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When Good Turns Bad: The Reversed Hero’s Journey

Hero's Journey - Infographic by novel-softwareThe typical “hero’s journey” is a structure that can be found not only in fantasy fiction but also in many other genres. You can analyse the twists and turns of this journey in great detail – even break it down into archetypal elements like ‘the mentor’, ‘the helper’ and ‘the threshold’. In essence, however, the hero’s journey entails a character overcoming obstacles and great odds to perform heroic deeds and defeat a formidable enemy. In the process, the hero usually grows and changes, and becomes a better person or is ‘reborn’. In fact, the hero overcoming their own internal struggles, fears and doubts is usually just as important as them overcoming external hurdles.

But what happens when that journey is inverted? What happens when a key character goes from being a good person to being a bad person, and achieving (or failing to achieve) their goals leads them down a darker path?

OUR FASCINATION WITH DOWNFALLS

Michael CorleoneThere is perhaps no more classic example of a reversed hero’s journey than The Godfather I, II and III films. The main character goes from being a decent, law-abiding war hero to a murderous ruthless criminal. By the end of the films, most of us have no love left for Michael Corleone.

Stories like these seem to have become more and more popular recently. Breaking Bad and its spin off Better Call Saul are both examples of anti-heroes embarking on journeys to the dark side. House of Cards shows two villainous characters becoming more and more dastardly in their quest for power.

It is noticeable, however, that the above-mentioned series are not fantasies.

CAN FANTASY REVERSE THE HEROES JOURNEY?

Hero's Journey - Kylo RenScience fiction provides us with many good characters that become villains. You only need to look to Star Wars to see a host of Jedi that are lured to the Dark Side, and sci-fi dystopias like 1984 are riddled with characters that gradually lose all hope, humanity and decency.

In fantasy, however, reversed journeys appear to be less common. Yes, there are plenty of morally dubious characters, and plenty of point-of-view characters that could be classed as villains or crooks. Generally, however, all these characters are working toward doing and becoming something better. A story that introduces a heroic, “good” protagonist and turns them into a fully-fledged loathsome villain is hard to come by. And when such instances do occur, it is often in one of several attenuating circumstances:

It’s In The Past

Often a downfall is suggested in the past of the fantasy world. Tales of the villain’s descent into evil abound, but they are not the focus of the current tale. Perhaps a prequel will delve into the fall from grace at some point, but a series is rarely begun with the story of a downfall. Characters like the Nazgûl and Voldemort have pasts, but they remain just that, and are never the central focus of the story.

They Are One Of Many

Stannis and SelyseGiven fantasy often has multiple point-of-view characters, there is generally room for one or two of them to crash and burn, while still leaving us with the redemptive, positive stories of the others.

Game of Thrones is a prime example, with characters that are regularly driven to do awful things contrasted with those who strive to be better. Often those who do awful deeds are villains to begin with and don’t change. Some, however, are characters that go from being somewhat villainous to completely irredeemable and depraved (e.g. Stannis and his treatment of his daughter), and others are seemingly good characters that are driven to violence and betrayal (e.g. Theon, Arya) though are never quite beyond redemption – something discussed further below.

They Sink Low, But Are Never Beyond Redemption

Theon and SansaOften a fantasy character will turn from good to evil, either of their own volition or through magic, corruption or madness caused by others. However, this character will rarely venture to a point where they are truly considered evil and beyond redemption by the audience.

In the Mistborn novels, a certain character (I’ll avoid saying who to avoid spoilers) is mutilated to become an Inquisitor and the pawn of the evil force at work…but he never quite loses the part of him that is good and human.

Deep Down They Were Evil To Begin With

Often in fantasy novels, a character that becomes evil is shown to have had flaws or dormant villainous tendencies from the beginning.

Voldemort was never a particularly sympathetic character, nor was Saruman (though admittedly his corruption is due in large part to the ring preying on his desire for knowledge and power). In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling the psychopath villain was disturbed and cruel from childhood, and in Daughter of Smoke and Bone the evil angel king and the wolf chimaera are portrayed as being in their very nature selfish and violent people.

SO WHY DON’T WE HAVE MORE FANTASY ANTI-HEROES?

All in all, fantasy rarely throws us protagonists like Michael Corleone, Walter White or Frank Underwood, who descend to depths of great evil and who we often secretly root for and love to hate.

