The Villain in the Mirror

I’ve been thinking meta thoughts about writing. Always dangerous.

Two protagonist development themes run through many stories I like to read. That means they also crop up in stories I like to write.

1. You are not ordinary. You have a skill. A talent. A specialness. You didn’t ask for it, but you have to master it, and make it work for you.  You have to Do Big Things.


2. You are what you are. You can’t have it all. This isn’t the life you wanted, but too bad. Learn to be happy with what you have, because it’s all you get.

The journey from discovery to self-acceptance for a Reluctant Hero with a Big Destiny  doesn’t have the same feel as a Bluebird of Happiness scenario, yet superhero stories often contain both. I know my Rough Passages Tales do. “Surprise, you’ve got powers you don’t want, deal with the damaging consequences,” is the whole series premise.

Most reluctant heroines want to be ordinary. To lead normal lives. Popular plots follow someone who doesn’t want their powers, who gets nothing but trouble from them, and sees nothing but the downsides at first. Their journeys take them through events that help them realize they’re stuck with power, that accepting the power and using it properly leads to big solutions and happy endings.

Which is great, but here’s my cynical issue: being powerful is a damned sight easier to accept than being powerless. It’s nice that the hero learns to accept being a hero, but…what about a story where accepting disappointment leads to resolution?

Sure, superpowers traditionally come with weaknesses (looking at you, Kryptonite) but characters get something out of the trade-off: power of some kind. Real life doesn’t work that way. Some gifts life hands us are just plain awful. I want a story where the protagonist being rendered helpless leads to their happy ending. I haven’t seen that yet.

A digression: I’m not talking about the free rejection of power here. Noble sacrifice is a common trope in traditional fantasy and superpower tales alike. (Protagonist gives up the power they never wanted to defeat evil, lives happily ever after in obscurity until the next crisis…there are LOTS of those.) That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a final confrontation that strips the protagonist of a power they accepted. I’m talking about the heroine losing.

I’ve seen stories address the idea of individual strengths being useless in the face of oppression, but few hinge on protagonists losing personal power. There are a few (the movie Falling Down comes to mind)  but those stories usually don’t end well for the protagonist. I want a happy ending too.

Here’s why you don’t see it often. Losing power at the story climax is a villain’s arc. They provide the model the heroine learns to reject. Villains exercise their destiny freely but have to be repressed, bounded by law and punished for their defiance of  the greater good the heroine represents.

Being made helpless is a punishment for villains. Heroes triumph over them. Does it have to be that way? I don’t think so. Basically, I want the reluctant heroine to also be the villain. A story where the she loses and ends up better off. Villain redemption has been done and overdone. But villain as loser who wins?  There’s room, I hope.

Then again, as one of my characters in Powerhouse says, “No one was ever born a villain.” There’s also a truism whose source I haven’t bothered checking that goes, “We are all the heroes of our own stories.” I think it can be done.

I want to write a story with the title of this post.  I like the idea. I simply have no idea how to go about it.

3 responses to “The Villain in the Mirror”

  1. gibsonauthor Avatar

    Reblogged this on s a gibson.

    1. Dawnrigger Avatar


  2. […] For part 1 of this occasional series of my musings on heroes & villains in storytelling, click here. […]

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