Heroes and villains: what makes each of these character types effective in a story? In this two-part post, we’re going to answer this question by examining heroes and villains in two fictional works: The Walking Dead and Blood Flats.
As many of you will know, I am a big fan of the AMC series The Walking Dead. When The Walking Dead debuted in 2010, the series was a much-needed addition to the generally poor to mediocre horror films that have been produced of late. I watched the first episode, and like a lot of people, I was instantly hooked
The Walking Dead is successful for a number of reasons. First of all, the series takes its own horror elements seriously (an important issue that I may return to later.) Romero, Raimi, and others have in recent years produced horror films that are a cross between gross-out and slapstick—a combination that simply doesn’t work.
But there is nothing slapstick about the plot and the tone of The Walking Dead. This really is the end of the world—courtesy of an apocalyptic zombie outbreak. As a viewer, you find it easy to suspend your disbelief for what would otherwise be an unbelievable scenario.
The Walking Dead would be a good series if it had only its now trademark realism to recommend it. However, The Walking Dead is a great series because its characters are three-dimensional human beings rather than cardboard stock characters.
The series’ hero, Rick Grimes, is appealing because, like most us, he sometimes falls short of his own high ideals: Rick is determined to do the right thing. But he often fails.
In other words, Rick Grimes is a human hero—not a cardboard cutout of an omnipotent superhero.
This was best illustrated by Rick’s handling of the disappearance of Sophia, the young girl who was traveling with the group.
First of all, Rick’s misjudgment in a tense moment was closely linked to Sophia becoming separated from the adults. Then he endangered the entire group for weeks afterwards, even though the odds of finding Sophia alive were slim to none. (Recall that Sophia eventually turned up in the barn that contained the zombies.)
Rick Grimes is a hero with a good heart who sometimes displays poor practical judgment. He also frequently doubts himself.
This is a contrast to the omnipotent (but less believable) heroes that less skillful screenwriters and novelists often plug into adventure tales. (To get an idea of the contrast, watch practically any film that stars the Rock, or read any of the Dirk Pitt adventure novels written by Clive Cussler.)
* * *
The hero of Blood Flats is ex-marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Lee McCabe. Lee is also a fallible hero—though not in the exact way of Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead. Lee is considerably younger and more emotional, and he sometimes questions his fundamental motivations.
When he comes back from Iraq, Lee’s first impulse is to focus on his own problems. He has a feeling of being behind the curve. At the age of twenty-three, he has yet to begin a real career or enter college.
And now that he has survived the war, Lee doesn’t want to allow anything or anyone to hinder his progress. He feels that he has already done his time “fighting the bad guys.” Given his experiences in Iraq, this position is not unreasonable.
Although one of Lee’s neighbors is a dangerous methamphetamine dealer, Lee doesn’t want to intervene—even though a part of him does. The reluctant hero, Lee resists taking action. He doesn’t step over the line and commit himself until he hears a woman’s screams from the residence next door. (And by that time, it is almost too late.)
Lee is also hampered by numerous personal vanities and weaknesses. These can be observed in his interactions with Dawn Hardin, Sheriff Phelps, and other characters in the novel.
Recall the scene in which Dawn Hardin slaps Lee across the face. This is the scene in which Dawn reveals that she is no longer an honor student at the University of Kentucky, but a meth-addicted prostitute. (This is Chapter 88 from the book):
“What happened to you?” Lee asked. They were alone in the living room of her little studio apartment, sitting on the floor. This was all she had been able to find in town after her father had thrown her out. A part of her had been inclined to return to Louisville—but there was nothing for her there but more hooking and more drugs. The same downward spiral.
At the same time, there did not seem to be much for her here in Blood Flats: A family that now despised her, and this apartment—where she could sit alone with her craving for meth, rationing out the supply she had brought with her from the city.
Redemption, she thought. That is what I will find, one way or another. Redemption of my former life. Redemption or death.
Lee leaned back against the wall and Dawn sat cross-legged, her back against the apartment’s threadbare sofa. The air was close and stuffy. A hint of a breeze blew through a double screen door that opened onto the balcony from where Dawn had stood to beckon him a few minutes ago.
