The Non-Zero Sum Character

We’ve been positing in our series on Villains in film and fiction that the Bad Guy as a general rule believes in a world of scarce resources, a cosmos in which all men and women are born selfish/evil … and that this condition—“the state of nature,” as Thomas Hobbes phrased it—produces inevitably a “war of all against all.”

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

The villain in other words sees the universe as a zero-sum proposition, i.e. a world in which, if he is to gain, he must take away from you and me.

In this post let’s examine the opposite proposition.

Let’s consider the world and world-view of the villain’s antithesis—the Hero.

The hero, by my definition, is the character who is capable (though he may have to change radically through the course of our story to reach this position) of acting in a non-zero sum manner. In other words, acting not for herself alone, but out of love for another.

Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of real-life non-zero-sum characters.

Jesus of Nazareth

The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

Joan of Arc

Abraham Lincoln

Mahatma Gandhi

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

John F. Kennedy

Malcolm X

Robert Kennedy

John Lennon

Yitzhak Rabin

And a few from legend, fiction and motion pictures:



Atticus Finch

Huckleberry Finn

Celie in “The Color Purple”

Rick Blaine in “Casablanca”

Pike, Dutch, and the Gortch Brothers in “The Wild Bunch”

Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan”


Princess Leia

Luke Skywalker

If the Villain believes in a zero-sum world, the Hero believes in its opposite.

If the Villain believes in a universe of scarcity, the Hero believes, if not in a world of abundance, then at least in the possibility of such a world.

If the Villain believes in a reality dominated by fear, the Hero believes in one ruled by love.

The Villain is cynical. He or she believes that mankind is inherently evil.

The Villain believes in “reality,” in a Hobbesian world of all-against-all.

The Villain, as we’ve said, is not necessarily “bad” or even “villainous.” In the villain’s eyes, he is the Good Guy. He is simply acting and making choices within a universe of monsters. He must therefore become, in the name of Good (or at least self-preservation or the preservation of society as a whole) a monster himself.

The zero-sum view of life is that of limited resources. Not enough to go around. If you and I want our share (or even simply enough to survive), we must take it from somebody else. However much of the pie we grab, that’s how much less remains for everyone else.

In the non-zero-sum world, on the other hand, resources are infinite. The love a mother gives to her child (and that the child returns) grows greater, the more each loves. There is and can never be a shortage of love.

Compassion is infinite.

Integrity is infinite.

Faith is infinite.

Zero-sum versus non-zero-sum.

Hero versus Villain.



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  1. Joe Jansen on February 26, 2020 at 6:53 am

    I’d add this to today’s theme and discussion of “acting not for one’s self alone, but out of love for another.” Last night I went to see the film “Free Burma Rangers” — a documentary about this group started around 1997 in the country also known as Myanmar. Founded by former special ops captain Dave Eubank, the Free Burma Rangers provide humanitarian aid like emergency medical care, food, rescue, and documentation of human rights violations in war zones in Burma, Iraq, Syria, and Kurdistan — often in the midst of hot combat where other relief groups dare not tread. And his wife Karen and three teen children are out there with him. More than amazing; still searching for the right word.

    The film opened with a limited release of 24/25 February. I hope they plan some wider distribution (theatrical or streaming). This is a story that needs told.

    Do you see any heroes in here? Anyone acting with compassion, integrity, and faith? Anyone disregarding self-preservation in the service of others?

    • Joe on February 26, 2020 at 6:57 am

      The previous link up there is to the film’s preview/trailer. Free Burma Rangers came to my attention last year when I saw this clip of Dave Eubank in action — and looked for some kind of soundtrack that captured the emotion I felt, watching this guy risk his life for a little girl:

      • Brian S. Nelson on February 26, 2020 at 8:21 am

        Damn Joe, I’m not usually moved to tears at 0810. Thank you for that. I mean–why in the hell would a guy with a pension, now safe from combat–risk it all to help people he doesn’t know from Adam?

        I’m going to look these guys up, and see how I can support, even if it is promoting in my own small corner of the world.

