Hey, quick, the hero and the big bad are dueling. The bad guy’s winding up to say something devastating. What’s he gonna tell our hero? “We’re not so different, you and I.” Exactly! Now did you cringe as soon as I said that? I know I did, and here’s why. It’s because whenever that line gets dropped, it’s either completely untrue or totally glossed over. In fact, it’s so overused and poorly used that it’s almost completely lost its impact. The instance that bothers me the most is when the villain is 110% talking out of his ass. Usually, this is when the villain’s just messing with the hero or trying to get under his skin, which is smart, but annoying because the hero always takes him seriously. No, dude, just ‘cuz you have a backstory element in common doesn’t make you like the guy who murders for fun. Now why is this annoying? Because the hero’s being stupid, and that’s always annoying. Now it would be one thing if the hero actually thought this stuff through and realized he was acting like the villain, but instead you get the hero throwing a tantrum until their friends remind them of the obvious. It’s weak. Now, I can see why this gets used, because if you want to throw the hero off balance, comparing them to their nemesis is a good place to start, but in a sense it’s empty because it’s blatantly not true. Sure you can have a hero afraid of turning into the villain and reacting because of that, but more often than not, it’s played like the thought of having anything in common with a bad guy is breakdown worthy. Not to mention, if you’ve got a bad guy smart and sadistic enough to torment the hero with the prospect of being just like him, wouldn’t it make sense for him to draw on the hero’s actual weak points? Because this is never played for real trauma. The hero will end up brushing it off as quickly as they accepted it in the first place. Look, it-it always goes like this, “We’re not so different, you and I.” “NOOOO” “No, you’re not.” “I’m all better now.” “HNNN” If the villain wants to mess with the hero, this is the dumbest way to do it. Which is why the trope is much less annoying when the villain actually *is* telling the truth. See, there’s a lot that can be done with a hero and a villain that mirror each other. Not only are they foils for each other, but when the villain’s calling the hero out like this, it means the villain is introspective, and the hero usually isn’t. And that’s interesting! Self-aware villains are interesting, and in this case, you got a couple choices. Do you make the hero self-aware too? Let’s pull up an example real quick from one my favorite animes, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Now pretty early on in the series, oh, uh, spoilers. Skip ahead like a minute and a half if you care about those things. So early on in the series, there’s this alchemist named Shou Tucker who does some very shady stuff with human transmutation. The two main characters befriend Tucker’s daughter, Nina, and her dog Alexander. Now, Tucker became a state alchemist when he managed to make a talking chimera, and, coincidentally, his estranged wife mysteriously vanished around the same time; fill in the blanks from there. Now he’s in danger of losing his state license and the money that came with it if he doesn’t do something equally spectacular. Long story short, Tucker alchemically fuses his daughter with her dog, producing a genuinely horrifying and heart-wrenching creature that can’t move without pain, but clearly remembers and loves its ‘father’ in spite of what he’s done to it. Now Ed, the protagonist, completely and understandably, flips his shit once he realizes what Shou Tucker has done, but Tucker points out that Ed’s not much better. See, in their backstory, Ed and his brother Al previously tried to use alchemy to bring their mother back to life, which predictably went horribly wrong because alchemy’s not meant to be used that way, and it cost Ed two limbs and Al his whole body. They’re both racked with guilt over what they did, and as soon as Tucker plays his “Not So Different” card, Ed goes ballistic. Because, you know, even though what Tucker did is worlds worse, they did both abuse and misuse alchemy for personal reasons, and they both maimed their loved ones in the process. In this case, the villain shows how thin the line is between him and the hero, and it hits the hero hard because it’s true. Okay, spoilers done. Basically when the villain’s right, it can mess up the hero for ages. And because the hero seeing basically what they could be if they went too far, that’s super effective. But you know what can be more effective? Having the hero figure that out themselves. Because, sure, introspective villains are great, but if you really want to explore your hero, it might do to have them figure something out for a change. So here’s an example of that kind of characterization. I’ve mentioned before in the Q&A how when I was a kid, I watched this show called Reboot. Well, a few months back, I decided to rewatch it to see if it held up, and it mostly did (except for the earlier animation). But I was genuinely surprised at how they characterized the protagonist in season 3, because they did this thing that I hadn’t really seen anywhere else. See, this protagonist had been a kid for the first two seasons and spent the first