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.