So a couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of Heartless by Marissa Meyer , her take on the origin story of the Queen of Hearts from Alic...

Villains and Victims

So a couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of Heartless by Marissa Meyer, her take on the origin story of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. If you haven’t read it, basically, it’s an incredible story… but the whole time, there’s that ending, lurking eerily in the back of your mind, until it swoops down, chews out your heart, and spits it back out in your face (this is the real reason the book is called Heartless, btw. Because you end without one). As I said in my original review, the whole story got me thinking about the nature of choices: whose fault is it when everything goes awry like this? When a villain has a “sad backstory,” or even just a reason, for the things that they do, does that mean that their fall is someone else’s fault? Are they actually a villain or are they, as one quote claims, “simply a victim whose story has not yet been told?”
Original pics: Loki, Anakin
Note: some spoilers below for Heartless, Harry Potter, Flash, various Marvel films, Avatar, and Star Wars.
Cath begins her novel a romantically realistic girl, dreaming of one day owning her own bakery, working to make that ambition reality. She doesn’t begin the story insane and evil; she’s innocent, kind, and with such empathy that the thought of killing an animal for soup makes her ill. She just doesn’t have villainy in her… yet. But, as we all know, she eventually goes from this sweet girl to the infamous Queen of Hearts, brandishing a live flamingo and screaming bloody decapitation. So how does a character go from one to the other?
In a word: choices. Everyone in the novel, Cath included, makes choices, and these choices add up to the climax, where Cath is faced with an impossible choice between two of the people she loves most. In this moment, she makes the only decision one can really expect of her, which leads her down a path towards other choices, and the results just grow worse and worse. In the end, her decisions and those of other characters tally up, and she arrives at her destination: the ironically heartless Queen of Hearts. The really interesting thing is that the turning points are crystal clear: you cannot miss the moments when someone, whether Cath or another character, could’ve easily made a different choice and everyone would’ve gotten their happy ending. But there was a result that had to be reached, and so the necessary decisions were decided and the end came about as it had to for Heartless to actually be the origin story of a villain.
Choices. That’s how all of this came about. Simple choices.
The problem with choices is that when one person makes a choice in a situation like this, it will either limit the options of others or expand them. In the case of Heartless (and Star Wars and Thor and every other villain with a “sad backstory”), the choices other people make limit the ones that the future villain can make, pushing them to a point where it’s difficult for them to see any other options.
In Star Wars, Anakin is surrounded by individuals who should help him but hurt him instead. From the Council’s, at the time, unwarranted distrust to his own father figure requesting him to commit treason; from the increasing pressures of the war he’d been tossed into at age 19 to the political intrigue that, as revealed in the Revenge of the Sith novel, had his own wife keeping secrets from him, Anakin is thrust by those around him into a situation of compacted pressures, underhanded scheming, and agonizing dishonesty. This is a character who needs people and their trust and acceptance; throughout this movie, it is slowly and systematically stolen from him. And I haven’t even started on his childhood as a slave, the traumatic death of his mother, his nightmares about his wife’s death—and the fact that he cannot see what will happen to their unborn child.
Anakin is—justifiably—a mess.
In the midst of all this, he attempts to turn to the Jedi; the first thing he does is seek out Yoda’s assistance in how to keep a vision of someone’s death from coming true. However, the Grand Master tells him to rejoice for those who transform into the Force, to be happy when the people he loves die. As a Jedi, he is not even allowed to mourn or miss them, but to simply allow their lives to slip through his fingers. He cannot explain why he must save those in this vision, because the very individuals who have asked him to commit treason on their behalf would expel him from their Order and shatter his reputation if they discovered he had married. He is made to believe that there is no one he can turn to for help, and so, in a moment of panic and pain, he chooses the one that makes the most sense in the haze all around him: the Dark Lord of the Sith, who promises a way to ensure the life of his wife.
Choices. Those around him chose not to trust him; he could feel it. When he reached out for help, they placated him with platitudes that could never work for someone like him. They ignored his inhibitions, chalking them up to arrogance instead of emotional agony; they left him to drown, assuming he’d find a way to handle it all. And so, when he felt he had nothing left, he made the choice to trust Sidious instead, which led him down a path of awful choice after awful choice until he became the very thing he set out to destroy.
In Thor, we see Loki. A trickster, a teenager (by some Pinterest determinations 😉), who struggles with feelings of inferiority and craves the esteem his brother undeservingly receives. The story commences with Loki’s own actions: he unknowingly makes choices that will cause Thor and others to make choices that will one, cause Loki to discover his true heritage, and two, leave him feeling alone as he wrestles with its implications. Prior to all this, his father made choices to one, take a baby from the enemy so he could later use him politically, two, hide the truth from said baby, and three, paint the Jotuns—said baby’s own people—as soulless devils, the “monsters parents tell their children about at night.” This line reveals a cultural hatred for the Jotuns, and these choices cause Loki to be terrified of himself; the desperation that had been quiet roars into view. This is the reason Thor received the crown, this is the reason Loki is always passed over. Because he is Jotun. He must prove that he is not at any cost. He must demonstrate to his father that he too is worthy in spite of his background. And so, Loki makes choices that set him on a path to becoming one of the best and worst villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Choices. Those around him did not directly address his disappointment, they allowed small slights to go unseen for approximately a thousand years; they let him believe his entire life that he was born to be king, only to put Thor on the throne when he clearly would have (and nearly did) ruin Asgard in a day. Loki snaps, determined to obtain what he believes he deserves and prove to his father that he is a worthy son. He did not want the throne, only to be Thor’s equal, but in the end, he receives neither. The result of these choices is defeat, brokenness, and exile.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we see Zuko a young boy who loses his mother, is emotionally abused by his sister, verbally and physically abused by his father, and eventually, banished for the all-so-horrible act of loyalty to his country’s soldiers. After years of this mistreatment, Zuko is certain his family hates him, and so he is determined to do whatever it takes to regain their, in particular his father’s, love.
