How to transform a tragic hero into a villain?

First things first: let there be a tragic hero with some (yet undefined) personal characteristics. Let there also be a grim world, in which the stories take place (no fairies, knights in shining armor and unicorns, please).

Now, from the standpoint of narrative, story telling and/or role playing, let's knock down the hero from the mountain of heroism deep into the pit of villainy. My question is: how to make such a transformation a great story? I.e. how to transform the hero into a villain in a theatrically rich way?

From an abstract perspective, a pitfall of a hero might involve some "powers that be" playing the weaknesses of a hero against his own, making him "lose it". A bonus sub-question is: which personal characteristics/weaknesses are a good starting point to prepare a pitfall?

And from the applied point of view, i'd really, really like to see examples that are distinct from the ever-lasting cliche of losing a loved one (an example: a good guy's wife dies, and so the guy decides to project this newly acquired pain of his on all the surroundings).

• Playing a few games of Fiasco would give armfuls of examples of how good intentions can result in terrible people. – SevenSidedDie Jul 14 '12 at 22:54
• Is the character in question a PC or an NPC? – GMJoe Jul 24 '12 at 7:24

Borrow from the story of Walter White wikipedia

Might I suggest watching the AMC TV series Breaking Bad? wikipedia It is the story of the transformation of a low-key high school chemistry teacher into a drug lord.

American author and essayist Chuck Klosterman said that Breaking Bad is "built on the uncomfortable premise that there's an irrefutable difference between what's right and what's wrong, and it's the only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live." ... the central question of Breaking Bad is "What makes a man 'bad' — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person?" ...[I]n the world of Breaking Bad, "goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else."

The story of the downfall of a distressed man, not because of evil intent of others, but because of events random and of his own choice can be very compelling.

If you can't think up the reasons for someone to turn someone to the dark path, just take each item in Walter White's personal history and map it to something similar for your budding villain.

Here's some example possible mappings:

              Walter White          NPC
Job:          H.S. teacher   ->    Tax collector
Crisis:       Cancer diagnosis ->  Now being blackmailed for an old dalliance
Complication: Wife pregnant ->     Mother needs $$meds Choice: Cook meth for$$$-> Doctor tax records for$


Then do the same for each of the season summaries until he's deep enough in the dark hole to be your brilliant, rational, and normal - evil baddie.

Once you've woven that narrative in your mind, you'll have a beloved arch-nemesis for your heroes. After all, he's got completely legitimate reasons for the choices he made. Oh, yeah, and always allow for a way of escape if they confront him early. Don't want to waste all that characterization without sharing it!

Just, whatever you do, don't clone the hackneyed story of the downfall of Anakin Skywalker.

• +1 for not cloning the hackneyed story of Anakin Skywalker. Oh, and for actually having a good post. – Joe Jul 13 '12 at 22:06
• Now this is quite a maslowian take on the problematic (as in Maslow's hierarchy of needs). I.e. a rich, acknowledged, loved, educated and influential person has a lot of freedom on his hands, and so he/she can merely philosophize on the nature of good and evil. On the other side of the spectrum is a homeless, starving person, who doesn't have many choices left - simply, either steal some food and live till the next day or perish from malnutrition. From this unpleasant standpoint, all the social theories look like mocking jokes. – John Jul 14 '12 at 9:16
• @Johnny Are you comparing Walter's plight to a poor person? If so, you're spot on. Walter's "evil" is orders of magnitude worse than the hungry food-thief. In fact, he makes the drugs that harm those less fortunate than him. – F. Randall Farmer Jul 14 '12 at 16:19

Tragic heroes can become villains when they decide the ends justify the means. As their willingness to do "whatever it takes" to achieve what they consider to be righteous goals grows, "whatever it takes" tends to become more and more terrible.

As with blackmail, these things start small and snowball: once you've lied to the king about how his lost son died to keep him from going mad with grief, it becomes easier to justify to yourself assassinating the evil chancellor who knows the truth, which in turn makes it easier to convince yourself that it's OK to torture a captured spy to find out who he's working for, which in turn makes it easier to accept torturing a villager that might be a spy, and so on.

After the hero is well down the path to evil, his/her friends & allies, who haven't been aware of these deeds, witness the next one, something truly horrific; without the benefit of the chain of justifications the hero has built in his/her mind, they see the hero for the monster s/he has become. The sense of betrayal the hero feels when their allies reject them then pushes them further towards being a villain: after all the hard work the hero has done, all the sacrifices they've made, the people they're trying to save abandon them?!

