Monday, March 3, 2014


You can’t have a hero without a villain. You can’t have a story without conflict. Without bad guys, the good guys are just a bunch of guys.

Now, hold on a second. Did that last assertion seem like a leap? Is it the same to say that there’s no hero without a villain, and to say that there are no good guys without bad guys?

Thinking there is no good without evil -- that to be a good guy you need a bad guy -- is called dualism (by people with a tendency to name these things), and it is a prevalent concept in pop-culture. Sometimes this is because it has been actively embraced by the makers of pop-cultural artifacts (such as “alignment” in Dungeons and Dragons, or the light and dark sides of the Force). But, there is also a tendency toward this way of thinking which is engendered by the very structure of the stories themselves.
Can't be a hero without a villain?
Yeah, can't have a pain in the ass without something to give it to you.

Ever since I started wanting to
write stories, I’ve noticed the maxim floating in the air that there must be conflict, or an obstacle, to have a story. Something has to be stopping someone (the protagonist) from getting or doing what he is trying to get or do -- even if that is just remaining the same as before.

And, when you think about it, you can see their point (“they” being the ones who send these maxims floating). There doesn’t really seem to be much to tell without some conflict or struggle. A story without conflict is a simple description of an event -- enlightening, perhaps, but not a story you’re eager to hear.

And, considering the number of stories about conflict and obstacles, and heroes and villains, in pop-culture, it’s clear people have been taking “their” advice: John McClane has Hans Gruber; the Ninja Turtles have Shredder; Luke, Han, and the gang have Darth Vader; Indie has Nazi Germany; and so on and on and on.

Now, conduct a mental experiment with me: imagine Hans Gruber didn’t come to steal from the Nakatomi Corporation on Christmas Eve. Maybe he had asked his high school sweetheart to marry him years before in our alternate universe, and he was too busy wrapping his kids presents in Germany. What would John McClane be then? He’d be what he was at the beginning of Die Hard: a tired, kind of cynical New York cop with a troubled marriage, trying to make things work with his wife -- not exactly the awesome action hero we know and love. We might not even have liked him if we met him at that Christmas party, and his wife very well might not have gotten back together with him if he’d had no chance to display his Herculean prowess and unswerving chivalric devotion.

Or, imagine if there was no Shredder and, instead of living in the sewers of New York City, the Ninja Turtles lived in a septic tank in Bristol, Illinois (population 310, circa 1970). What would they be? Hideous, mutant outcasts from society living in a waste disposal system.

One can see the temptation to say: “Hey, thanks, Hans Gruber, for breaking up with Gretchen and valuing money more than human life. Thanks Shredder, you maniac covered in razor blades! Thanks high crime rate of New York City! Without you, where would all the heroes be?”

The problem, however, is that, if this tells us anything, it tells us about the structure of stories, and whether that tells us something about good and evil in general is a separate question. If we only learn about or consider good and evil by hearing stories about the good guys takin’ out the bad guys, then we might think good requires evil to be good.

These stories might require evil to be good stories, but consider the opinion of the characters in the stories. It would be creepy if John McClane thanked Hans Gruber for helping him win back his wife. John finds the whole affair at Nakatomi Plaza a damned inconvenience at least.

And then take time to consider what you think of getting stuff stolen from you, or getting in car accidents, or getting shot. These are the sort of things you hope to avoid, I imagine, and if you don’t want to avoid them, you’re more likely to be called mentally unstable than a hero.

Besides, if good is just the response to evil, what do we call all the stuff that’s worth doing once the mess is cleaned up?

© 2014 John Hiner III

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