The Difference Between Heroes and Villains


We’ve seen in prior posts that villain and hero are often opposite sides of the same coin.

Villain or hero? Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in the 1978 "Blade Runner"

Villain or hero? Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in the 1978 “Blade Runner”

Hero believes X; Villain believes Opposite-of-X.

Hero seeks Outcome X; Villain seeks Outcome Opposite-of-X.

Does this mean the Good Guy and the Bad Guy are equivalent?

Is the hero really no “better” than the heavy; he just happens to believe something different?

What separates the Good Guy from the Bad Guy (at least some of the time) is the Good Guy is capable of sacrificing himself for the good of others.

In fact, the climax of many great stories is exactly that.

Bogey puts Ingrid on the plane to Lisbon.

Huck Finn tears up the letter that he believes will save himself while condemning his friend Jim.

The 300 Spartans die to the last man at Thermopylae.

There are exceptions. “The Guru” (Eduardo Cianelli) in Gunga Din, knowing he can’t escape his captors, steps to brink of the pit of vipers and turns back to face the three British sergeants (Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.)



You have sworn to give your lives if necessary for your country, which is England. Well, India is my country, and I can die for it as readily as you can for yours.


And he leaps into the pit.

Which makes us think, “Hmm, maybe the Guru is not the villain after all. Could the villain be England’s unjust colonial domination of India?”

Another seeming villain who sacrifices himself is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the replicant leader in the 1978 Blade Runner. Roy’s choice in the climax on the rooftop of the Bradbury Building is to save the man who is trying to kill him, Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) while he himself expires of the wound he knows is mortal. [P.S. Here’s the story of Rutger Hauer changing the dialogue the night before the scene was shot.]



I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.


That’s not a villain speech, is it? It’s a hero speech. It tells us (though the filmmakers themselves may not have realized this at the time) that the villain in Blade Runner is not Roy or his fellow replicants Pris (Daryl Hannah), Leon (Brion James) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), whose only aim is to survive the four-year life span they’ve been doomed to by their creators, but the idea of manufacturing human-like slaves in the first place. In other words, the villain is Mr. Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation—and all those who went along with this concept.

The Seven Samurai are willing to give their lives for the villagers.

Clarice Starling enters Buffalo Bill’s den in pitch blackness to save the killer’s captive, Catherine Martin.

Sydney Carton takes Edward Darnay’s place beneath the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities.

Those are heroes.

The hero is capable of the ultimate sacrifice.


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  1. Madeleine D'Este on November 22, 2017 at 1:15 am

    A great reminder that the villain is the hero of their story.

    Thanks for the tips as always…..

  2. Mary Doyle on November 22, 2017 at 6:09 am

    Thanks for this! Happy Thanksgiving to you, Callie, Shawn and Jeff – this reader is very thankful for each of you.

  3. Alex Cespedes on November 22, 2017 at 6:22 am

    This is a necessary reminder for ALL of us–rookies and pros alike. I’ve noticed that whenever I read/watch a piece that falls short, it’s usually because the story failed to make the hero’s sacrifice feel realistic and genuine… Thanks for all you do, Steve et al! Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Michael Beverly on November 22, 2017 at 7:03 am

    …like tears in the rain.

    Wow, good stuff.

  5. Brian Nelson on November 22, 2017 at 7:39 am

    What does the hero touch in the audience? Do we hope we are capable of such love/sacrifice? The uncertainty of our own capacity/willingness to suffer/sacrifice when pressed against the wall is haunting.

    Might be the same question that drives us to volunteer for combat. When the question is asked, not knowing can drive behavior.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

  6. Joe on November 22, 2017 at 8:50 am

    From the “Rutger Hauer changing the dialogue” link:

    “Writing in The Guardian, Michael Newton noted, “In one of the film’s most brilliant sequences, Roy and Deckard pursue each other through a murky apartment, playing a vicious child’s game of hide and seek.

    “As they do so, the similarities between them grow stronger – both are hunter and hunted, both are in pain, both struggle with a hurt, claw-like hand. If the film suggests a connection here that Deckard himself might still at this point deny, at the very end doubt falls away.

    “Roy’s life closes with an act of pity, one that raises him morally over the commercial institutions that would kill him. If Deckard cannot see himself in the other, Roy can.”

    Good stuff.

  7. Renita on November 22, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Now I remember why Bladerunner was so great. That scene ripped through me. It was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster having love for beauty. The monster who has reverence for life. Heart of God shining through. Angelic presence. A visitation. A reminder of the beauty of the gift of life. All that is in that last moment. Thanks again.
    In Bladerunner 2049 Robyn Wright’s character says, “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” Facing death with guts. She held that movie in the palm of her hand.

  8. Julia Murphy on November 22, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    It’s easy to miss the obvious. It’s extraordinary to make it accessible with finesse.

    I like how you still let me feel smart while you teach me to see what was right in front of me all the time.

    Thanks, Steve. Happy Thanksgiving.

  9. Veleka on November 23, 2017 at 12:07 am

    Re “the Good Guy is capable of sacrificing himself for the good of others”, I can’t help but remember this, my first lesson as a child about heroism:

    24 And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king.

    25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

    26 Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.

    27 Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

    28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

  10. Brendon Lumgair on November 23, 2017 at 10:10 am

    And so the age of the Anti-Hero was born

    Logan the Wolverine, Batman of the 2000s, Walter White, “V”

  11. Alejandro De La Garza on November 24, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    Actually, “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, but you make a good point about heroes and villains. In many cases they’re much more complicated individuals than some books and movies make them out to be. Sometimes you might even have a 2-in-1 persona, which is not to say we’re dealing with a psychopath. But, for protagonists and antagonists to be truly interesting, writers have to work on the personalities of those characters. Nothing is really black and white in human nature.

  12. […] Another great post from Steven Pressfield’s Writing Wednesdays took me back to Bladerunner (th… […]

  13. M. Talmage Moorehead on November 25, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Great article, Steven. Thank you.

  14. Jesse Passmore on November 26, 2017 at 5:13 am

    Absolutely fantastic! Thank you for this incite.

  15. whahn on February 27, 2024 at 12:51 am

    The five nights at freddy’s animatronic characters, once meant to entertain children, become unpredictable and aggressive at night

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