A literary type is any class of characters that might be present in a novel (or a stage or motion picture or television script) for any of a variety of purposes. Some types are basic and can be found in most projects. Other types are intended primarily to illustrate a similar class of persons in real life.
At least two types must be present in any well-written story (unless the story is entirely event-driven and not character-driven). They are called the hero and the villain—but each of those two names has acquired an often confusing connotation.
- Main article: Hero
A literary hero is any character who, in the course of the story, must make a decision that changes his or her life in order to meet the challenge presented to him or her. The hero is also the main character of the story. Opinions differ on how many heroes a story can have before it becomes hopelessly confusing.
Classically, a hero behaves in a virtuous manner, and pursues a goal generally regarded as good. In any context other than the literary, a hero is just that: a virtuous actor in a crisis, and usually one who must act above and beyond the call of civic or other duty, by reason of failure to prevent the crisis by those normally responsible for such prevention.
But a literary hero is different. A hero in a novel or script must make a judgment (for that is what a crisis is, an occasion calling for judgment), and must judge not only the specific circumstances but also his current and previous approach to such circumstances. That usually requires him to change his way of thinking about a subject, and might even require him to change his notions of good and evil.
- Main article: Anti-hero
When the hero of a story behaves in a non-virtuous manner, and serves the cause of evil rather than good, he is an anti-hero. Some of the most compelling characters in literature are in fact anti-heroes. They might have decided that the notions of the good of all of society are inverted, and that they are the ones pursuing good, regardless of the opinions of the rest of society.
- Main article: Antagonist
Most observers believe that a literary villain is simply the story's antagonist. This is not correct, because the term villain describes a mental state and not a role.
A literary villain is any character who never changes his mind or his goals or his outlook in the course of the novel, unless an overwhelming force, physical or psychological, compels him so to act. A villain approaches life, and his goals, with single-minded determination, and cares nothing of what anyone, ally or adversary or bystander, might think of his actions.
More to the point, the villain will be stopped only by his:
- Total defeat, or
- Voluntary and unconditional surrender.
The anti-villain is rarely encountered in literature, because most villains do what they do from motives of selfish gain or vengeance, and use methods generally regarded as evil. But occasionally a story will contain one or more single-minded characters who actually are serving the cause of good rather than evil, and justice rather than mere personal vindication. Such a character is an anti-villain. Like a classical villain, he will be stopped only by death, defeat or surrender. Unlike the classic villain, his cause is just rather than unjust.
An allegorical type is any character drawn specifically to resemble a class of persons in real life.
Any character in a work of fiction, whether major or minor, could be an allegorical type. A hero is not usually an allegorical type, but he could be (and an anti-hero is more likely than a hero to be allegorical).
A villain is almost always allegorical, though not necessarily so. An anti-villain, if he is not allegorical, is simply a larger-than-life character that represents an ideal.
Examples from popular literature
Luke Skywalker, in the Star Wars cycle, is definitely a hero. Not only does he work with and serve other characters in a just cause, but also—and most important—in the course of the three installments of that cycle in which he appears, Luke Skywalker must make a life-changing decision, based on a perspective that changes his entire sense of his life, and accept the consequences of that decision. It is not enough that Luke Skywalker joins the rebellion and accepts training as a Jedi Knight (though he breaks that training at a critical moment, a mistake that nearly costs him his life). As his instructors make clear, he must face a brutal fact: that his father, whom he had long assumed had died by an act of murder, is in fact his foremost antagonist, and that he, Luke, is likely to become just as evil as his father did if he is not careful with the Force with which he has chosen to play.
Anakin Skywalker, also known as Darth Vader, is clearly the anti-hero of the first three (chronological) installments in the series. He means well to begin with, but in the end succumbs to the blandishments of Senator (later Emperor) Palpatine and devotes himself to evil rather than good. In the next three installments, Darth Vader appears as a villain—but in fact Darth Vader is still an anti-hero, and in the very last installment makes the crucial decision to defect from the cause of evil when his own son comes under mortal threat. That decision costs him his life, but in the after-life his former instructors welcome him into the club of old Jedi Knights powerful enough to continue to influence people and events even after death.
Palpatine is, of course, the chief villain in all six installments. Like any villain, he is stopped only by death. Obi-wan Kenobi qualifies as a hero in the first three installments and an anti-villain in the next three.
In that novel, and in the motion picture based upon it, Professor Annorax, his aide Conseil, and Able Seaman Ned Land are the heroes. Captain Nemo is the villain, and displays all the characteristics of one: single-mindedness of purpose, an insane drive for vengeance, and in the end, not stopping until he is fatally wounded.
This novel originally appeared in serial form in a magazine popular during the lifetime of its author, Alexandre Dumas the elder ("Dumas-père"). As a result, the identification of the novel's heroes and villains is often confused in the minds of its readers. In fact, Edmond Dantès, the title character, is not the hero, and given his total disregard for the lives of his opponents, he behaves as a villain during most of the course of the novel. His sudden decision to preserve rather than sacrifice the lives of Vicomte Albert de Morcerf and Mdlle. Valentine de Villefort is not so much a life-changing decision as a voluntary surrender to certain persons who have a claim upon him that he cannot deny. In the end he still considers that he was correct in his pursuit of the three nominal villains (Baron Danglars, Comte Fernand de Morcerf, and Gérard de Villefort), and when he has satisfied the prior claims of Mme. Mercédès, Comtesse de Morcerf and of Maximilien Morrel, he retires completely from Western society, never to appear in it again.
The heroes of this novel are Lieutenant Maximilien Morrel and the above-mentioned Valentine de Villefort, and to a lesser extent Comtesse Mercédès and Vicomte Albert de Morcerf. They are the ones who must struggle to realize their respective goals, and summon all the courage they each possess in order to obtain them. Part of that courage is the decision that each of them makes even to trust the Count of Monte-Cristo in their endeavors.
Most readers of this novel by Ayn Rand mistakenly identify John Galt as the hero. This is not correct, because John Galt and his two friends, Francisco d'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold, are single-minded men who do not allow anyone's feelings, either theirs or those of any other persons, to deter them from their goals. Because their cause happens to be just, they qualify as anti-villains rather than villains. They are not stopped, and never once do any of these men have the point-of-view in any scene.
The two heroes of Atlas Shrugged are, of course, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden. Each of these characters must make a life-changing decision and a re-evaluation of the world and its conventions in order to achieve their personal goals.
The novel does have its share of villains, including James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, Floyd Ferris, and Robert Stadler. Ironically, they barely qualify as villains because they display what some regard as the characteristic of insanity: repeating the same action no matter how many times that action proves futile. They are perhaps the most inept villains in the popular literature of the last hundred years.