A hero generally won't tumble down this path on their own, but with some mental manipulation by dark powers, or possibly blackmail or other extortion (if they can still justify their actions to themselves by saying that it's for the good of the people), they can fall surprisingly quickly.

As I pointed out in the comments discussion, very few people see themselves as villains, and even fewer want to. People, even heroes, can do all kinds of things as long as they can justify it to themselves. That's also what makes the hero's allies abandoning them work: from the outside, it's obvious they're doing it because the hero has become a monster, but in the hero's eyes it's an inexplicable betrayal, because the hero still sees him or herself as "the good guy".

• The phase regarding the former allies turning their backs on the now-villain is an interesting concept indeed (applauds for that). As for the the first phase, where the end justifies the means, i'm not so convinced that such a strategy may often lead to a downfall of a hero. First off, this machiavelian strategy (in modern terms also known as utilitarianism) is being used by the politicians all around the globe on a daily basis. Secondly, it would require an extremely weak person with no self-regulation to get from point A (little white lies) to point Z (random tortures just to make sure). – John Jul 13 '12 at 21:02
• On its own, yes, utilitarianism generally doesn't make it to point Z. With the help of blackmail or other external pressures (dark powers instilling a sense of paranoia?), however, it can do quite well, particularly if the hero can also justify their actions as being for the greater good. – Oblivious Sage Jul 13 '12 at 21:13
• Well, that's a good point. A hero struck with something like manic schizophrenia may easily get to point Z, even skipping a dozen letters of the alphabet on one single move. – John Jul 13 '12 at 21:20
• +1 for everything. Snowball, rationalization and most especially the last paragraph. Philosophy course I'm taking atm speaking up here - check out Thomas Aquinas for some serious backing to that. As well as a great deal of others. Great answer, very thorough analysis – LitheOhm Nov 16 '12 at 0:13
• @John ...Your argument that politicians use machiavelian tactics may have made the opposite point that you intended for it to make. – kleineg Sep 24 '19 at 20:08

There recently was a very good comic, Irredeemable that followed this story line (along with a transformation in the other direction, Incorruptible). I'd recommend that one- it has a pretty good twist for a Paragon-Type hero becoming the most despicable of villains.

The hook was that he was always despicable, arising from a couple of unique problems. In his origin, he was shaped by a mentally ill mother (Munchhausen's Syndrome) that damaged him from birth. Added to that was a step-father than was able to shape him into a force for good, but had a problem with 'never being appreciated' when he did his own deeds.

Aside from that example, I'm actually taking a character through this currently- the hook was a push to the dark side as old conditioning temporarily takes hold (he had amnesia as to the powers that had shaped him, which made him into the hero he was). He personally is going through a fight between three warring sides of his psyche (who he thought he was, who he had been conditioned to be, and who he really was before he was brainwashed), and the perceptions of others now that they've seen his brainwashed side in action.

Added to that complication is the fact that he's not been able to prove that his evil actions were a result of his former conditioning, so the other characters have to decide whether to take him at his word or not.

One thing in all of this, and one thing that I think is key in an effective transformation on this scale is choice. That free will can be constrained by his own internal conflicts, the perceptions and experiences of those around him, or any manner of other obstacles. But there has to be choice, no matter how fleeting, for it to be truly effective and dramatic.

• While a nice example indeed, i do think that your character would be pretty much doomed to villainy in the real world. And why is that? The character is too complex for the average observer to understand - and if one doesn't understand something, he/she fears and/or dislikes it. – John Jul 14 '12 at 9:31

Start with the seven deadly sins, my favorite being pride. Pride is a wonderful one, because you can have great heroes who start out selfless saviors who corrupt themselves. The praise. The rewards. The reputation.

Consider Shakespeare - such as Macbeth. Life was pretty good for MB at the beginning. Loved and praised by the king and his men. Victorious in battle. Then a group of hags suggest something greater - a secret dream he's held, but would not otherwise act on. He never would have gone forward with his plans without a) a harbinger of greater reward (hags) and b) confirmation and compulsion by a trusted confidant (Lady MB).

Pull out some nuggets from great stories -

• someone you do not know who may have some sort of authority or foreknowledge says you deserve more

• someone you DO know insists its true, perhaps even creating some event that makes it possible to move forward

• some possible consequence can ruin everything; however resolving the consequence is contrary to your values - do you bite the bullet or do you cross the line and become the monster?

