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February 28, 2018

The Darkside

by Ross Kitson

I've just released the second book in my YA sci-fi series, excuse the shameless plug, and one sci-fi trope that the book features is the darker version of the hero. I'd written it into the story before I'd even really thought about the classic nature of it, and it wasn't until I got talking to a mate at work that I recognised how commonly it's become used in literature/ media of late.
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You know the gist of it. In the story, you have a dark version of the hero, a sort of evil mirror image of our gallant protagonist. Perhaps we could trace it back to the monstrous Mister Hyde as a terrible version of Dr Jekyll, or Moriaty as the evil take on Sherlock Holmes, and I'm certain those of you better read than I can think of examples pre-Victorian literature. For me, as a youngster, the best ideas of the evil versions of my heroes were the classic Star Trek episodes The Enemy Within and Mirror Mirror. In the former, there is a transporter malfunction and Jim Kirk is split into a good and evil version with the added bonus of the bad side having some strange guy-liner and lots of leering. They explored a curious almost Freudian idea that the good Kirk lacked some 'edge' to him that made him ineffective as a captain without the aggression (I suppose the 'id' ) that bad Kirk had. For the other episode, they used an alternate reality idea, wherein the rest of the crew (notably Spock) were evil versions that the returning landing party had to engage with after being accidentally teleported across dimensions. That transporter was a great plot device!

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Unsurprisingly given the volume of stories (in Superman's case almost eighty years now) the comics media have done this to death. This has trickled through into the film arena, which is now probably the most visible version of the superhero genre. If you think back now then you can see that for many of the recent films the main antagonist is remarkably similar to the hero:  so Spiderman/ Venom; Iron Man/ Iron Monger/ Iron Patriot; Hulk/ Abomination; Captain America/ Red Skull; Ant Man/ Yellow Jacket. Even the latest offering, Black Panther, has Killmonger as a similar powered opponent for T'Challa. It can feel a little lazy at times, but it brings forth a lot of appealing angles for the writer, and is truly a homage to the comic book origins of the film versions.

What the writer has in the 'evil twin' characterisation is the familiarity of the reader with the hero and all their abilities and personality traits. Our heroes are certainly fallible, certainly flawed, but overall have the collection of characteristics that each of us aspire towards: bravery, honesty, integrity, reflectiveness, charisma. In them we find our fantasies acted out, our dreams realised, all those things we wish we were become actual. Yet there's a tiny part of us that wants to see the opposite, that wants to see a villain in the form of the hero, a twisted 'bad' version that perhaps outlets all the things that we keep supressed. The negative reflection of the hero seems somehow more accessible than another 'bad guy', as if perhaps we've been introduced already. He's in the image of our icon, but a tainted distorted image that fascinates us perhaps because it develops the concept of a dark side to ourselves.

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It's appealing on both a physical and metaphysical level in literature and media: the eternal conflict between good and bad inside us, between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. In the superhero movie we see that actualised, as the super-powered reflections of one another smack each other about. You could argue that we quite enjoy watching our heroes fight over anything—the third Captain America film was a Civil War between Cap's side, and Iron Man's guys, and perhaps the dust off between Batman and Superman in Dawn of Justice is the most overt example of a 'darker' hero versus a 'lighter' one.

In my book, I take the concept that the identical version of my hero has been introduced to a different set of circumstances in her upbringing that have resulted in her following such a radically different path. I think that's an intuitively fascinating idea for many of us… would we have turned out the same if those key events in out prior life had changed? Is the influence of nurture far greater than the intrinsic predestination of nature? And in the end of the conflict is the nature strong enough to overpower all those other influences, is nature the redeemer?

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Perhaps those fascinating conflicts drive the frequent use of this plot idea in all the different media? And perhaps the intrigue of the darkside in ourselves makes us keen to see it battled out again and again.

Ross Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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