In fiction, the most plausible and interesting villains do not believe they are the bad guys. In very basic stories for children, the bad guys act in certain ways because they are bad, and that seems like reason enough. However, in real life, how many people act in a way that they consider to be deliberately evil? The Nazis genuinely believed that ‘racial purity’ was a good thing. Most people who act in a way others find objectionable, have a rationale for doing so.
Which raises an interesting question. Both from a writing perspective, and a sense of self awareness, how do we actually know if we are the good guys? When life runs along smoothly and everyone is happy, then everyone can be right, without conflict or reason for doubt. However, when there are radically different perspectives on what constitutes ‘good’ how do we know where we stand? Further, would we actually want to know if, by an objective measure (assuming there is one) we have become the villain of the piece?
I imagine that from his perspective, the Sheriff of Nottingham was a decent bloke trying to do a hard job, hampered by criminals and uncooperative peasants. I think there’s a tendency in British myth and story making to favour the person who has the least power as being the more morally justified. On some very basic level, most of us do not believe that might is really right, and we are suspicious of those who wield power. That’s even more curious when you think about the shape of our culture and legal system which is far less pro self defence than, for example, America. In terms of how we run the country, I could argue that the UK is full of people who believe they are Robin Hood, when in fact they are the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Are the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ things that we can establish objectively, or are they to some degree relativistic? What is happily ever after for the fox is a tale of tragedy for the rabbit. While it’s preferable to have situations where everyone benefits, often what is good for one proves harmful for another. How do we judge our own actions in light of this?
I find myself with far fewer points of reference for who I am than feels comfortable right now, and a handful of different ways of making sense of my own history. I tend to understand myself, and others, not through belief about who we are, but through actions. Doing is everything, but I do not currently know how to do anything. How do I step far enough back from myself to be able to see a bigger picture? How can I be certain whether I am Robin Hood, or the Sheriff of Nottingham? Am I even in the right story here?
Most of the time, as we write our own life stories, we cast ourselves as the heroes. Our actions make perfect sense in light of our motives and perceptions. We are doing the right things, for the right reasons. But if our whole world view crashes against a radically different perception, what then? If in someone else’s tale you stalk menacingly through their life, bringing grief and destruction, how do you deal with that other story of who you are? I find myself thinking of Douglas Adams, and the entity Arthur Dent inadvertently kills in all its incarnations. The ‘hero’ is unwittingly transformed into something hideous and malicious in the eyes of the victim, without even knowing what he has done. In other people’s stories, we can play very different roles, without knowing it.
Who am I, in my own story? Victim or aggressor? Hero or villain? Success or failure? In reality, these distinctions are too basic to be meaningful, and most of us are both at some time or another.