The Heel-Face Turn is a trope in which the villain becomes a good guy. Forewarning, there are about fifty million links on the Tv Tropes Heel-Face Turn page so if you go there the chances of getting sucked into a big wiki-walk are pretty high; all you really need to know about it, for the purposes of this post, is what I just said about it: it’s where the villain changes alignment in a nice 180. If you don’t know about the moral event horizon, you might look into it too as encountering but not crossing the moral event horizon will likely be an imperative part of your heel-face turn, although not necessarily. Either way it’s a useful trope to bear in mind as you read.
There are some pretty typical reasons as to why a villain may do a heel-face turn, and not only are they listed on the Tv Tropes page, but they’re also pretty obvious. You could probably think of them all on your own without even looking at the page. I want to talk about using the heel-face turn as more than just your cliche story – not that there’s anything inherently wrong with cliches, mind you, but a cliche used thoughtlessly is lazy writing so do take care.
The reasons for the heel-face turn can easily, and obviously, be boiled down to there being a problem with evil and/or a benefit to good great enough that the villain changed. However, I want you to consider that changing alignment is not actually a matter of the DM turning to you and saying, “Hey, I don’t think that “miscreant” fits your character any more.” (or perhaps, “true neutral” or any other alignment) and you agree, decide upon which alignment fits better, erase “miscreant” and pencil in “aberrant” (or “neutral good” or whatever). Because morality is a far bigger line of gray, gray, and gray. Which is hard for people, because a lot of us get stuck on black and white morality. The good guys eat their vegetables and dogs like them and they save orphans and princesses and pay their taxes. Or beat up the evil tax collector, whatever. And bad guys smoke and kick dogs and kidnap princesses and collect taxes. Except…people aren’t like that. Good guys sometimes tell lies. Sometimes good guys cheat. Sometimes they’re rude, or say hurtful things, or are prejudiced. And sometimes that tough biker guy with all the tattoos that are skulls with snakes crawling out the eyes on his bulging biceps is accompanying a young child to his trial where he’s going to witness against the sexually abusive adult in his life he’d otherwise be too afraid to confront. I apologize for the length of that sentence. People aren’t all bad or all good. There are some people who try really hard to be good, and they do a pretty swell job, and there are some people who try really hard to be good and they suck at it. A villain, I think, is generally someone who is more willing to do questionable things to get to his end, perhaps because he’s justified it with the belief he’s right.
So how then, on gray morality, do we get a heel-face turn? And how is it right?
Last things first: I personally believe that while there are many ways to execute a heel-face turn, what’s going to be best and most believable is if the villain has a true change of heart.
Friendship and the power of love are usually what cause the heel-face turn, but if you consider that an actual change of heart is needed, this makes sense for these are the things that change the heart.
I think the exception may be is if your villain is a really good guy who is just stupidly mistaken about what he ought to be doing, and the heroes or whoever manage to fully convince him that he’s on the wrong course, or he otherwise has a “crap I’m the bad guy, aren’t I?” moment. That, then, is a change of mind. But if you do this, if you do “actually good all along”, take great care to execute it carefully. If he was really a good guy the whole time how did he get there and how much evil doing did he do, if any, before he realized he was on the wrong side?
If you want the heel-face turn to be poignant, you’re going to have to make it mean something. There has to be extreme emotional attachment to the turn, and/or it has to be very significant perhaps because it seemed so impossible or because of major character growth or dramatic plot twists perhaps unrelated to the turn itself. Consider this famous turn:
Vader was THE evil man. But the bonds between father and son won out and in the end this moment, this moment where they truly connect is meaningful, significant, because it’s so much more than just the prominent villain with his epic theme song deciding he doesn’t want to be evil anymore. Vader throwing Palpatine down the reactor shaft and dying by his son’s side, that’s his deciding that his son means more to him.
That’s what I think most heel-face turns should be – something more than just erasing an alignment on the character sheet.
As for gray morality, I think that Harry Potter is full of examples – a lot of you will cry Snape! Snape! But my personal jury’s still out on Snape. According to my husband, that’s a no: Snape never showed remorse for anything he ever did, except for telling Voldemort about the prophecy, and only because that resulted in Lily’s death. And he only switched sides because he came to hate Voldemort for killing the woman he loved. AND he didn’t seem to really change alignment, just sides. Is Snape evil? Eeeeh [/extended hand wobbling back and forth] let me get back to you on that. But we don’t need Snape for the examples; there’s Regulus Black, and he’s a great example! And he’s totally in the background. I mean, just understand this guy’s circumstance. He’s raised in a pureblood family that hates “mudbloods”. He joins the Death Eaters, a group that’s all about wizard supremacy. And yet when Voldemort nearly kills Kreacher – Kreacher! his house elf! – Regulus has a heel-face turn. And Sirius never knew. And they give Kreacher the fake locket and he’s so happy about it, you see a side of the elf you never knew existed and that, that’s the poignant part of Regulus’ heel-face turn where you know there was goodness in him, even if he was born to a dubious family and raised to hate. And maybe he still thought wizards were superior, that purebloods were superior, but he still could tell that Voldemort was wrong and that he had to be stopped. Grindelwald may potentially have had a heel-face turn in the background as well, since he might have felt guilt for his evil deeds, and he certainly didn’t help Voldemort with the Deathly Hallows – perhaps not potent, especially since it’s so in the background, but great for deeper lore for Potterheads and rather plot critical.
Just remember that if someone makes a major change to their behavior, or beliefs, or motives, there has to be a really good reason for it. And when they make that change, it should be meaningful, potent, significant, something. It has to be a big deal. Maybe you’ve been leading up to it all along. Maybe there’s massive emotion tied to the change. Maybe it’s shocking and the whole plot hinges on it. But don’t use this trope idly because then it becomes a lazy cliche.