tell in English involve a Good Guy and a Bad Guy. Even anecdotes we tell about getting cut off in traffic have a hero and a villain. This bit of narrative convention is so ingrained into the way we perceive the world that we don't even notice it. We really can't conceive of a story with no Good Guy. We see books in which we debate which character was the actual hero. But buried in that question is the assumption that there has to be a hero. We even see movies in which nobody is truly heroic; Reservoir Dogs comes immediately to mind. But we've still got a protagonist, even if he's not a good guy. We've all heard that there are only four (or seven or thirty-six or twelve or some other positive integer) basic plots for stories. Many of these describe the setbacks which our hero faces: revenge, sacrifice, love thwarted. The remainder follow some kind of "versus" structure: man vs. nature, conflict with God, et cetera. They all work under the common unspoken assumption that the story has a hero in the first place.

Even more invisible is that we conceive of the world in terms of story. Every time we see conflict, we impose story structure on it. We're so stuck on the narrative convention of protagonist/antagonist, we impose it on every story we see, even where it doesn't apply. Picture this scene: a dog, chasing a cat, through a park, at twilight. Do you catch yourself assuming the dog's the villain (narrative convention: agressor=villain)? Or do you see a narrative in which the cat's the villain (narrative convention: hero=pursuer)? The scene is simple, a dog chasing a cat. Yet we instinctively impose the hero/villain dichotomy on the scene. Now, change the scene. Picture a pack of dogs chasing the cat. Does this shift or strengthen the perception of who's the hero (narrative convention: underdog=hero)? When the cat darts through a small hole in a fence and leaves his pursuers behind, our perception can shift again (narrative conventions: either the one that got away, or hero always escapes). Our prejudices can also determine who we perceive as the hero; are you a cat person, or a dog person? But in the end, it's just dogs chasing a cat. There's no inherent good guy or bad guy, just a moment of action. The story structure and narrative convention of hero/villain is something we impose on the action.


This line of reasoning was inspired by an odd source: this lightsaber duel on YouTube. It's got no story, no antagonist, no protagonist. There are two characters, we meet them at the same time, and they fight, period. They both fight dirty at times, they're evenly matched, they seem equally surly. And yet everyone to whom I've shown this video refers to one combatant or the other as the good guy. And it's on pretty slim grounds, since there's really nothing substantive on which to base the judgment: some people think the guy in black is the bad guy, others think the guy with the goatee is the bad guy, still others think the guy with the glasses is the good guy. These are all pretty thin (but popular) characterization devices, but people can't just watch it as a fight. There has to be narrative structure, which means a hero. As in any fight with lethal weapons, it's a fight to the death. But by the time the fight ends, everyone has already made up their mind about who they see as the hero. And their prejudgment is universally stronger than the story convention that says The Good Guy Lives. Nobody has yet changed their minds after seeing who wins the fight; people will more willingly believe that the good guy dies at the end, than believe that they were wrong about who was the good guy....

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