I like a plain old dastardly villain I can hate, but a seemingly evil character who gradually discovers their soft, gooey core, and crosses over to join the good guys? No matter how many times I see it, if it’s done well it still gives me the warm and fuzzies.
I was thinking of this because I’ve recently been reading the Throne of Glass series, which is full of villains that change their colours and show their softer sides, as well as morally questionable heroes and heroines in general. I’ve also finished the Red Rising trilogy, which has so many characters crossing back and forth it’s hard to tell who’ll be left standing on the “good” side in the end. Clearly, it’s something many readers, myself included, enjoy.
So what is it that’s so compelling about this ‘crossing over’ from evil to good? Here is my attempt at breaking it down:
This is probably the most obvious one, so I had to say it first. When a bad character finally takes that step to help another person and do the noble thing, it gives me hope. It’s an affirmation that even those who have done awful things can be redeemed or see the error of their ways, and that there is potential for compassion and kindness in everyone.
An evil character who changes their colours comes with all sorts of baggage that makes them complex and interesting. I find a perfect hero who is noble from the start much less engaging than a flawed anti-hero who’s fought their darker side or past in order to do the right thing… and maybe constantly fights it at each turn.
Then there’s the fact that in order to cross to the good side, “bad guys” generally have to rebel against other bad guys (often their tyrannical overlords). There’s something satisfying about seeing a character turn on someone who has misled or hurt them, and finally pull free of that dark influence.
The Power of Love
I had to mention love. Maybe its sappy, but it’s wonderful when love brings compassion to a cold heart. In a romance it’s especially heartwarming to watch a character cross the battle lines for the love of another.
The Character Arc
I love to see characters change and evolve, and there’s rarely a greater change than seeing a character switch sides and get in touch with their kinder emotions. Sometimes it goes the other way, as a good guy crosses to the dark side… and while that can be equally dramatic, it just doesn’t come with all those nice, uplifting feelings.
A New Weapon
On the less romantic side, in fantasy or science fiction a character crossing to the good side can often mean the good guys add another weapon to their arsenal, just as the bad guys lose one. This can prove crucial in tipping the balance to the side of good… and I’m all for anything that might help the good guys win.
A Truth Revealed
In some cases, the evil character has been operating under a misconception or lie, and it’s climactic when that lie is finally revealed (not to mention tense if we readers know the lie and are constantly waiting for it to be revealed). I suppose this also ties into rebellion if the newly reformed character seeks revenge on the person who lied to them.
The Suspense of Potential Disaster
The beauty of reading is that you get to see inside the characters’ heads, so you usually see a villain’s immanent change of heart looming… but the other characters don’t. As a result, I’m often held in suspense as I hope the good guys don’t kill a villain before they have a chance to reveal or prove their better intentions… or as I hope the other bad guys don’t get wind of the possible treachery and punish them for it.
A Turning Point
The moment of ‘turning’ when a character switches sides is pretty much always a climactic point in a novel. It’s surprising, it dramatically changes the story, and it becomes a memorable and exciting scene that I think about long after I’ve finished reading.
Those are just a few reasons why I love seeing villains become heroes. I avoided mentioning specific examples, even though I have plenty of favourites, as I’ve realised such moments are often spoilers – they happen at key turning points in a book and are generally unexpected and pivotal. I’d hate to spoil a book for anyone!
Do you enjoy it when cruel or evil characters reveal their softer side? And do you have any favourite bad-turned-good science fiction or fantasy characters?