Back in March, I wrote about redemption arcs and what makes them effective. Today, I’m going to talk about the flip side: fallen heroes.
I might incite some rage from Star Wars fans, but I don’t think that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force is all that compelling, even though Darth Vader himself is an interesting villain. A lot of the plot for Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith seems like it relies on chance and Anakin buying Emperor Palpatine’s propaganda, even though he’s quite intelligent. This makes for poor storytelling: as Anakin descends into madness, I’m left feeling ripped off.
As with redemption arcs, compelling fallen hero arcs come down to motivation: what does the Dark Side offer that the Light Side doesn’t?
One character who embodies this struggle well is Faith Lehane from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Taking Steps Towards Villainy
In the Buffy verse, there is only one slayer: when one slayer dies, the next one is called. At the end of Season One, Buffy dies and comes back to life a few minutes later, but it’s enough for a new slayer to be called: Kendra. She, unfortunately, doesn’t last very long, and another slayer is called yet again. This time, it’s Faith.
Faith joins the show at the beginning of Season Three and, over the course of the season, goes from fighting with the Scoobies to fighting against them in a clear progression from hero to villain. She takes a series of steps before turning evil, which is what makes her descent into villainy believable.
Step 1: Looking for a New Team
Faith comes to Sunnydale without her Watcher, telling the Scoobies that he’s at a Watchers’ Retreat in London. She joins the team and immediately charms the Scoobies with her stories of wild adventures, like the time she wrestled an alligator. However, to Buffy it looks like Faith is trying to steal her friends, and she remains distant. Faith later reveals that she lied about her Watcher’s whereabouts and that he was brutally murdered by the vampire Kakistos. This starts to sow early seeds of distrust between Faith and Buffy.
Step 2: Feeling Like and Outcast
As much as Faith tries to be part of the team, she never seems to find her groove. She starts to see Buffy as the embodiment of everything she didn’t have growing up: a stable home, a loving mother, and good friends.
You get the sense that Faith started to feel sure of herself when she became a slayer. She found stability with her Watcher and purpose in her ability to fight vampires (not to mention fun). But, with the Scoobies, she’s not the leader. And, after they leave her out of some important conversations, Faith loses her trust in them.
Step 3: Betrayal
Faith gets a new Watcher, Gwendolyn Post, who only uses her to gain access to a powerful magical item. Once again, someone has used Faith without care for her well-being, and the betrayal stings.
Step 4: Cataclysmic Event
If an effort to deal with some of her own issues, Buffy tries Faith’s way of things. They go on a whirlwind spree: skipping school, attacking a vampire nest during the day, and robbing a weapons store. But everything goes wrong when Faith accidentally kills a human. Buffy wants her to confess right away, but Faith won’t do it. She realizes that she will never live up to Buffy’s standards or be truly accepted by the Scooby Gang.
Step 5: Looking for a New Team – Take 2
Faith turns to Season Three’s villain, Mayor Richard Wilkins (a sorcerer bent on becoming a full-blood demon, who presents as a conservative family man), to offer her services as a slayer for hire. He accepts, and the two quickly form a strong bond. Wilkins appreciates Faith’s abilities but, more than that, he appreciates her as a person. He becomes a father figure to her; he buys her an apartment and other expensive gifts. He fills a vacant role in her life after her own father was absent.
Letting Small Hurts Build Up
The thing Faith wanted more than anything in the world was acceptance and belonging, something I think we can all identify with. But, she couldn’t find it with the supposed heroes, and so she turned to the one person who could offer those things.
Faith’s progression from hero to villain can be seen as a bunch of little hurts that build up until they explode in one significant event.
When writing your own fallen heroes, start with their motivation. What do they want more than anything else? Then you can figure out why they can’t find that with the heroes. If your Fallen Hero’s motivations are clear, your readers will understand their struggle and engage in their story.