I just caught a few minutes of one of my favorite early-season Smallville episodes, the one where Lex is split into Evil Lex and Good Lex, and Evil Lex utters the line, “You were right all along, Mr Kent. I am the villain of the piece.” (Actually, he says “story”, but he should have said “piece”.)
It got me thinking about storytelling tropes, and the tragedy of characters–because in Smallville, Lex is a tragic character, and it is without question his story the first four or five seasons that makes the show worth watching. We all know how Clark Kent becomes Superman, but in Smallville, the story of how Lex Luthor becomes the villain of the piece is wonderfully tragic. He simply never stood a chance.
But there’s one way he might have.
(The remainder of this post might contain some spoilers for early-season Smallville, and will contain spoilers for Buffy with regards to the character Spike.)
A year or two ago (this is tangental, but does come back to the point) I read a great role play game writeup done by a father who was running the new D&D4 introduction campaign for his six year old son (who played the whole RPG group himself, with Dad as the GM). During the course of the game, the kid’s group fought with kobolds, a couple of whom were captured to be pumped for information.
Once the kid had learned what he needed to know, Dad expected the kobolds to be axed. That is, after all, what one does to the bad guys in a role play campaign.
The kid, though, said, “No, Dad, we have to take them with us.” Dad spluttered, “But they’re bad guys,” and the kid said, “I know. But I have to give them the chance to become good guys.”
The Dad said, “They’re kobolds! They’re EVIL!”
The kid said, “But I believe in them, Dad. They can be good.”
Dad capitulated. The kobolds got a chance to redeem themselves, and did so. (And apparently in last encounter of the game, which had obliterated adult gaming groups left and right, the kid sailed through because he’d carefully hoarded all his magic uses and special items throughout the whole campaign and was *totally* prepared.)
But the point is, the kid had picked up on (from his television cartoons, apparently), and made clear to his father, the integral trope that could have saved Lex Luthor: the good guy believes you can be better. If, early on, Clark had chosen to trust Lex and reveal his secret–that he’s superhuman–that might have cleared the only path Lex ever had to becoming a good man. (Of course, given that it’s Superman, ultimately Lex would have to betray Clark anyway. Though, if he had indeed become a good man he would be doing it to save Clark and at his own personal sacrifice, and the betrayal would be agonizingly poignant. I would *still* love to see a one-shot episode of that story.)
This is a trope that was used in the last few seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well. Spike the vampire, somewhere in season four, gets a chip stuck in his head that prevents him from attacking humans. At some point, Buffy makes the decision to trust Spike, and orders the chip removed.
In the Buffy universe there are some great long-term ramifications of this, but where it ends up is in the last episodes of the series, all of Buffy’s long-time friends have essentially abandoned her…and only Spike remains on her side.
By television storytelling tropes, he *has* to remain on her side. She’s his redemption; she’s the one who has believed in him, and without her faith, he’s left with nothing for himself. Without her belief, all he is is a monster, and so he has to stand with her against every last odd, in order to be better than he was.
In novels, I think this trope often manifests as “the love of a good woman”, but it doesn’t have to stop there. The truth is that people, fictional or not, will frequently rise to the occasion. If you believe they can do better or more and say as much to them, they’ll often try.
The flip side, of course, is sometimes, or in some way, they’ll fail. Lex, ultimately, is always going to be the villain of the piece. Buffy will never fall in love with Spike, no matter how much better he becomes. The good woman may turn out to be a back-stabbing bitch. But then you have all the wonderful juicy material that goes along with the failure–the betrayal, the heartbreak, the excuses, the revenge–and so as a storytelling element, win or lose, it’s a trope you can get terrific stories out of.