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  • Writer's pictureBarrington Edwards


Alignment and the Hero


I mean how you gonna wear a Darth Vader T-shirt or dress up like Billy The Kid for Halloween but get mad at people crying for George Floyd? Dudes wear Michael Myers masks and cheer for Jason Voorhies but recite Michael Brown’s rap sheet verbatim. C’mon. Really? Y’all making it too easy.

It’s like America is a story but unwritten, only oral tradition. It’s passed down with details and nuanced language that might sound the same, all just and inspiring but the story is actually in the inflection and the non verbal communication. The implication. This splits the theoretical American story into billions of adaptations, losing something in the translation with every iteration.

One of the biggest inconsistencies is the main character. What do we even mean by hero or heroine? Adversary or villains? How can we envision ourselves in this story if we do not understand the role we need to play? What if someone totally misreads the role because... they have a different experience?

Let’s see...

The Antagonist is someone causing or continuing a conflict. Not the same as a villain or “bad guy”. The conflict could be virtuous. Very few people see themselves as bad people. One version of America sees Huey P. Newton as antagonist another as a hero. Some people (believe it or not) see Timothy McVeigh as an American Patriot and not simply a murdering terrorist. We could not be any more clearly having different experiences.

A protagonist is someone trying to resolve a conflict. Not necessarily a hero or “good guy”. We usually think of it this way but who says the conflict ever gets resolved for all involved? The role dictates that the character is engaged in the resolution of the established conflict, be it morally aligned with our own values or not. Their role is linked to the rules of their story. King King was clearly a protagonist for me. As clear as his symbol was for young me I still chose to side with him against all mankind and civilization. The beastial anthropomorphism aside, I chose him.

A hero is someone risking their safety to protect or save others. Once again this depends on the point of view. If you risk life and health to defend and protect a mass murderer are you a heroine? As we question what causes we support and where we draw our lines and how we color our moral landscapes we bump up against examples of heroes that don’t resonate with us. The story of those Americas seem alien and wrong. Sometimes the ideas of safety are out of synch. Someone’s status quo and material happiness or satisfaction may clash with someone else’s physical or psychological safety.

An antihero is someone who plays the role of main character but isn’t the heroic model of the protagonist we are used to. Robin Hood is the oldest reference to come to mind. Deadpool or the Punisher are the modern examples that are most accessible to comics and popular culture fans. Taking from the rich is only wrong if you assume the rich are good and got their stuff in an acceptable way. If you question the validity of their right to their property Robin Hood makes sense. If criminals continue to commit crimes and the justice system never rehabilitates or even holds them accountable someone breaking the laws to serve the code of morality you more closely align with makes sense to support.

A villain is someone trying to abuse, destroy, corrupt others for their own benefit. Based on the root word “vile” you would think this is clear cut, but nope. We even argue about what is reprehensible and laugh approvingly at the despicable. We see lots of modern storytelling focused on villains lately. Darth Vader, Gru, Mr. White from “Breaking Bad” to name a few. Through the story they get cast as an antihero. Even horror stories main villains strangely develop fandoms that elevate them to hero status. It takes just a bit of humanizing for us to understand the motivation of villains and therefore cheer them on, so long as they’re victims are at least annoying and deserving of death.

An adversary is someone opposing a point of view or position in a conversation, argument or conflict. If you have an adversary, you are an adversary. In the American story that is your life who is the adversary? Is it someone with a very different point of view? Are they part time or temporary adversaries only in opposition sometimes on some topics? If you see that they are the heroine or protagonist of their version of the story with you as the adversary does that change how you interpret your own version? Does their story even matter to you? Why don’t we listen to the stories of our adversary in real life? We have come to understand both the antihero and the villain from popular fiction, so why can’t we understand each other?

As the main characters in our own stories, how are we designed as characters to begin with?

How do we deal with obnoxious people? Our “neighbors” who may, for lots of reasons, live with little to no regard for general peace and stability? Or just cook ethnic food and celebrate loudly? When simple things like asking folks to turn music down or not light fireworks all night long or not yell at, berate or do worse to their spouses turn into bizarre confrontations and even endanger your peace and safety further who do you turn into or look to? (...Panting...)