        Why? My suspicion is many fold.
        1. Dave isn’t dead yet. He still has game in him, and until he breathes his last breath, he is all in. He has a relatively unique set of skills that are not well placed/nor appreciated, nor able to use in suburbia America. But he still has game…he’s itching to ‘play’.
        2. This need to contribute from SP’s Hero narrative is stronger than the fear of the enemy. It is not like he’s naive, at all. He knows exactly what he is getting into, but love -while not freeing him from fear–is the foundation of his courage.
        3. And what about the other guys–standing tall to provide covering fire. They were not kneeling, shooting from the safety behind the tank with inaccurate fire.
        4. Lastly, he sees the abundance of life. His job it to protect that life. He sees the possibility of who that young girl may become. That transcends his fear.
        5. Good lesson for all of us in when we finally decide to ‘retire’. We all have game left in us. We are not dead yet. The loss of purpose/meaning is the first step into the grave.

        Thank you my friend.

      • sandra on February 26, 2020 at 9:24 am

        OMG. This gave me chills. Thank you for sharing, Joe.

        • Joe on February 26, 2020 at 9:57 am

          Me, too, with the chills, Sandra. Glad to have something to share.

    • Joe on February 26, 2020 at 9:07 am

      Brian… I think you’re right on many of those points. The family’s mission seem genuinely driven by response to a calling, not by a desire to be seen as heroes. They talk about the idea of the whole family being out there (Karen and the kids back from wherever the front lines happen to be, in the “rear” at aid collection stations). They say, “We’re providing aid to families out here. Why NOT our whole family being together in serving?”

      Couple quotes:

      “Who doesn’t want to see a miracle?”
      “Uniting justice and mercy”
      “Can love win?”

      Middle daughter Suuzanne is named for Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

      Six principles of the Free Burma Rangers:

      * Love One Another
      * Unite for Freedom, Justice, and Peace
      * Forgive and do not hate each other
      * Pray with faith
      * Act with Courage
      * Never Surrender

      Other clips at:

    • Gene on February 26, 2020 at 11:09 am

      “Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry a man above his fellows for his own solitary glory. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.”

      Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), clergyman and social reformer

  2. Richard Brady Williams on February 26, 2020 at 8:16 am

    I’ve worked with a number of Steve’s “zero sum villains” during my biotech career. There is also a strong element of sociopathy. Years ago, one partner from VC world really needed me so he gave me his playbook: How to become king of the hill and last man standing while making the most money…and having complete disregard for our employees. I eventually left and took a two-year sabbatical to recover and write second American history book.

    Last night I had a “working business dinner” with my 9-yr-old grandson. We are co-writing a midgrade fantasy adventure trilogy. Almost done with Draft 2.0 of Book One (Dragons & Dinosaurs), which a Disney-published author is now editing for us. Earlier in this process, I paid six kids from our church youth group to anonymously critique Draft 1.0. Directly seeing the impact of writing on my grandson and the other kids has been remarkable…

  3. Brad Graft on February 26, 2020 at 8:20 am

    Thanks, Joe.

    And great stuff, as always, Steve.
    While many of us are loyal readers, but infrequent writers on this blog, I think I speak for many in stating that material such as this (true also for every “Jabs” issue) is simply invaluable.

    Without us knowing, these morsels are put to memory and then brought back during key points in our daily writing. Over and over…

    I, we, can’t thank you enough, Steve.

    • Joe on February 26, 2020 at 9:57 am

      Semper fi, mate.

  4. Pauline Brin on February 26, 2020 at 8:52 am

    Thanks, Joe.

    No truer words, Steve – There is and can never be a shortage of love.

    For anyone reading, here’s a wonderful (brief) video circling around about being an artist and being recognized, starring Vincent Van Gogh.

    • sandra on February 26, 2020 at 9:30 am

      Wow! Thank you for sharing, Pauline.

      • bill on February 26, 2020 at 1:25 pm


    • Joe on February 26, 2020 at 10:02 am

      Pauline… I’ve never watched Dr. Who before. Are they all that good? That was something. Thx for sharing it.

    • Gene on February 26, 2020 at 11:14 am

      One of Mr. Pressfield’s short but noteworthy quotes…

      “The opposite of fear,” Dienekes said, “is love.”

      ― Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire

  5. Anonymous on February 26, 2020 at 8:57 am


  6. Rexmont on February 26, 2020 at 9:10 am

    JFK? RFK? They were using Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner and others out of compassion? Lennon ditches his wife for Yoko for Cynthia’s own good? TERRIBLE choices!

    • steve on February 26, 2020 at 10:15 am

      perhaps, but no one gets through it with just the halo. no one is perfect. everyone has messed up. but what’s the overall impact of that person? mlk was a philanderer, as was mandela. so be it. they were human. they also changed the world.

