One of the questions that has popped up in my head while planning my novel is whether or not a villain is still a viable character archetype. In this morally ambiguous world, can we truly suspend our disbelief for these figures who are single-mindedly malicious and seem to either be in short supply or devoid of positive attributes? I can only speak about my reactions to villains though I will try to discuss my perceptions of the masses reactions to and acceptance of villains. First though, I’d like to take a very short detour and talk about what the villain is and what s/he does.
In essence, the villain is the antithesis of the hero and serves to create situations that hinder the hero from accomplishing his/her goal and thus allowing us to understand more about who our hero is, his/her resolve, and even his/her short comings. The villain really is the impetus for the story, either because what s/he has done or threatens to do. For example, a classic villain is Darth Vader. Without him, our heroes would have nothing to do. It is his unyielding desire to crush the rebellion and hold the galaxy under the yolk of the Empire that spurs our protagonists on. Thus the villain is our hero’s polar opposite and serves generally to make a mess of things. But there is something that takes what would normally be just an antagonist and turns him or her into a villain. The villain must be, for lack of a better term, evil. This doesn’t mean that the villain should eat kittens for breakfast but the villain should be reprehensible and be definable as not just an absence of good but by the presence of a tangible wrongness and viciousness. So this briefly gives a sense of what the villain does and the villain’s main, even defining characteristic. Their motivations may be different but the thing that binds all villains together is their almost sociopathic lack of empathy for others and their willingness to do anything to reach their goal. So how well do these archetypes hold up?
Fiction is both truth and lie. It’s one of those paradoxical things in life. Writing requires that you take from the world around you and process it then put it back into the world according to your own vision. Then when we read, we look for a reflection, on some level, of life in art. It’s something of a cyclical process. Life to art to life. We want that tangential point where the world of the story touches for a moment our day to day existence. However, there are very few people (thankfully) out there who would be considered a villain in the strict sense of the word. And yet this becomes the central conceit of some stories: the villain and his/her villainous deeds the protagonists must struggle against. And now, possibly more than ever before, the world we inhabit is multi-faceted, contradictory, paradoxical, and baffling. We are accustomed to considering multiple sides of every story and to taking into consideration extenuating circumstances. In such a climate, a simple “bad guy” may have trouble garnering our credulity. Can we really say that these characters relate to our own life stories? Despite the ways the world and our psychology have changed, I think that the villain still has a place in literature. I think this for several reasons. The first is a purely personal, visceral reaction. When I read a story or watch a story, in the case of a movie, that features a villain, unless s/he is of the obvious mustache-twirling variety, I still become absorbed. I do not think that it would be more interesting to learn why the villain is like this or try to find ways to, if not condone, then understand the villain. The only thing that matters is seeing the hero succeed. On the personal level, the villain still has traction. But why and is this just a personal thing or is there something to the villain that just won’t let us go?
As I said, most people don’t have first hand knowledge of villainy, opinions of your boss not withstanding. However, for much of human civilization, our myths have been populated with characters and figures who display greater than human traits and abilities. Even though we may not regularly or ever encounter such super-human individuals, we have a reference point for them in our human history, even if they are only fictional or fictionalizations of real individuals. I suspect that this may have something to do with the archetypes shared between much of human kind. We can all, as living things, understand threat and the villain provides pure, concentrated danger. In effect, the villain is an archetype that affects us on more than the conscious level. The villain archetype engages the primitive instincts that keep us enthralled in suspense as we wonder if and how our protagonists can deal with the villain. In this way, realism or a connection to reality is both irrelevant and satisfied. It is irrelevant in that the villain comes to be seen as something of a fantasy construct. However, the reality clause is satisfied in that we can all identify with threat. No matter what, we all have felt the throbbing of adrenaline when we were scared. The villain comes to be identified with this threat. But that doesn’t mean that the villain has to be simple. For example, a villain who wants to kill everyone for no reason is not a terribly compelling villain.No one said just because the villain can be interpreted as an archetypal representation of danger and threatening forces, the Big Other, that the villain has to be generic or cookie-cutter. This bring me to the next reason I think the villain isn’t done for yet.
When a villain is done well, we should be able to have a clear understanding of his/her motivation. What does the bad guy want? A clear motivation is what makes a villain unforgettable. If we run with the idea that a villain is a sort of archetype, then we can use that to explore certain aspects of human nature. Greed, lust, hatred, cruelty. If a villain represents a certain worldview based on destructive or negative characteristics, we get to see what happens when certain emotions or ideas are taken to their logical and most extreme conclusions. It is this kind of villain that I think we’re drawn to as well because there is an inherent fascination with the extreme. Part of this may come from the fact that the extreme is mysterious. Since it goes beyond what is considered normal human experience, we have little experience with it and are thus vulnerable to it. The villain allows us to explore these most excessive regions of humanity and that is something that is intrinsically attractive. By going overboard it also makes us question the abstract nature of the trait the villain displays. In this sense, the villain becomes mythical as s/he provides, if not an explanation, then a representation or incarnation of a particular worldview which then allows us to deal directly with an issue that otherwise would remain abstract. By incarnating a particular thing such as brutality, treachery, or the like, we also make the inconceivable conceivable, thus giving us all a greater sense of power over such forces.
Finally, there is the fact that there are some people who really do qualify as villains. People who do not care about who they harm and may even enjoy the sense of power they gain from harming others. It is these people whose existence makes a strong case for there being evil in the world with a capital “E.” While not every story requires or is best served by having a villain, I think that stories containing well developed villains can still capture us for the simple reason that we suspect that there are people out there who are as bad as or worse than what can be imagined. Again, we get to vicariously experience something we would much rather have no personal dealings with. If you don’t believe or resist the idea that such individuals exist, I present as evidence serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Andrei Chikatilo.
Literary styles have changed along with the world we inhabit. However, the darkness continues to call to us and we can’t help but be intrigued by its perversely interesting song. For this reason, I think the villain will continue to interest us and grab our imaginations by the heart for years to come.