Or “Oh, yeah, I totally went there” and “Yes, this is totally another love-letter to villains that I’m completely unashamed of writing”, as well as “Yes, I am referencing Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’, and I’m glad you noticed”. I need to dial down the subtitles. Yeesh.
Let me pose an idea that has probably been presented many times before, but not quite yet in my verbose and almost cartoonishly-exaggerated prose-style. The villain of many stories is, in their own way, going through their own variation of the hero’s journey. The variation, and to what degree the villain’s journey is a reversal of the hero’s journey will depend upon the story, and each individual writer’s approach to how they treat (or abuse) their characters. However, and it pains me to write this, I would argue that the hero’s journey and the villain’s journey are no more or less boring than one another. The determining factor of which one is more or less compelling is how well-written the characters are. By this logic, I pose that is is totally possible to have a hero on a compelling, interesting, and emotional of a quest for whatever (redemption, acceptance, to save the world, or any of the other standard or not-so-standard possibilities) opposite an equally compelling, interesting, and emotionally involved villain’s quest to prove those who doubted them wrong, to fulfill their ambitions, or, again, whatever other standard or not-so-standard plot-based rails upon which the character (or character’s) journey will travel.
The villain is the hero of his or her own story. They have their own dreams and aspirations, even though a lot of those dreams and aspirations happen to involve grabs for world domination or lots of people dying and what have you (although not always, of course). The morally righteous and the morally questionable are both just as guilty of following their hearts to carve out their own little place in the universe. The villain just happens to be doing so in a way that has much stronger backlash than the hero.
Yes, it is important to consider that there are villains who are so powerful and impressive in terms of their backstory and their traits that they can eclipse a story’s hero (and I would like to offer a nod to every Loki/Tom Hiddleston fan who would probably agree with this point). There are times when an amazing hero overcomes such great odds that it makes the villain seem like a crucial, but still boring, set piece in the overall scheme of things. It’s also important to consider that there are heroes who will be written as generically and blandly as possible, giving readers only the sinister machinations of the devious do-wronger to keep them going through the story in the same way there are villains that are so typically I-want-to-do-bad-because-I-want-to-do-bad boring that the hero is the only redeeming quality the writing has to offer.
The key part to have an amazing story, complete with both noble and morally dubious characters, is to find the balance between the hero’s journey and the villain’s mirroring of that journey in some way. I am, by the way, so far from finding this balance, I fear, I can hardly see it on the horizon, but it is something all fiction writers should strive for. To not only have the hero overcome great difficulties, fall to their lowest low, and leave the whole experience transformed by it, but a villain who deals with their own inner demons (sometimes maybe even in a very literal fashion), is faced by great odds, and ultimately leaves the experience changed (even if that change is dying, as that still constitutes a transformation, albeit a very permanent one in most cases). And yes, there are, and should be, stories that feature the hero ultimately facing the villain, losing, and coming out of it better (as well as the villain not, you know, dying in a spectacular fashion). Ultimately, yes, there will be some very boring heroes and some just-as-boring villains, and biases will color the way readers look at these types of characters, but I find it hard to accept that one journey is any more or less interesting than another.
Note: I feel like I’m forgetting bits because I started drafting this in my mind while I was still at work, and it’s been a few hours and distractions since that point, so this post didn’t quite receive its deserved, proper treatment.