When Villains Go Hero

Dragonball Z

On-going series will have multiple villains in order to keep things fresh.  You need different enemies with a variety of ambitions to make sure it’s not the same adventure over and over again.  Yet, you run into a problem down the road with the earlier villains that might fall into one of the following categories:

  1. No longer powerful enough to be a threat to the hero.
  2. Become so popular with fans that it’s hard to keep them evil.
  3. Naturally mellows over time because of repeated encounters with heroes.
  4. No more evolution, but still potential.

You can junk the villain or turn them into the minion of another, but many will give them the redemption arc.  Dragonball is famous for this considering Piccolo, Yamcha, Tien, Vegeta, Buu, Android 16, and others have gone from villain to hero.  Some have done the jump faster than others, but they all end up on the heroic side.  This opens them up to a new evolution and extends their lifespan.  They make friends and get chances to win fights, which improves their reputation in the world.  Some go on to get married and have kids who carry on the adventure.  It establishes a legacy for them, which wouldn’t have happened if they stayed as a villain.

In Legends of Windemere: Path of the Traitors, I did this with a few villains.  The big one was Queen Trinity who went from villain to bitter rival to ally over the course of the story.  Her evolution was more obvious than others since it was clear early on that she had heroic tendencies.  This is something to consider when deciding on making a bad guy a hero or killing them off.  Have them demonstrated the potential to do good?  It can be forced with technology or magic, but that can be a role that doesn’t stick since it doesn’t feel natural.  So, you need to take the villain’s personality into account here.  One who loves nothing more than murdering is a difficult change while one who wants to rule the world can go hero if the other villains are out to destroy things.  You can have villains grow out of their ambitions after being a hero for a bit because they can find something more worthwhile, but you need to be gentle about it.  Blunt changes will ruin the character and those around them.

Some people might be yelling CLICHE at this point.  You’re right because this is a plot device used many times over the centuries.  One could go far back to the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ and say that Enkidu is a villain/counter force of the hero who became an ally to him.  All of this works of the redemption concept, which is a staple of writing and human nature.  We all want to see that people who do bad things are either punished or given a way to redeem themselves.  Those who cannot turn back get the first and those who show hints of heroism get the second.  It’s really hard to call this a cliche because it happens so much in real life.  Most people don’t stay on the same straight path.  They have turns and twists and dips, which vary in size.  A hero who begins as a villain may be more crooked than an average person, but it’s still a realistic path.

So, what do you think about villains who become heroes?  Overdone?  Difficult or easy?  Part of human nature?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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34 Responses to When Villains Go Hero

  1. L. Marie says:

    Queen Trinity is a really good example, because she is a well-rounded character. Her arc is believable.
    I don’t mind when villains turn good if they have a compelling reason for doing so. As you mentioned, this needs a gentle touch and the possibility of foreshadowing. I can’t help thinking of Zuko in Avatar. He was the antagonist for a long while. His arc was believable. He became one of my favorite characters.
    You can keep readers guessing with the possibility of a villain turned hero’s betrayal later, since this person will usually act out of his/her own self-interest.
    The main reason why a villain turned hero never seems cliche or old to me is because the person doesn’t think of himself or herself as a villain. He or she fights for what he/she believes in. Stealing from others might be what he/she believes in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zuko was an interesting story. Even at the start, he had aspects that showed he could go full hero or villain. People seem to like that type of evolution.

      Excellent point on the perception of self that a villain usually has.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Trinity was a good convert but I’m not so sure there are a ton of others. I like my villains to be rotten to the core and more or less die that way.

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  3. ospreyshire says:

    Good examples. I feel like a lot of people who only watched DBZ didn’t know most of those other Z-fighters and other allies started out as antagonists or other rivals back in Dragon Ball.

    It’s good when a villain has a legitimate reason to turn good like maybe they have sympathetic traits or they’re abused one too many times by another villain for example. Then again, people in real life think they are the protagonist in their own stories though.

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    • True. I think Goku and Gohan are the only ones who weren’t. Not sure if we count Roshi, Bulma, and Chi-Chi.

      As one person put it, the idea that one is the hero does open the door for a turn. Once they realize that they’re not, there’s a good chance they’ll stop and switch to make it true.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Pretty much to the best of my memory. It’s no wonder why Goku is a poster child for the “defeat equals friendship/face turn” trope.

        Of course. It’s also why a lot of villains that are just saying “I’m so evil! MUAHAHAHA!” can be quite boring and one-dimensional unless it’s some kind of parody or satirical character.

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      • He is a master at beating villains into being besties. I mean, it’s not a horrible trope since mutual respect can occur from a rivalry. Just not so consistently. I half expect Cell to join in on it.

        The all evil villain definitely lacks depth. It can be done though. At least I think it can. Had a villain who was evil and loved it, but it all revolved around power. Once he lost the power in a situation, he freaked.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        That is all too true about Goku. Haha! I don’t mind the trope that much on principle, but it’s crazy how frequent it is with that character. It’s really not surprising if that happened with Cell. I haven’t seen Super, but I know Frieza teams up with the Z-Fighters and I was like “Wait? What?! WHY?!?”

        Yeah, and it can be quite tedious for me. I can understand if it’s more of a comedic villain where you can do funny things with that self-awareness about being a villain, but as a serious character, I find it overdone. That’s interesting about him focusing on power until he loses it.

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      • I heard about Frieza. A friend said he was still dead and forced to work with them. Not sure if they made him a permanent member. Guess they went for mutual enemy.

