As the mentor, I’m forever in the hero business, helping people become the heroes of their story with the occasional nudge in the right direction. But despite my focus on helping heroes, I can’t help but notice the thing that every great hero must face: a villain of some sort.
Sure, the villain could be a dragon. It could be an evil wizard or ruler or some great maleficent force. Yet without fail, despite their major differences, I can’t help but notice that heroes and villains have a way of matching with each other, of lining up or almost mirroring traits. It seems that heroes tend to face villains not just because villains are evil, but because when the hero is honest, they tend to see within themselves the same external conflict.
You see this play out in some direct ways: Harry Potter himself is one of Voldemort’s sevens horcruxes, and shares many of his traits and skills as a result of it, causing Harry to question his own goodness. Or you can see it play out in subtler ways, like when Frodo and Gollum come into conflict over their mutual need for the one Ring. And while in stories, it’s a writing device used to create memorable conflict and show the internal world the hero, I think the reason heroes and villains must be so similar is rooted in a deeper truth—one that I think plays out most clearly in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
I’ve written letters to you before about the shadow, the internal monster that must be confronted before the external villain can fall. And while I don’t want to give away the ending of O’Connor’s story, there’s a particular scene that I think holds a powerful lesson for us about the shadow—and about the nature of villains.
A Good Man is Hard to Find is, in part, about an escaped murderer named “The Misfit”. The problem is, The Misfit can’t quite remember what he did. He doesn’t remember why he was locked up in the first place, or at least claims to not remember, and is now free, wandering the land with his fellow gang of misfits. But things are far from happy or him. And I think he knows why, because he tells us this: “Sooner or later you're going to forget what you done and just be punished for it.”
See in real life, there’s rarely an external villain. Instead, we’re stuck with the shadow—those things we find within ourselves that remind us of the villains of our favorite stories. And even when we find ways to hide those things in our lives, to sweep them under mental rugs, we’re still stuck dealing with the consequences of those things. Just like The Misfit, even if we manage to forget what we’ve done, we still live out the consequences. The truth is, when it comes to us and our lives, there is no such thing as getting away with anything.
The good news is, while life tends to not offer us direct external villains, the opposite is true when it comes to heroes. In fact, I think it’s why we celebrate heroes so much, and why we so deeply resonate with stories about extreme change or overcoming obstacles: because we see, in the external change of their lives, the internal reflection—not them getting away with anything, but rather, them confronting those exact things that are so hard to admit. We don’t love heroes because they’re good; we love them because they overcome something difficult—and in so doing, show us that we can overcome those things too.
May the road rise up to meet you!