If your world is divided into a pretty objective good and evil and the hero becomes a villain by moving from good to evil then this is more difficult, because it's a big (and therefore improbable) change in personality. So it's pretty tough not to make it seem contrived, and not to completely repeat a cliche.

If the people in your world are like people in the real world, they pretty much all think of themselves as the heroes of their own story, and only play the role of the villain in the perception of others. So they may not have to change personality at all to become villains, they may just need their circumstances to change so that others perceive them that way.

For example (similar to JohnP's example, though I thought of it before I read his answer), a hero might be an idealistic, charismatic leader that overthrows a tyrant. But he isn't a good ruler. Maybe he trusts those who helped him overthrow the tyrant too much, even though some of them have happily helped themselves to the rewards of power. Now he's been forced to use some of the tactics the former tyrant used to keep power, because he fears the next ruler will be worse than he has had to become. He fights against the PCs with everything he has because he thinks they will be part of that.

You asked for a theatrically rich way to stage this, so how about if the Hero's tragic flaw that makes him into a villain is the same thing that made him a hero? In many tragedies the fatal flaw is just the other side of a positive trait essential to the character, and had the hero been destined for a kinder fate that dark side might never have mattered. Othello might have gotten away with loving not wisely but too well if not for Iago, Romeo and Juliette's youth and impetuousness were essential to what made them "heroic" but need not have lead to their death.

So you can pretty much think of whatever heroic traits fit your campaign, and think about how they could go bad (without really changing the hero). Loyalty could be to the wrong person or cause. Bravery can be foolish, dragging others down with you. Virtuous can become judgmental, or hidebound and unable to adapt. Generosity can be misplaced, or ruinously excessive, or require going to far to attain things to be generous with. Refusing to let the ends justify the means could lead to the hero fighting desperately against those (such as player characters) trying to avert tragedy.

To quote from Hamlet:

But, orderly to end where I begun,

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown;

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own

• Yes indeed, good and evil are just morally relative terms, in the environment of the real world. Come to think of it, this pretty much goes hand in hand with social psychology, where a person interprets his/her own doings as good, in order to maintain a positive self-image. And the evil can be attributed to the people opposing our decisions and/or threatening our own self-image. – John Jul 14 '12 at 9:25
• In Bangkok Dangerous, the main chatracter is, basically, an assassin (that kills the competitors of a kinpin for his money, but he would kill whoever for whoever money) and his "helper" genuinely thinks he's a good man that kills bad people that can't be brought to justice because of the corruption of justice. Sometimes it's just points of view – Yaztromo Jul 14 '12 at 14:55

A hero that has to make an impossible choice can easily become a villain, as far as someone else is concerned.

For example, from a real game I played a few weeks ago, the idealistic Leonardo da Vinci brutally murdered the Pope to prevent the Spanish from gaining control of newly-unearthed Atlantean technology on the Canary Islands and using it to rule over all of Europe. There was an epic battle between the Dragon form of Artur Pendragon and the Pope throwing lightning bolts. Da Vinci had brought the Pendragon and the Pope to see his new dirigible technology, with the hopes of uniting Europe behind the ideal of peaceful technological progress and acceptance of the emerging super-heroes.

What happened instead was the dirigibles let them notice from the air the Spanish's incursion onto British-held Canary Islands. The Pope threw in with the Spanish, with the intention of solidifying the Vatican's iron grip on Continental Europe, to better marginalise the upstart English and their superheroic Dragon champion who was his rival.

Faced with the impossible choice to violate his personal ethics either by standing by and letting darkness fall over Europe, or intervening with direct violence (which was his only real option, as his superpower—splitting off clones—wasn't the sort of thing that would let him just impose a cease of hostilities), he chose to intervene and flew into the lightning Pope with an ornithopter's whirling blades while he was distracted by the Pendragon.

Da Vinci definitely became a villain to the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire at that moment, and possibly in his own eyes. We didn't find out what happened after that in Da Vinci's personal story, but I'm sure things became very complicated.

In that same game, the Atlanteans invaded and occupied all of coastal Europe, definitely becoming villainous in many humans' eyes. They did it to end the Anglo-Spanish War that they'd had an unwitting hand in starting, and a witting if misguided hand in continuing. Again, they made a hard choice and became villains thereby: stand by and let the war boil on, or forcibly end it. It was a dark time for everyone concerned.

