Heroes and villains of imaginary worlds: A quick primer

Why does science fiction have so many heroes and villains? Why are some heroes so much cooler than others, and why can't villains be ruthless and competent? Here's our introductory guide to the eternal struggle of good versus evil.

So you may have noticed that a lot of our favorite science fiction TV shows and movies feature a clear-cut hero and a villain. And the same is true for a lot of the really essential books, too. There may be shades of gray, there may be complicated people in the mix, but usually there's a character we root for, and a character (or entity) we root against.

You can certainly have science fiction without heroes or villains — a lot of the greatest SF novels don't make things quite so clear-cut. Unlike, say, detective fiction, in which you must have a detective and there's almost always a murderer, the basic concept of science fiction doesn't require heroism or villainy. But as you can see from the definitions of SF we posted this morning, a lot of people view SF as being in a "gothic" mode, or as being about the fate of humanity — and those things usually imply that there's a gothic hero, or someone who's trying to save humanity. But it'll never be as clear-cut as most detective fiction, or chick lit, or travel memoirs, to name a few.

So who are our heroes and villains? We try to break it down for you.

Heroes and villains of imaginary worlds: A quick primer

The 5 types of heroes:

The Fearless Explorer/Warrior This hero doesn't necessarily have a pith hat, but still ventures where few have gone before, blazing a trail into the unknown. He/she fights monsters and seduces babes — and occasionally the other way around, when the monsters are in disguise. And where civilization is in danger, the Explorer will often help shore it up.
Notable examples: Captain James T. Kirk, Buck Rogers, Ellen Ripley, Flash Gordon.
The Chosen Savior. You could argue this type of hero is lifted from fantasy — he/she is the only one who can save everyone from a menace, usually due to some special abilities or some prophecy.
Notable examples: Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, Neo.
The Anti-Hero. An amoral rogue, this type of hero always claims to be out for him/herself, but we never quite believe it — when the chips are down, these heroes always turn out to have a heart of gold (literally, in the case of Zaphod Beeblebrox).
Notable examples: Han Solo, Mal Reynolds, "Slippery" Jim DiGriz, Riddick (maybe).
The Scientist/Detective. Like the explorer, this type of hero goes and pokes into what's going on — but often, he or she has more of a scientific/technical background, and looks into weird happenings closer to home. The opposite of the Chosen Savior, the Scientist/Investigator often fights to preserve the status quo instead of overturning it.
Notable examples: Mulder and Scully, Walter Bishop, Bernard Quatermass, Judge Dredd, Batman.
The Everyman. Or everywoman, for that matter. A regular person, who gets swept up in strange happenings and is out of his/her depth in a big way. Sometimes this character gets some superpowers or becomes extraordinary in spite of him/herself.
Notable examples: Arthur Dent, Peter Parker, Alex Rogan.

Heroes and villains of imaginary worlds: A quick primer

What's the difference between "hero" and "protagonist?"

Almost every story has a protagonist — or sometimes more than one — but not every protagonist is a hero. "Hero" is a subset of "protagonist." But what's the difference?

There are a million ways of making the distinction between the bigger circle and the smaller circle, but I'd say it's not just a matter of whether you root for this person. We root for protagonists all the time, without necessarily thinking they're heroic.

A lot of it hinges on whether we perceive this character as caring about more than him/herself — the thing that makes an anti-hero an anti-hero, after all, is usually that he or she finally does display a degree of altruism and concern for other sentients. The crucial hinge in a superhero's origin story is usually when he or she makes the decision to start doing the right thing. (The "with great power" moment.)

And yeah, stakes matter. If the hero's main heroic act is to hold the door open for someone, or not to steal an extra cookie from the office kitchen, then most of us would have a hard time viewing that as really heroic, in any meaningful sense. Of course, something can be on a smaller scale and still be heroic, like saving one person's life versus saving an entire planet, but it's the type of stake more than the size that makes it significant, in my view.

Just check out the greatest Doctor Who cliffhanger of all time (from "Caves Of Androzani"):

He's already dying, and they're going to shoot him, and he crashes his ship into the planet, all just so he can save his friend. D00D!