Black Blade by Vladimir KrisetskiyPerhaps this is because the reversed hero’s journey is antithetical to the happy endings that are so central to the fantasy genre. We need the euphoric ending and triumph of the forces of good, and a hero becoming an anti-hero does not provide that. In fact, it’s more the structure of a tragedy. Perhaps it is because fantasy upholds the notion that characters are either essentially evil, or essentially good, and cannot change what is at their core. Perhaps it is because fantasy is a genre of hope – and even as a character spirals downward and breaks our hearts, we hope for that one act of goodness or glimpse of humanity that will redeem them in our eyes.

Regardless of the reason, it seems to be something we don’t see a lot of in the genre. So far, I haven’t encountered any fantasies that achieve a descent into evil as acute, central and irreversible as that offered by something like The Godfather.

It’s likely there are some out there that I simply haven’t encountered yet and if so, I’d be curious to see whether I would enjoy them. Because to be honest, when it comes to fantasy, I’m a fan of happy endings, redemption, and of my heroes becoming better people. I’m doubtful a fantasy with a dominant and truly reversed hero’s journey could appeal to readers. I guess I’ll have to wait for a book to come along and prove me wrong.

Title image by czarnystefan.

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7 Comments

  1. jonnyboy says:

    Does the ‘Broken Empire’ trilogy count? He’s evil from the first page, but he wasn’t always so, and he grows in power and terrible influence with each book. I don’t think there’s many ‘ reverse hero- journeys’ in general because they’re hard to do right. Hard to balance any sympathy and revulsion associated with the character in question. Not every attempt ends with Breaking Bad or The Godfather.

  2. Barnaby says:

    Apparently you’ve never read anything by Joe Abercrombie. Caul Shivers in Best Served Cold springs to mind. Logen Ninefingers also fits the description, as does Tyrion Lannister. Excellent article by the way.

  3. Splicer says:

    Joe Abercrombie excels at writing flawed and anti-heroic characters. I’m not sure how much they change insofar as they merely make decisions, both good and bad, while remaining the same flawed people.

  4. Yora says:

    In thing fantasy as a whole generally doesn’t do well with ambiguity to begin with. The majority are still fairy tales at heart, which is a genre of moral and educational stories. Uncertainty and ambiguity has no place there.

    It’s not like there’s anything about fantasy that would preclude it, it’s just not usually done.

  5. AL Zaethe says:

    Good food for thought. I was thinking about the Broken Empire trilogy myself as read this article, Jonnyboy; but I think it falls just short of that.

  6. Ray says:

    I think the fantasy shounen anime ‘Hunter x Hunter (2011)’ is a prime example of the reversed hero’s journey. Brilliant TV series, showcasing thrilling action, intriguing character studies and a well-thought-out magic system.

  7. The reversed hero’s journey is an interesting idea. It certainly is the backstory for a lot of stories. Nowadays it is practically a requirement to provide at least a synopsis of one for the main big bad. Although, on a hopeful note, we seem to be slowly getting away from the requirement that it also attempt to make the big bad a sympathetic character. Once in a while, sure, but to do it for all of them was kinda creepy and, from a cultural standpoint, probably unhealthy.

    When you asked for an example I first thought of Karl Edward Wagner’s magnificent Kane series. But his reverse hero’s journey, pretty much that of the biblical Cain, is only backstory.

    Truth to tell, his stories could be seen as an example of the hero’s tale where the protagonist is frozen on his path, whichever direction it may be in. Regardless of his successes or failures, Kane always ends each work exactly as he began. It’s part of his charm, being almost an implacable force of nature in human form. He frequently does evil but its not because he is evil, he is simply too emotionally numb to draw the line, except for those times when he gets pushed sufficiently far off balance that his rage comes out. Much evil can come of that but that’s pretty much true of anyone’s unbridled rage–he is just more likely to give his free rein than many people. He could be much more evil or good (obviously). Barry Sandler’s Casca (another biblical origin!–he is the Roman soldier who speared Christ on the cross and is doomed to wander the world until His second coming) series features another immortal who is seemingly frozen in much the same way. Both of these character sometimes save the day and those around them, other times they destroy it, never at any lasting benefit or harm to themselves (they are both eternal, cursed by God). Casca has neither a forward or reverse hero’s journey backstory, being that he was just a typical Roman soldier at the outset, one of a great many. Perhaps because of this, Casca tends more towards good, much as Kane tends more towards evil, but is really neither good nor evil, nor does he seem to be the one that experiences change. Instead, in the case of both Kane and Casca, others in the story change around them, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

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