        I guess for a serious character it’s difficult. Full villainy is cartoonish even in real life because you wonder how someone can be that devoid of good. With this guy, I had his love of causing pain and desire for power hide a fairly pathetic core. He wanted these things to make himself feel better and thought causing pain was the only way to show strength. Fairly twisted and he was fine with it. Although, he was half demon, so that might be a subconscious factor on my part.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Yeah, I wondered how that all happened with that team up. That does sound believable, but I wonder how that situation could’ve ever happened for one of Goku’s top adversaries to fight alongside him. Maybe there was some mutual enemy to fight. I don’t know.

        Definitely. Those characters wouldn’t exist in real life (from a personality standpoint), so it can be hard to believe even in the context of fiction. The half demon part could certainly work. However, I’m sure there are humans who have that sense of sadism as a sick coping method to feel strong.

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      • I forgot the name of the bad guy, but I think it was this cat god of destruction. It threatened everything in existence, which I guess is a higher stake than those that only threatened a planet or two. I haven’t watched any of the newer DBZ stuff and I’m not sure where it fits into the timeline.

        I don’t know. I think there are people out there who are evil and revel in that. It might not be strength, but joy that it instills in them for some reason. It is funny how we can believe that there are people that are pure good and those that are a mix, but true evil is something we have trouble believing in. We need to find a reason for a person to turn that way as if we all start good and pure of heart.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        I haven’t seen the newer shows, but I know what character you’re talking about. His name is Beerus. I’m not sure where it fits in the timeline, but I’m sure it’s better than GT.

        Perhaps. Maybe they keep it hidden or excuse their actions especially if they feel or know they can get away from it. I’m not sure if everyone is purely good in real life. I do wonder how anyone can make that turn to do evil and heinous things.

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      • Yeah. GT had some fun parts and characters. I wasn’t a fan of Goku being turned into a kid again.

        I’ve wondered that too. Sometimes I think it can’t be understood without going too far into the abyss myself.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Of course. GT had some fun moments, but it got crazy with Goku turning into a kid, didn’t follow it’s own world-building, and there was an unfortunate implication of Pan not becoming a Super Saiyan although I heard they fixed that with the new series which shows a female Super Saiyan character to negate the sexist subtext in GT.

        Sure thing. That’s a good point and I do fear what one could find if one stares too deep into said abyss.

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      • I totally forgot about Pan. The series overall has never been the best towards it’s female characters. Then again, it tends to push aside anyone who isn’t a Saiyan. Makes it hard to be a fan of the other characters.

        I assume eyes staring back at you. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        I don’t blame you if you forgot about her. I do agree that so many of the female characters haven’t been treated well or any male protagonist who isn’t a Saiyan (the closest is Piccolo and even then he doesn’t get as much shine as Goku or Vegeta). That does annoy me when you had a hero team, but only some of the characters are shown as useful.

        Yeah, I was leaning into that famous quote.

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      • There’s actually a manga series that deals with Yamcha. Sort of. It’s called ‘The Time I Got Reincarnated as Yamcha’. I haven’t read it, but the concept is a boy who is a Dragonball fan is reincarnated as Yamcha and uses his knowledge while going through the previous events. It sounds goofy, but I think it’s supposed to put a spotlight on an otherwise discarded character.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        I didn’t know about this. Could the title be a parody of That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime? That does sound like an interesting concept.

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      • I thought so too. It’s real.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Oh, wow. Was this an official (albeit non-canon) adaptation even though it’s not written by Akira Toriyama?

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      • Apparently, the writer/artist was handpicked by the Dragonball publisher. He was chosen because he did a lot of fanart and Yamcha was one of his favorites.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Really? That must certainly be an honor for him to be handpicked. This makes sense, actually.

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  4. I actually loved seeing the gradual change in villains as they turn into heroes, especially with Dragon Ball Z where Picollo is still reluctant about being a “good guy” but does it anyway because of his close bond with Gohan, who he also sacrificed himself for in the later episodes.

    I think Dragon Ball Z features a lot of villains turning into heroes and that’s mostly due to Goku’s personality.

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    • Dragonball has always had that twist. Even Krillin started as a minor antagonist and rival. It does get a little silly at some point though. I mean, Goku’s personality shouldn’t be able to win over so many people with such consistency. Still, they made the shift nicely without it being stretched.

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  5. I am loving this series of posts. I think a lot of them stem from longevity. Writing a comic or a cartoon of some kind has to involve reaching a point of, “What the hell do I do now?” I’m a noob at this series stuff and always try to leave it all on the page for my books. Coming up with subsequent tales is difficult at best. Redeeming a villain might look like a lifeboat to some writers.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Depending on how serious your series is over all, redeeming a villain can have a different meaning in context. If your series is naturally dark, I think you’d go with the death/punishment of the villain. In a dark series, redeeming them would seem like a cheap out. But if the series is light and upbeat over all, redeeming the villain would fit better. It would make the whole thing more hopeful for readers who are looking for that.

    Personally, I’m more of a “let the reader decide” persuasion. If I have a villain in that gray zone where they could change, maybe I’d let them settle down and try to build a life. Or I’d send them on a journey to discover what they believe now that the major events are settled. Then the reader can think in their own mind whether the former villain is likely to succeed in making a new life, or if they’d give up on that and slip back into darkness.

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    • I get the reader deciding thing. Although, I don’t think I could do it. Most story requests I’ve gotten from readers come with a lot of flaws. Nuances are missed or replaced by ones own perception. This happens many times with villains getting redeemed because everyone has their own level of forgiveness. For example, there are some who think Trinity should have never been redeemed because she did evil things. Others say she should because of her situation and how other villains were worse.

      Dark stories do make redemption more difficult. I think it depends on the crimes of the villain. If they aren’t the ones causing the darkness then I think it can be done.

      Liked by 1 person

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