three episodes of season 3 basically having to step into the role of protector for his entire system, a role that had been previously filled by his childhood hero, who’s M.I.A. and presumed dead for most of season 3. So he’s protecting the system against the series’ main villain, who is so much bigger and stronger than him, and just doesn’t have to care when he tries to fight him. Then the kid ends up getting stuck in a year outside, ten years inside situation and grows up in the space between two episodes into a full-fledged adult, and he’s a jerk now! He’s angry and brooding and absurdly strong and he’s nothing like the hero he idolized as a child, the hero he wanted to be. He’s become like the villain he had to fight because that villain was powerful and his hero lost. And he recognizes this, by himself. He has entire episodes where he argues with himself over whether the sacrifice was worth it, and in the end he realizes that not only would his hero probably hate him now, his own childhood self would be afraid of him. “But how? You’re me!” “But you hate me; you must. Look at what you’ve become.” He’s become too much like the monster that made his childhood hell, so he works against it. Now the other interesting thing here is how the villain responds, because during their final showdown, the villain refuses to acknowledge their similarities. He still thinks of this guy as a scared child, no matter how strong he gets. But when it gets right down to the wire, and the hero’s got him at his mercy, the villain is almost fearful. He-he clings to the fact that, no, he can’t do this; it would go against everything he stood for. He can’t have become that much like him because that thought terrifies him, and in the end the hero agrees, and it’s a really good moment. But the bottom line is, a character who up until this point had been okay at best suddenly becomes this intensely interesting and tragic character study; an object lesson about he who fights monsters. But he’s not a tragic figure because he pulls himself out of that. And you know what? His whole personal journey would have been way weaker if someone had straight-up told him he was turning into the bad guy. Having him realize that himself gave him an unprecedented degree of depth. And that’s one of the ways that not invoking this trope can be more powerful than invoking it. Sure, making characters similar is good, making them acknowledge it is good, But an externally prompted revelation isn’t necessarily better than an internal one. And I think part of this ties into the hero’s journey, weirdly enough. See, in so many stories, the hero just kind of gets dragged along by circumstance. Sure, they might have a motivation or two, but the only things that can make them deviate from those motivations tend to be external. The hero gets pulled from their home, gets pulled into an adventure, gets pulled into their destiny. Even their motivation tends to be pulling them. Why are you doing this? My girlfriend got kidnapped. And if she didn’t? Well, I’d probably still be a farmer. There’s no internal motivation to do anything. It’s all external circumstance forcing the character to act, and in a way that feels a little more realistic, but it’s not. That’s not how people work; people have internal drive to do things, and in stories, that’s so often ignored. And with more modern flawed characters, they’re rarely actually expected to want to improve on their flaws. The character’s static; they don’t work through trauma or repair personality issues, they just are. Character development seems to have largely gone out the window. There’s no drive, no reason for them to do anything unless the plot demands it. Having a character figure something out about themselves and work to fix it without external prompting is nearly revolutionary, and therefore might carry more weight. It’s easy to throw a plot twist and drop a character into a situation that prompts them to change in one way or another, but having a character change on their own is harder, and therefore rarer, and one of the reasons why “Not So Different” feels so weak is because it’s structured like a plot twist, but it’s way too predictable. If two characters are similar, you can probably tell. Having one point that out to the other and the other respond with shock feels contrived, even if it’s in character for them to not have figured it out. It’s a good literary trick being executed in the least effective way possible. It’s also worth noting that the “Not So Different” trope isn’t always a villain messing with the hero. Sometimes it’s the hero appealing to the villain, or even just to disparate characters realizing their similarities. See, that instance of the trope is used to make two characters closer because that’s how real-world friendships work. And that version’s not annoying because it goes somewhere. In its most common instance, this trope is nothing but a waste of time, but in this case, it leads to character growth and relationship development, and therefore can actually be useful. But the villain to hero version doesn’t go anywhere in most cases. It’s just there for momentary shock value, and it doesn’t even shock the audience, so in its most common instance, this trope is nothing but a waste of time. It can be done right, but it so rarely is. So yeah.