I came across a request on a social network website from a writer seeking help with a difficulty he was experiencing in developing a storyline. The difficulty was that he wanted one of his heroic characters to turn into a villain, but didn’t know how to achieve that in a believable manner.
According to the writer, his dilemma was “that I have no idea what causes someone to go from good to bad. I have a hard time picturing what could drive someone to start attacking and fighting against the people he continues to care about most and to abandon their own morals”.
The writer’s request attracted several insightful responses. One respondent said:
“As long as your motives are real, and your character does not just turn bad for the hell of it, your readers will be fine.”
Another respondent asked whether the hero who is about to be the villain “is a real man with real emotions, real feelings, real regrets? You have to decide what drives your character before you can decide what his actions will be”.
Another asked: “What’s their primary motivation? What are they after? What is the character’s fatal flaw?”
A general theme from these responses is the understanding that no person ever looks at themselves and thinks, “I am the bad guy”. No one ever looks at themselves and says, “I am corrupt”. People tend to believe or convince themselves that their actions are essentially for the greater good, or they do awful things simply because they think they are entitled to.
When you make someone a villain in the story without any nuance or context, then you run the danger of creating a stereotype and not a real person. Writing courses will tell you that in order to write an authentic villain you have to write a rich backstory for your villain. Look for those places in his or her past that explain why he does what he does in the present. It’s important to justify the villain’s position. No matter how bad it seems to you, the villain thinks they are in the right. The villain does what they do because they think they are entitled and justified.
I was reminded when I saw the live-action Lion King movie, that Scar is the clear villain of the story. However, it is unclear why Scar is the bad guy until you do some research into his backstory. It turns out that while Mufasa’s name means “king” in kiSwahili, Scar was named “Taka,” by his parents which means “waste” or “garbage”. The brothers’ father declared Mufasa would be his successor when Mufasa and Scar were just young cubs and spent extra time with Mufasa — causing, Taka, the younger lion, to resent him.
A hero’s fall from grace is common in literature and common in present-day South Africa. Despite its commonality, this is a storyline that is always compelling if it’s done right. It is unnerving because we all recognise within ourselves one of life’s greatest constant battles, between our own demons and better angels.
We look to our heroes to remind us that we, too, can transcend our own limitations. So, when our heroes lose the battle and succumb to evil it signals us mere mortals that despite our best efforts, maybe we, too, are doomed to surrender to our flaws.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the title character accepts that his “vaulting ambition” is the key to his murderous thoughts. Macbeth famously succumbs to his flaws and Shakespeare offers us no hope of redemption, only tragedy. Macbeth reflected the times in which the play was written — the Renaissance. It was a time when institutional authority was rejected and individual freedom was asserted, creating the perfect conditions for Macbeth’s fall.
The discord in our country lately has been caused by our heroes turning into villains. Watching the commission of inquiry into State Capture in 2019 has left me wondering what has happened to us? How have we turned from a people who fought for this country to a people complicit in its looting? How did our leaders go from heroes of the 20th century to the villains we are today?
Although a hero’s fall from grace may be common, what has become uncommon is remorse — and even more uncommon is an apology. Unlike Macbeth, our leaders do not seem wracked by guilt. Like Scar, our leaders are unreflective on themselves or their actions
In his article, “The Ghost of Cornel West”, writer Michael Dyson wrestles with the downfall of Cornel West, one of his heroes. Dyson starts by praising West as the most exciting black American scholar. But West, who was once a supporter of President Barack Obama, changed when Obama won the presidency.
Dyson explores theories from various critics to explain West’s downfall. Some believe that West simply could not accept the rise of a figure like Obama, who eclipsed most other black personalities. For these critics, it is this obsession with Obama that turned West from a hero to a villain. Dyson writes that in his “callous disregard for plural visions of truth, West retreated into a deluded and self-important belief in his singular and exclusive rightness”.
It is with great sorrow that Dyson concludes that West “has sacrificed friendships and cut ties with former comrades because he insists that only outright denunciation of Obama will do”.
“It is a colossal loss for such a gifted man to surrender to unheroic truculence: If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then the loss of a brilliant black mind is more terrible, more wasteful.”
At precisely the moment when we need the best minds to grapple with the myriad problems that plague South Africa, like our sluggish growth rate, we cannot afford to lose any more public servants and leaders to the dark side of self-interest.
We live in a time when our most brilliant minds are caught up in the trappings of fame and egoism rather than service. The rise and fall of great men, no matter how many times we have seen this story unfold, is always gut-wrenching. My own assessment is that people turn from heroes to villains when they do not subordinate themselves to a bigger collective goal. When freedom is defined as individual freedom, then we are only doomed. This country has never been about individuals – it has always been about “We, the People”.
Watching so many in our government fall from grace has been the biggest disappointment of this decade. Heroes don’t turn into villains for the sake of it. Even when our parents and forebears were fighting against apartheid, we have to remember that whether we like it or not, even those fighting the good fight were marinaded in the evil and corruption that was apartheid.
Despite resistance, apartheid was too pervasive for it not to somehow seep into their pores and for its residue not to be passed down on to our generation. That is why I am not stunned when I see young children show racist tendencies — it’s because the genius of apartheid is that it is mutable and can infect even those you think would be immune.
Perhaps there is no remorse or apologies when heroes turn into villains because it is not as simple as good and evil. Maybe it is presumptuous to think there is a battle between good and evil. Maybe it’s our pathology and not a battle. Maybe there is no choice but a predetermined future to repeat history. Maybe a country conceived out of criminality and corruption can only ever be that.
As Justice Edwin Cameron so soberly recognises in his 2015 Bram Fischer Lecture, “how impossible it is to separate villains from saints, and how distracting the attempt to do so can be. For we are all complicit in the conditions of our time, where there is no moral purity but only the grubbiness of real material life”.
Maybe we are all complicit in creating the conditions which have caused our own moral and economic recession. However our genius as a nation, no matter how broken we were, is that in recognition of our grubbiness we were wise enough to create a Constitution that by its very nature is designed to curb our innate saboteurs. If we do nothing else in this next decade but abide by our Constitution, we will do more to diminish the pathology that has stained the past decade.
I believe that in time, we can have a generation that is immune to apartheid’s infection. It’s hard not to see the ghost of a once-promising country in our fallen leaders. But let’s not forget that if a saint is just a sinner who fell down but chose to get up again, then a miracle nation is not one that is perfect, but one that chooses to rise every time.
In this pending new year let’s choose to rise again. DM
"Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth" ~ Aristotle