Obviously, there's often something keeping the hero from being heroic, whether it's the reluctance of the "everyman" to stick his/her neck out, or the Chosen Savior's habit of "resisting the call" to heroism. This element is usually there so that when the hero finally does say "screw it, I'm going to be awesome after all," it will have even more impact, and the awesomeness will be that much more blastastic.

Heroes and villains of imaginary worlds: A quick primer

The 5 types of villains:

The Misguided Savior. Often kind of an egomaniac, these villains believe they're the Chosen Savior, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They see it as their heroic duty to rid the universe of the real Chosen Savior.
Notable examples: Lex Luthor, Magneto,
The Neon Nazi. Basically, you're dealing with a space Hitler, who's usually bent on world/universal domination and frequently has some kind of racial/personal superiority complex. If this person actually achieves power, then they become the Dark Ruler that the Chosen Savior has to overthrow.
Notable examples: The Daleks, Cobra Commander, Baal, Darth Vader.
The Trickster God. These characters don't have to be all-powerful, but it helps. Usually, as Blackadder would say, we are like private parts to these gods — they play with us for their sport.
Notable examples: Q, Mr. Mxyzptlk.
The Antisocial Psycho. This type of villain is an anarchist and an antichrist. Usually mentally/psychically damaged, he/she wants to tear it all down and watch it burn and then put the ashes into a leaf blower and choke you with them. And then nuke the scattered ashes from space.
Notable examples: The Master, the Joker.
The Hero's Foil. Just so we can appreciate how freakin awesome the hero is, we get to see someone who faced the same choices but chose wrong. Often this is a literal double of the hero, with the same powers or special "thing" that the hero has.
Notable examples: Iron Monger, the Abomination, Doctor Doom.

Heroes and villains of imaginary worlds: A quick primer

Why can't villains ever win?

Actually, this question is a little unfair, since villains do win occasionally. Especially at the end of the second installment of a trilogy, or the penultimate book in a long series. I have a feeling Avatar 2 will end with the Clone of Quaritch taking a blowtorch to Eywa and cackling while the Na'Vi cry out like a bunch of blue babies. But by and large, villains don't win — how come? The short answer is, because it's too depressing and too much like real life.

The long answer is, because usually the villain's goals are antithetical to the point of the story, and for the story to drive its point home, the villain must be shown to be wrong in some way. Often, the villain's goals, in themselves, are self-destructive, or can be turned against him/her by the hero, so the villain actually causes his/her own downfall. It's not just that there's a moral lesson being taught here — it's that the logic of the story requires that the ending involves the villain failing. If the hero is on the side of order, then order has to prevail in a way that feels organic and convincing. If the hero is on the side of revolution, then we have to see why the status quo can't survive.

Also, there's usually some sort of trade-off between the villain's competence and their ruthlessness. As we've mentioned before, villains that actually get shit done usually have some complicated reason why they can't kill the hero. And a villain who is determined to kill the hero usually has some severe blind spots or some major problems with follow-through. It's just a law: no villain can be both smart and utterly ruthless, or the story's over.

Which brings us to...

Heroes and villains of imaginary worlds: A quick primer

This time it's ideological! The main conflicts that heroes and villains often seem to work out

Totalitarianism vs. individualism. Especially during the great struggles of the Twentieth Century between totalitarian regimes and democracies, a lot of science fiction from the democratic West had to do with individuals struggling against the crushing hand of the state. The villains stood for conformity, brainwashing, slavery and collectivism. The heroes, such as Number Six in The Prisoner, stood for freedom of thought.

War-mongering vs. peaceful coexistence. The villains want to conquer, or gain more power, or control more natural resources. The heroes just want to be left alone and do their happy dances, and the villains keep attacking and exploiting.

Chaos vs. social order. Sort of the flipside of the totalitarianism/individualism one. Ordinary people just want to go about their daily lives undisturbed, but agents of chaos or greedy power-mad maniacs want to screw everything up.

Xenophobia ruins everything. When you hate people who aren't like you, it always ends horribly — and usually bloodily as well.

Top image from Fark.