It occurred to me the other day that so many stories, especially in science fiction and fantasy, hinge on the premise of a distant, dark super villain that the hero has never met. The hero goes galloping off with his band of trusty supporting characters with complete faith, or nearly complete faith, in prophesy or hearsay. He fights battles, conquers cities, and generally causes upheaval all in the name of good. But how, in so many stories, does he know that he’s right?
What if he was wrong? What if the prophesies were someone else’s genius idea to cause havoc in the world? What if the hero heard all the bad rumors or the “villain” isn’t really that villainous after all because the hero’s culture doesn’t understand his. For example, many modern forms of technology might be considered witchery if viewed from the eyes of our ancestors centuries ago.
What would it mean for the story and us as readers?
I always like a story that paints the characters with more than a black or white brush. I like depth, complexity, and virtue in my villains and a bit of fault and vice in my heroes, though they must keep a heroic core. To me, exploring the wide range of humanity in a tale makes it all the richer and more engaging. Certainly, a story where the heroes were wrong about the villain would allow for that.
“History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill. If you take this phrase to heart and apply it to fiction, a whole range of possibilities emerge. There’s a way to paint any hero as the villain and, I’m sure, most villains as heroes, “for many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said. After all, some famous stories were written with that in mind: The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, Grendal by John Gardner, and Euripides’s Medea.
True, some villainous acts are beyond any chance of framing them in heroic terms. Until the end of Medea, Medea has some sympathy as the cast out wife of Jason, but when she goes as far as murdering her own children, she loses any redemptive potential as a “hero.”
But a similar kind of turnaround could be applied to heroes. King Arthur might not have united Briton; rather, he could have destroyed the native people’s cultures and forced them into an imperialistic society which ended with the greatest of them perishing on the battlefield because of a family feud against Arthur’s illegitimate son. Romeo and Juliet could have been written as a tale about a mourning mother and father whose son was brainwashed or kidnapped or blackmailed into marrying the daughter of their enemy, who destroyed his reputation, whose cousin murdered his best friend, and who, in the end, tricked him into poisoning himself.
How do you imagine it might be if the heroes in a story were wrong or the tale was told from an alternate point of view? What re-imaginings of books you’ve read can you think up?