Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Loving Our Villains.
You learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either.
And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something.
― Paul Gallico
Once upon a time – at least according to popular culture – the world was a simpler place. There were white hats and black hats and we walked through life with the certain belief that, no matter how grim things got, good would emerge victorious in the end. It is a comfortable worldview, littered with archetypes and stereotypes. We need not look too deep within ourselves to know who merits cheers, who boos.
Empirically speaking, of course – and taking absolute nutters like Caligula out of the equation – villainy – and heroism – are much more situational qualities. Napoleon or Nelson, Pizarro or Atahualpa, Saladin or Richard I. Each has their supporters and detractors, with the balance tipped by the passage of years and history’s shifting tide. As Ian Fleming – a man who knew a good bad guy when he penned one – wrote, “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.” [Casino Royal] True-life villains are characters of passion and action, with the sort of laser conviction that makes them heroes in their own minds and those of their minions. (One has only to look at the current American shame, aka the Republican Party, to see this playing out in real time.)
The best literary villains – nutters still excepted – have always been closer to this real-life model than to two-dimensional mustache-twirling brutes or murderous harridans. Shakespeare’s legion of dark characters (Macbeth, Richard III, Goneril, Tamora, Claudius, et al), Marlowe’s Barabas, Hugo’s Javert and Claude Frollo, Quilp, Moriarty, the list is long and colorful. A complicated age requires complicated characters; modern audiences demand more layered, multifaceted antagonists, people who flirt with the shadows, one foot in light, one in dark.
It is from this ambiguity that we get characters who, though considered villains by previous generations, might be now seen as sympathetic, occasionally even heroic. Shylock, Dracula, Captain Nemo, Moby-Dick, even Milton’s Lucifer, each are characters with complicated pasts, complicated motives. Personally, I cheer for them all, cheated, abused, betrayed – human – as they are. Gregory Maguire (“Wicked,” “Confessions of a Ugly Stepsister”) has taken this one step further and made a career out of turning tales on their heads and showing us just how heroic some famous villains are. All depends on who is telling the story.
It being the Month of the Dragon, I would be remiss not to at least mention one of the most maligned “villains” of all time: Dragons. Smaug, Fafnir, Smok, Beowulf’s Dragon, all are literary black-hats who, in actuality, are simply guarding their homes and property, avenging past wrongs, in short, defending themselves from those who, by virtue of comely looks and Homo sapien “superiority,” believed they had the right to take what they wanted, when they wanted and where. Dragons are different and what is different is easily feared and vilified.
What is the role of an antagonist in an increasingly grey literary landscape? And how do we make them memorable?
Your antagonist is the one who drives your story. They compel the protagonist into action, give them someone to rise against and outshine, to save the kingdom or rescue the lost. Without villains, our heroes would just be sitting at home, enjoying their boring lives. Villains make heroes great.
To make them memorable, we must write characters we like. Their hearts may be cold as Pluto’s core, but you, the author, have to like them. You want to write villains you’d enjoy inviting over diner (just be sure to lock up any stray weapons and hide the silver).You want people who not only have an interesting take on their world but who, despite their ethical flaws, can also be understood. As much as we might enjoy the occasional larger-than-life monster threatening cosmic devastation, the best antagonists are simply people who, when confronted with crucial choices, opt for the more sinister path. The more heinous a character’s actions, the more they need some spark deep in their background that holds the possibility of being just like us.
As their creators, we have to recognize this and tread joyfully in their shoes. Then, in inky Stetson or raspberry beret, our antagonists will be memorable and alive.
You can catch up on past posts in the Editor’s Corner Archive. Enjoy.