In life we don’t have super heroes or villains, just a wide spectrum of people capable of everything at any point in their lives. In modern civilization we live in proximity to one another and it’s too hard to avoid people who grate against you. When pushed to the edge of our tolerances and patience it’s the wrong time to deal with conflict. We enter the fray led by emotional energy that usually makes it worse. The antagonist is usually calmer in these situations. Most of the things they do that annoy us probably make them feel better; even better as we feel worse.

In comics and popular culture we have models of characters who do what we wish we could. Their conflicts are exaggerated but at the heart ( if they’re written well) the human experience should be familiar. Whether heroes or villains they still feel they are justified for reacting the way that they do. This gives us the range of character types we are now familiar with. Good writers make them more balanced and nuanced so we pay attention and believe their rage or indignation.

By now in society we have seen and heard all types of stories of people doing horrible things in real life. The media and entertainment industry knows we want these stories and they know we probably have more familiarity with them in our everyday lives than we care to talk about at the lunch table. Two dimensional characters no longer play well in modern times. We throw dirt on our heroes and halos on our villains with increasing regularity.

To simplify a broad spectrum of possible character types we can add the anti-hero into the hero / villain mix. This model lets writers break the old convention and tell stories with the typical protagonist as a less heroic character or not heroic at all. There is still conflict to solve but not by the stereotypical hero.

Role playing games complicate the issue with the idea of alignment. It’s a helpful way to get to deeper motivations.


Lawful good

Neutral good

Chaotic good

Lawful neutral

(True) neutral

Chaotic neutral

Lawful evil

Neutral evil

Chaotic evil

So let’s look at some characters and see where they land; hero, antihero or villains. What’s their alignment?

Let’s start with popular culture icons;

Billy the Kidd

Bonnie and Clyde

Tony Montana

Thelma and Louise

Mickey and Mallory Knox

Clarence and Alabama ...

Probably all considered antiheroes because they embraced crime as a means of getting ahead or getting away. How do we feel about them?

How about these icons:

The Lone Ranger

Paul Revere

Indiana Jones

All of these are “good guys” who work outside the law to get justice.

Who are the characters we support and who do we see as the adversary?

The dude lighting fireworks right now at 11:39 pm is a ...

The woman blasting her protest music outside my window is a ...

The person with an arrest record in a fist fight across the street is a...

The child who punched his mom in the eye and terrorizes the whole house by stomping and slamming doors is a...

The drug addict who rescued a child from a burning car is a...

The corrupt politicians who put embezzled funds into community centers are...

The drug dealer buying the neighborhood turkeys for the holidays is a...

The underage sex worker who kills a pedophile abusing her is a...

Hollywood is full of stories about men and women who took the law in their own hands because they couldn’t get justice from the system. How about these icons: the Lone Ranger, Paul Revere, Indiana Jones. In these examples the message is that the system is wrong. If you start with popular culture icons; Billy the Kidd, Bonnie and Clyde, Tony Montana, Thelma and Louise, Mickey and Mallory Knox, Clarence and Alabama ... we see unapologetic criminals who we have learned to embrace.

We conveniently choose when we agree or disagree with our system of law and order. Some hold the position that there is the letter of the law that should be followed and the more nuanced spirit of the law that should be interpreted first. By the application of the judicial system we refine the system as we mature and grow as a society, holding both the individuals and the system accountable. That’s how it’s supposed to go according to the script. The difficulty is in deciding who gets to function as editor of this American story and who does not. When you cheer for the villains because they are real and nuanced can you stay consistent? If you gravitate towards the antiheroes instead of corny, moralizing do-gooders do you say more about your own moral compass without having to question it deeply? Are you saying that the system doesn’t even do its self correcting well? Or are you saying that people with morally grey back stories and maybe criminal records might just be the right person for this particular heroic task?

When someone holding a different set of issues picks the antihero or villains’ role and you get twisted into knots it makes you look foolish. Your story is not canon. Not here. It can’t be. There are too many of us. There is of course common ground where almost all of us can agree on right and wrong and what to do about it. Usually though, day to day issues and infractions are as nuanced as each one of our lives and stories. In the end, if we expect the American or world audiences to sit through our personal stories we have to do it for all the other American stories.

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