(Anti-)Heroes and Villains …

So, I’ve been reading “A Song of Ice and Fire”, and while I am at least kinda enjoying it — about half-way through “A Clash of Kings” — what’s struck me about it is the interaction between the heroes and the villains. The heroes aren’t exactly heroic. The best of them can be selfish and downright nasty, and almost as quick to go above and beyond the rules they claim to revere as the supposed villains. Eddard Stark, for example, is commonly hailed as a man of honour who had no trouble ordering death for men even though whether he technically had the ability to do that was in question. He also was as manipulative as his supposed enemies. And this carries over to most of the heroes.

Now, having heroes that are not quite heroes — either anti-heroes or flawed heroes — can absolutely work. But it forces a move (or at least it seems to force it to me) with the villains. If the heroes are not unambiguously heroic, then you still need to figure out who your villains are. You can run a story with no real heroes or villains and with only protagonists and antagonists, but this requires a lot of skill to make sure that everyone knows who is supposed to be whom. Alternatively, you can run with a more traditional hero/villain story, but then you need to make it clear who are your villains and who are your heroes. So you have two choices: you can make your whole world morally ambiguous, including your villains, but then make the villains slightly more unsympathetic than your heroes to make them the protagonists, or you can make your villains completely and unambiguously evil to make it clear that they are the villains and that your flawed heroes are the heroes.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” seems to have chosen the latter … but ramped it up to the point where it’s a bit annoying. The villains are calculated to be so completely and totally villainous that it makes you wonder why anyone would follow them in the first place. The new king slaughters indiscriminately, and seems to just like to watch people die. His mother is almost as bad as he is. Pretty much any antagonistic character is presented, in general, so far, as being just mean and nasty and evil, the more to differentiate them from the morally ambiguous protagonists they face. About the only exception is Tyrion, and that’s only because he’s at least a jovial evil.

I would have liked to have seen a little more depth in the antagonists. More reasons for them to do what they do, and better motivations than being spoiled or evil. They had a great opportunity to compare and contrast Robb Stark’s and Joffrey Lannister’s progressions as they grew into their leadership roles, but that seems to be lost now.

Well, I’ll see how the rest of the books go. They’re still entertaining enough to read.

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2 Responses to “(Anti-)Heroes and Villains …”

  1. Bookish Hobbit Says:

    It’s been several months since I read the first three books, and half of the fourth, but I usually find something to like about the villains in a story. Although A Song of Ice and Fire leaves me grasping at straws. And I rather liked Tyrion until the end of book 3, but although it showed a level of character development, I didn’t like the direction it was going.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, you can have good villains that are unlikeable in the sense that they are really just plain evil, but I’m not seeing that so far. The villains in the first two books or so far aren’t all that clever, and only succeed as far as they do because of other people. Maybe it’ll change in the next two books. I’ll have to see.

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