(That was a game of Microscope, by the way.)

• Da Vinci, The Pope, dragons, clones, Atlanteans? Uhh ... okay :) . That might require a person with wild and permissive imagination to grasp all that in one read. – John Jul 14 '12 at 9:37
• @Johnny I suppose a game of Microscope is often hard to grasp when you're not one of the players. I'm surprised this has got an upvote! I'm getting the feeling that this isn't the sort of change you meant, rather looking for more of a storybook corrupting-the-hero kind of thing? – SevenSidedDie Jul 14 '12 at 22:51
• Why not an upvote? It's a valuable contribution to the problematic, after all. I may not be looking for an answer like that, but someone else might. – John Jul 15 '12 at 17:18

It depends on the hero and how he/she is set up before the first step onto that slippery slope, as to what kind of a "hook" you will need to drag them through the muck and the mire, or if you even need a hook at all.

If you look at the original tragic hero, Oedipus, then he was destined from birth to do the things that he did, and everything that happened moved him along that path, whether he knew it or not.

Other hero figures it depends on how virtuous they are, or if they have bits of dark streaks running through them. It may be as simple as a holy knight completely dedicated to his king, who goes on a quest to find the only herb that will save the king from a ravaging illness, but by taking that herb in that spot at that time, a small child dies instead. Later, the knight is told/shown what happened by taking that herb, and now the knight doubts himself. Self doubt is a wedge that can be exploded bit by bit in various ways.

Edited to add: I noticed you didn't want knights. Another of the legion of possibilities could be something as easy as Hero X decides he is much better suited than Weak Leader Y, and for the good of Community Z, he deposes WLY and becomes New Leader X. Now, he believes he is doing good by being the leader, and since he's already killed to get there, who knows what he would do to keep it?

There are myriad ways to do it, it doesn't always have to be a bludgeon.

For want of a nail...

• Just thinking about your scenario of Hero X vs. Weak leader Y ... well, a situation of Dead Leader Y may also introduce reputation and collective thinking into the play. Following the death of Y, the Hero X, otherwise doing well (and thinking of himself as of a good guy), may get banished from the kingdom, along with a mark of shame forcefully tattooed on his forehead. That may change a man ... – John Jul 13 '12 at 21:15
• Yep. All you need is that one little first impetus, and the rest can just build from there. – JohnP Jul 13 '12 at 21:37

When spurned, a self-righteous hero can become a villain.

Some time ago I was running a gritty post-apocalypse campaign. One of the players ran Larry, a manipulative, conniving character who had a profound sense of loyalty to the fellow PCs. He would do anything for his in-group, but he was also deeply skeptical of anyone else, to the point of paranoia. To make things even more difficult, Larry was self-righteous about his paranoia. “Guys, I’m doing this for you. You’re so naive, and without me to protect you, you’d all die,” was his common response after he would derail a negotiation or start a fight with strangers.

The thing is, he was a very capable character who on several occasions really did save everyone else from premature death. In other words, the positive characteristic of loyalty was deeply intertwined with the negative characteristic of paranoia. As the story and the character evolved, it became obvious that Larry was becoming more and more of a liability to the group because of this self-righteous paranoia.

We collectively decided that the character could continue down this path, but that we’d also all be OK with a player vs. character situation if it came to that. The player was fine with bringing a new character in to replace the original if necessary.

The situation came to a head when the group was in a makeshift survivor settlement, gleaning information from some NPCs, and Larry started essentially interrogating one of the NPCs. Knowing that they were surrounded, one of the other PCs pointed a shotgun at him and demanded that he let the NPC go. Fueled by self-righteousness and anger at the perceived weakness of his colleagues, Larry refused. The other PC shot him in the face. Larry lived, but ran off.

The player created a new character to replace Larry, and they all figured that was the end. But as I thought about I realized that Larry would be a perfect NPC villain. He knew what he’d done was right. He was the only one in this small, desperate band who would do what was truly necessary for the survival of the group. He’d saved their hides on multiple occasion. And what was his reward? They almost killed him!

I determined that Larry would follow them at a distance and use his social manipulation skills to spread word that this group didn’t operate in good faith, that they were nothing but marauders. Ultimately he faced them in an epic showdown. It was fantastic, in part because the PCs felt guilty for what they’d done to Larry, even though they knew they’d had to do it.