In all of these cases (and others), the victims experienced something traumatizing, often at the hand of another, often one who should’ve taken care of them. The traumatic event is piled on top of years of smaller issues, and they just snap, willing to do whatever it takes to escape the hurt, fear, and anger, to find love, inner peace, or acceptance. In the course of their quests, they somehow get sidetracked and become a person they never actually intended to be
These poor victims become villains, and it is all due to the choices of those around them. Sad, right?
Well... yes and no. Actually, mostly no.
Because right alongside these “victims,” you have Harry Potter, who was orphaned at one, forced to live inside a cupboard for years, surrounded from the beginning by adults who should’ve protected him but instead did everything from abusing and neglecting him to using him as a sacrificial lamb for their own “greater good.” He was physically and emotionally wounded in almost every book, endured the disdain and ridicule of the entire wizarding world for years, and continually lost friends and loved ones to this great and powerful Dark Lord that he magically had to find a way to defeat. Yet he did a find way to defeat him, yet he is the Boy Who Lived, and he is the hero of the Wizarding World.
You have Steve Rogers, who also lost both parents at a young age, was generally poor, often bullied, and plagued by physical diseases and disorders, from heart palpitations to scarlet fever, in a time when men were supposed to be strong and physically capable. He dies to save the world, only to be awakened decades later to fight yet another war for the same thing he just finished dying to protect the world from. He loses everyone he knew and loved and has to completely reacquaint himself with time and reality. Yet he is Captain America, the Marvel symbol of justice, freedom, and righteousness, an individual who fights daily and self-sacrificially simply because he “doesn’t like bullies” and he wants to help “the little guy.”
You have CW’s Barry Allen, who lost his mother before his eyes, grew up with his father imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, makes mistakes, falls down, gets hurt all the time. He loses friends and family by the season—yet he continues to stand up for Central City every time they need him, and he consistently gives all of himself to help his friends and save his city.
You have Superman, whose planet was destroyed, who grows up a literal alien with powers that make others fear him, who owes the world nothing, yet saves it and saves it and saves it, and stands as a standard and inspiration for all heroes everywhere. You even have Zuko, who, eventually, realizes that his own choices define his worth, and turns from his family’s evil to fight for his world’s good. There’s Batman, Spiderman, Supergirl, Murtagh of the Inheritance Cycle, and a whole host of other heroes who have a sad backstory, and yet choose to save the world anyway.
And that is the difference between Victims as Villains and Victims as Heroes: choices.
Yes, people around them made awful choices that limited the ones they had remaining. Yes, it’s excruciating to see where they could’ve been helped and were hurt or ignored instead. Yes, there are those who could’ve cleared their path and instead threw obstacles in their way. Yes, there’s a deep pain in each of them that others instigated and agitated, instead of helping to alleviate. But, at the end of the day, there was always another choice besides the one that they took: some victims picked the choices that turned them into villains and some victims picked the choices that turned them into victors.
All didn’t have to be lost. But the victims who became villains chose to believe that it was and the victims who became heroes chose to believe that it wasn’t.
Choices. That is why villains are villains.
Because of the choices others made, leading up to the choices they made, when they chose wrong instead of right.
Choices. That is why heroes are heroes.
Because of the choices others made, leading up to the choices they made, when they chose right instead of wrong.
So what do you guys think? What makes a person a hero or a villain? Who are some of your favorites of the two? Can't wait to hear from you, and I'll see you in the comment section!

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  1. Great post Alexa! I completely agree it's how we respond to bad situations, it's definitely a choice.

  2. I agree with it being a choice and the villain also being a victim in a way. Sometimes terrible people create even more terrible people and though it is a person's choice to do good or bad, people should avoid bullying.

    I heard that a certain terrorist who is no longer alive used to be bullied when he was in school. Interesting...

    1. So true! There's a part of them that is a victim, but it's their choice that turns them into a villain.

      And absolutely! People should always abstain from bullying.

  3. I definitely love discussions like this because being a villain vs hero is NEVER super black and white! I think it is about choices and circumstances. Like some people will be forced into bad choices by their circumstances and it can actually be unavoidable. Or like people who do bad things to do good things. (Ex. stealing to feed their family.) It's all really interesting, especially thinking about the psychological view of how life affects actions!

    1. That's true. I was focusing only on those who decide to become supervillains when I wrote this post, as opposed to grayer, Robin-Hood type characters, but it is true: there are many complications when it comes to these kinds of stories, and it's always fascinating to explore them all. :)


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