Sunday, April 30, 2017

Heel-Face Turn

My best friend has been visiting from out of town this week, and we have unsurprisingly been looking back over the past--in part because our ten-year high school reunion is coming up and in part because we just generally miss the old days. As often happens in our conversations, we started talking about the stories and characters we love.

One of the things I've noticed as I've started reading and watching stories with a critical eye is that there are certain tropes, certain story gimmicks, that I fall for every time.

I'm a sucker, for instance, for a good ensemble cast (Community, for instance; or The West Wing; or les amis de l'ABC in Les Miserables). And I pretty much always love a story where a super-powerful being has to live as an average mortal (this happened to one character in the first US version of The Power Rangers twice, and if you stretch the definition a little bit, it's part of the central conceit of The Devil Is a Part-Timer).

But one of my favorite tropes--one that wins me over pretty much every time--is when a bad guy tries to be a good guy. I love a Heel-Face Turn.

The name for this trope has its origins in professional wrestling. A "heel" is a wrestler whose shtick is being unlikable--they're the one that you're supposed to hate, who's supposed to be the bad guy. A "face"--short for "babyface"--is the good guy. The face is the one that you're supposed to root for and rally behind. So, a "Heel-Face Turn" is when a heel turns a new leaf and becomes one of the good guys.

And I am 100% here for it every time.

I think what gets me about this trope (when it's well executed, and, to be fair, sometimes it's not) is that it gets to something that, to me, is so important from a character-crafting standpoint: most of the time, the baddies think of themselves as the heroes.

There are exceptions--to quote one of the Batman films, "some men just want to watch the world burn." But, usually, the villain has motivations outside of tearing everything down. Maybe they have a job to do. Maybe they're trying to protect their family. Maybe they're trying to survive in unforgiving circumstances.

Some of my favorite character arcs from childhood on work their way through this process. Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender. Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z. Tommy, the Green Ranger in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. H.G. Wells in Warehouse 13. Regina in Once Upon a Time (what I've seen of it, anyway). Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Kovu in The Lion King II (don't hate--that movie was precious).

There's something about a character that isn't necessarily practiced in it trying to be good--even if they're bad at it. Sometimes especially if they're bad at it.


For as much as I love this trope, it's not one that's made it into my work very often. I write ensemble casts every chance I get. I've got outlines and partial drafts for stories with all manner of deities or supernatural creatures that have to live as mortals. But I've only ever written one Heel-Face Turn.

And it's in Project 2016. 

I've talked a lot lately--if not on here, then in casual conversation--about how much I love the characters in Project 2016. I think this is part of why. 

The thing with a good Heel-Face Turn is that it takes time. There has to be a build up. You've got to plant the seeds--there's something that's not quite right, something that's striking the character in an uncomfortable place or some view of the world that's not quite true. But making that switch shouldn't be easy. It can't be--not if your character's actions up to the point of the turn are going to have any meaning. You have to have a complete understanding of the character if you're going to pull it off effectively. And, beyond that, you have to know how well your other hero(es) are going to adjust to this apparent shift. How trusting are they? To what degree with they have safety measures in play if the turn isn't genuine? What will they or won't they do to protect their loved ones?

I've had a good ten years to spend thinking about these questions with the characters in Project 2016. And I've had plenty of people smarter than I am to look take second looks and ask questions I didn't think of.

Heel-Face Turns have given me some of my favorite stories and characters. All I want for Project 2016 is for it to do the same for someone else.

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