  7. sandra on February 26, 2020 at 9:34 am

    Mr. Pressfield,
    Great post!
    Making a copy to keep me focused on the roles my hero and villain play.
    God bless!

  8. Chuck DeBettignies on February 26, 2020 at 10:34 am

    Steven – These blog posts blow me away every week . . . week after week.
    I feel like I’m going to be seeing this “framework” (villain vs hero mindset) over and over now.
    This contrast is something that everyone recognizes at a deep level I believe. It’s something we can all identify with and makes the hero so appealing, even if as a reader we would be hard pressed to explain why we resonate with the hero.
    So powerful and useful!

  9. Mia Sherwood Landau on February 26, 2020 at 10:38 am

    The older I get, the more I see each of us as holding an office in this life, so to speak. Meaning, my door might say “Mom” on it, or “Author” or “Real Estate Agent.” Doors might also say, “Hero” or “Villian” on them, and from time to time, either one of those titles, depending on which ex-husband or dear friend you might ask. Seen as signs on our respective doors, and looking at other doors up and down the hallways in our lives (and our novels) it’s easier to separate the human or the character from the office. I think the ability to separate a character from an office makes it much easier to move them around and place them in the best office for our plot and purpose. This post is so thought-provoking and fabulous. But then, you are Steven Pressfield and you have “Fabulous Writer” on your office door. You really do!

  10. Garry on February 26, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Beautiful Steve, thanks.

  11. Lita on February 26, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Thank you, Steven. Inspiring.

    Thanks, too, to the commenters.

  12. Lyn Blair on February 26, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    Zero-sum versus non-zero-sum. What a brilliant way to explain how heroes and villains are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. So clear, yes.

    And I loved the quote from your novel that someone pointed out: “The opposite of fear,” Dienekes said, “is love.”

    ― Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire

  13. Angela Beeching on February 26, 2020 at 3:02 pm

    I LOVE THIS POST and I’m hard core fan.
    Just one technical /grammatical question about this line:
    “There is and can never be a shortage of love.”
    Please help me get the grammar here. I was thinking, from the context, that this would be,
    “There is not and can never be a shortage of love.”
    But maybe I have this wrong? HELP?

    • Angela Beeching on February 26, 2020 at 3:11 pm

      Oh, unless this means there both IS and never can be a shortage of love?
      That it’s a paradox?

      THANK YOU!

  14. Iain McClure on February 27, 2020 at 1:19 am

    Hi Steve / All

    First time on this – or any – blog but regular reader etc – thanks to all.

    Steve – this really helps because keeping an eye on why your hero is the hero (and your villain vice-versa) is really important. Its like the spine of the piece (although I know there are several spines depending on how you are looking at it).

    I also like the idea that trying to decide who is your hero is ‘the one with the most to loose’. Thinking how this equates with zero-sum or non-zero-sum – maybe its something like our hero knows they are losing something – even massively – but they are willing to sacrifice this because they know or sense that a greater good is possibly going to arise because of their loss.

    Whereas the villain could maybe also be defined as ‘the one with the most to gain’.
    What does everyone think?


    Iain, playwright, Edinburgh.

  15. Bill Evans on February 27, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Here’s a thought: even villains need to justify themselves. Egos must be stroked, and the bigger the more they need. So if it’s NOT a zero-sum game, the villain is neither justified, nor can claim to be top dog. It has to be zero-sum for him to say he’s only fulfilling his greatest destiny.

  16. Kati on February 28, 2020 at 7:52 am

    A beautiful post! Thank you again Steven <3

    I am a Villain it seems but maybe I can change? I want to be a Heroine. I want to believe in abundance and love and I want to have faith.

    A villain can change, right?

    • Maureen Anderson on February 28, 2020 at 2:50 pm

      Oh my gosh. It doesn’t seem as if a villain would have that question!

      And Steve, I’m genuinely curious. Didn’t you once say something like this? “The villain never changes, because if so the villain would be a hero.”

  17. Renita on March 10, 2020 at 5:54 am

    Stories about limited people who see limited resources remind us I hope of who we are and our genuinely infinite possibilities. I hope that’s what these characters give us.

  18. Cattie Gordon on January 20, 2021 at 11:04 am

    My favourite one is Beowulf. As a Literature student, I have read many poems and analyzed a lot of characters. At this resource I found a short description and a lot of samples for writings and analysis of different poems.

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