What happened to you? The scope of the question was so massive, so personal and so painful that she knew it would be difficult for her to answer him. Although she detected genuine concern in his tone and expression, Dawn bristled at his presumptuousness. Lee McCabe was apparently the same blunt, cocky sort that she remembered him to be. Never mind the fact that she had opened her makeshift home to him, such it was. Whatever his degree of innocence (and she did believe that Lee was innocent—despite what she had heard on the news), this still represented an enormous gesture of charity and trust. Never mind the fact that he was now a fugitive wanted for multiple homicides. (He probably had his own rank on the FBI’s most wanted list by now.) He would still find the space to notice how far she had fallen since their last meeting, and he would still have the nerve to bring it to her attention.
“You first,” Dawn said. “Why does half the world believe that you’re a mass murderer?”
She listened as Lee recounted a convoluted tale that spanned back several days. A few of the names she vaguely remembered from the news, as murder victims that had been attributed to Lee’s actions. When he mentioned the name of Lester Finn she stopped him.
“I know Lester Finn,” she said. She folded her arms across her chest, gripping each bony elbow with the opposite hand.
“A friend of yours?” Lee asked, with a trace of accusation.
“No. Of course not. I despise Lester Finn.”
“But you do know him.”
Dawn shrugged. She could sense him backing her into a corner, interrogating her, though he had absolutely no right to appoint himself as her inquisitor.
“So how does an honor student like yourself become acquainted with a drug dealer like Lester Finn?” he finally asked.
“I’m not exactly an honor student anymore,” she said.
She gave him a short history of her drug problem. She did not mention that she worked the streets of Louisville to make money to support her habit. That would be too painful, too humiliating to admit. But she imagined that Lee McCabe had somehow surmised the entire truth.
“That stuff you take,” Lee said. “This is the stuff that people are trying to kill me for.”
“It’s almost killed me, too, for the record.”
Lee McCabe appeared not to have heard her. He was lost in his own private rage, she could tell.
“What’s your problem, Lee? I get the feeling that I’ve disappointed you. Well, for what its worth, I’ve disappointed a lot of people. My father had disowned me and my mother and sister want to pretend that I don’t exist anymore. And I’ve disappointed myself.”
“This is just great,” he said. “You screw men for money, and then you buy drugs.”
Dawn recalled her first meeting with Lee McCabe, at that party several years ago, when she had been a college freshman with a bright future stretching out before her. Back then Lee McCabe had misjudged her as a snob. Now he was misjudging her again—only in the opposite direction.
Did he have any idea how much she hated what she had become? Did he know about the countless times she had contemplated suicide?
She felt possessed by her own rage—and in that moment her anger was as implacable as the desire for the drug sometimes was, even in at its worse.
Before she could stop herself, she slapped Lee McCabe across the cheek. Then she leaned back, folded her arms again, and said nothing.
Lee rubbed his cheek where she had struck him. She knew her own strength was limited and that she could not possibly have hurt him. Nevertheless, there was a red patch across the skin where she had struck.
Lee looked at her, seemed lost in contemplation for a few seconds, then said:
“I deserved that. I was wrong.”
“No, you’re right, about me, I mean. You’re as arrogant as ever, and you have the tact of a pit bull; but I can’t fault your assessment of the situation.”
“I’m a jackass,” Lee said.
“Yes. You’re right about that, too.”
“I’m usually a lot better than this,” Lee said. “I’ve been having what you might call a bad day—a bad couple of days, in fact. Half the country thinks I murdered two of my neighbors. A local drug lord is trying to kill me. And at least one police officer has tried to kill me, too.”
“You’re certainly making the news,” Dawn said. “There’s going to be a special edition about you on CNN this afternoon. Some journalist who claims to have met you.”
Lee’s surprise was immediately apparent. “A journalist? You mean Brett St. Croix?”
“Might be,” Dawn said. “I don’t recall. But he’s going to talk this afternoon on CNN. On the Situation Room.”
As you can see, Lee is not always a very nice guy, even though he usually steps up and does the right thing in the end. In this scene, Lee’s initial attitude toward Dawn is judgmental and self-righteous. He eventually realizes his mistake—but not until he offends her (and receives a much-deserved slap across the face).
So much for sympathetic heroes. In the next installment, I’ll delve into The Walking Dead and Blood Flats again to examine the characteristics of the ideal fictional villain.