Heroes and villains

Are you round or flat?  What about the other people in your life?  Strange question, I know.  But bear with me for a few moments.

We all have tales to tell, and all else being equal, would prefer to be the heroes of our own stories.  But those stories, of course, are populated by other characters: friends and rivals, allies and enemies.  Although we might not notice, our heroism often plays out against someone else’s villainy.  There’s a self-serving bias in the way the tale is told.

It reminds me of the distinction once made by English novelist E. M. Forster between “flat” and “round” characters in stories.  Let me illustrate.

Remember the old Western movie stereotypes?  Good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats?  Did you ever notice how one-dimensional the bad guys could be?  When I think of this, the 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance immediately springs to mind.  Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne play the idealist and the cynical realist, respectively; they are characters with complex motivations who clash over the necessity of violence in the Old West.  But the villain, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), is little more than a sneering sociopath.  Clearly, this is a man who deserves to be shot.  And the one who shoots him is a hero.

In Forster’s terminology, Liberty Valance would be a flat, one-note personification of evil.  We see nothing of his internal conflicts; we’re given no psychological analysis of his troubled childhood or romantic entanglements.  (I’m still waiting for some indie director to come out with Valance: The Untold Story.)  He’s just the person a kid would point to and say, “Mommy, he’s a bad man.”

By contrast, the dramatic leads get to be round characters.  They have mixed motives and competing values.  As characters, they have, well, character–moral complexity, depth and dimension.  And in a sense, the good guys need Valance to be flat and simple in order for them to be rounder and more complex by contrast.  They need him to be inhumanly bad for them to be humanly good.

Question: to what extent might we find similar distortions in the way we read or tell stories?  When we read the gospels, for example, do we imagine the Pharisees as nothing more than hidebound, short-sighted legalists instead of real people wrestling with real concerns?  Or when I tell my own story, to what extent do I need to justify my actions by portraying others as clueless, ill-tempered, or selfish?  How much do I have to edit out of the telling to keep others flat, so I can be virtuously round?

Psychologists tells us that we’re all prone to something called attribution bias.  When I do something wrong, my situation is to blame.  When you do something wrong, it’s because of your character flaws.  Of course, we don’t always think that way; we’re much more likely to give our friends and allies the benefit of the doubt and not malign their character.  But if our enemies do something wrong, the unexamined attitude may be: Well, of course; consider the source.

Here’s something to ponder: to what extent is this way of thinking particularly salient in an election year?

We complain about negative campaigning: the mudslinging, innuendo, and character assassination can get very tiresome very quickly.  But why do politicians do it?  Because to some extent, it works.  It’s the way we’ve learned to think: round heroes, flat villains.  Candidates don’t just try to get you to like them; they want you to dislike their opponents.  And they don’t just want you to think that the opposition’s policies are wrong; they want you to think they’re one-dimensional, simplistic, naive.  Just like the opposition.

Whichever way we vote, let’s at least be civil enough to let the candidates be real people, not just placeholders in the hero/villain tales that they or we might prefer to tell.

That’s one way, I think, of showing that we’re not merely flat characters ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Heroes and villains

  1. Why does it seem that so many Christians are fearful of discussing politics in terms of God’s standards of what is right and what is wrong; what the Bible says relative to what politicians do and say? If sin is sin and right is right then one is not necessarily “flat or round” in pointing it out. For example if Christians believe that abortion is wrong and one political side espouses it as a-ok with them, and the Christian says I want nothing to do with evil policies and cannot side with those that do, is he then merely building himself up and tearing the other side down? I think not. There are legitimate times when we must be neither flat nor round but rather bold enough to not just vote our conscience but also to proclaim the error of the oppositions position. Not for the purpose of tearing down or building up but to instruct and guide into the light of God’s truth.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think we may be speaking at different levels here. My comments are not directed at particular issues, nor am I suggesting that anyone who takes a specific and biblical position is necessarily tearing someone down to build themselves up. What I am pointing out generally is that we often have biased tendencies to see the world through hero/villain lenses, and that more specifically, this is exacerbated in the contentious atmosphere of negative campaigning. Christians can be bold on issues, but I hope never in a way that is uncivil or disrespectful in ways that reduce opponents to one-dimensional caricatures.

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