Archetypes: Super Hero vs Super Villain

Writing a book is tough. Coming up with a new concept is even harder. There is a literary theory swirling in the universe which states that there are only seven plots in existence and all stories can be catalogued into those plot concepts. These include things like: man (or woman) against nature, man against himself, man against man, man against society, man against God, etc. The jury is still out on this theory and major writers from across time have debated the validity or lack thereof of this concept.

But, the truth remains, writing something that stands out enough from the pack, but not so much that the publishing world doesn’t get scared off, is a tight and elusive space. Sometimes, the name of the game in the storytelling world of publishing/film and television is turning a beloved concept on its head. Safe, but just clever enough to pique interest.

One of the major writers who come to mind with this is Gregory Maguire. He made his name publishing reimagined fairy tales from the perspectives of interesting and unexpected characters. Do you remember the books Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror Mirror and many more? His books started a huge trend that still continues today and are a source of inspiration (whether they know it or not) for many writers who are creating today’s urban fantasy.

Another spinoff that this inspired was the idea of the super villain. Similar to the super hero, the super villain has all of the power and abilities that the super hero has, but they are evil, or at least the no longer fit that knight-in-shining-armor archetype. Yes, various Marvel and DC worlds have explored this concept somewhat, but not in the way I’m thinking. The first book I read that really piqued my interest in this concept was Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. In the world of Steelheart, those with super abilities have taken over the world and (more or less) enslaved/tortured humanity. It kind of makes me think about a mob situation where you have lots of blackmailing and coercion going on.

Now, I loved Steelheart. And though I have yet to go on and read the rest of the series, I know I will enjoy it. Similar to Maguire, I was interested in how Sanderson turned the super hero concept on its head and introduced a rich world that was full of the unexpected.

The memory of reading Steelheart then got me excited to watch the Amazon Prime show, The Boys. Similar to Steelheart, The Boys features an underground group of regular humans who are set on destroying the super villains (who appear to be heroes) who have overtaken their world. But, for some reason, I couldn’t enjoy The Boys in the same way that I enjoyed Steelheart. Please don’t think that I am leaving a negative review of the show as that is not my intent. From a storytelling perspective, the show is intriguing. There are things about it that make you want to keep watching. But, for some reason, watching this show was a real turn-off for me and it has nothing to do with the show, the plot or the acting. I hated seeing these guys in costumes that looked like super heroes and then witnessing them doing terrible things to people. It just really messed with me in a way I didn’t expect.

There is something different about watching something as opposed to watching the story evolve in your head. When I imagine the characters in Steelheart, I see them wearing dark supersuits as opposed to the bright ones that you see the likes of super heroes in (similar how a cartoon might feature the bad guy to differentiate him from the good guy), though that’s probably not exactly how they were described by the author. But, I watched as “the Supes” commit crimes and cause pain to humans in their brightly colored outfits, I found myself feeling down.

But, feeling down about this show isn’t a bad thing. It sparked a thought and taught me something about my biases and perceptions that I hadn’t realized that I possessed. Basically, I had no idea that I had clung so tightly to the concept of the super hero until I watched The Boys. I thought myself smart and evolved. As a former literature major, I’ve read and analyzed every type of story and believed that I had a knack for looking at things from different perspectives. Clearly not. At least not in every situation.

When you’re exploring new techniques or concepts to twist about, remember to think about how twisting that thing about might impact your audience’s perception. This was an important reminder for me because sometimes I get so caught up in the twisting and doing something clever, that I don’t necessarily consider the implications or the ripple effect. Usually that ripple is good. Being clever is usually appreciated. But, it’s also easy to get caught up in the one-upmanship space and forget about your audience. And also, I will keep moving forward with The Boys and after thinking things through with this post, try to understand where my feelings are coming from. I think there’s more lessons here to learn as a writer. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Archetypes: Super Hero vs Super Villain

  1. Wow,now this was a pretty good post. I thank you for that, I kind of liked the premise of the Boys but I would say characters like Homelander messed me up too. I liked the way you have written this. Nice.

Comments are closed.