Thoughts on the nature of villainy
I’m guest blogging over at the Clarion Writer’s Craft site this week on the subject of “Making a statement through your characters.” I don’t just mean the sort of hand puppet thing, where you express what you feel about the world through the words and deeds of your protagonists. Sometimes the statements we make are unintentional. Sometimes they are appalling, as when genre writers reinforce stereotypes or pernicious cultural assumptions.
It is natural to project ourselves and our beliefs in our writing. Much of our passion comes from this. But a greater challenge is to invest that same passion expressing something antithetical to what you believe. In general, that’s how you write the villain.
When the enemy is an alien, an orc, a zombie, something hideous and unnatural, it’s easy to pull the trigger. We gladly cheer for the hero/heroine who fights against a terrible disease or to survive a natural disaster. Savage predators, faceless killers, insect hordes, mindless robots, all these make good enemies. But when the enemy is human, it gets tricky.
In order to continue to feel good about hating and desiring the destruction of an enemy, that enemy must be dehumanized. Nazis are useful enemies in fiction and gaming because they have been so utterly demonized. Swarthy terrorists may be the next generation of Nazi-type all-purpose enemies. Osama bin Laden and Sadam Hussein each had their day, but haven’t yet managed to dislodge Hitler as the uber-villain.
There is very little challenge to this sort of villain, the one-dimensional, despicable, almost cartoonish bad guy. Even when they are given some humanity or redeeming qualities it is done with restraint, so their ultimate defeat can remain satisfying. We want clear definitions of good and evil. We want the people we are bombing to deserve it.
Here’s where we come to the writer as chameleon, as consummate actor, as conjuror. Take the protagonist and antagonist roles and flip them. Take the black and white of good and evil and mix them furiously into grey. For the villain to merely point out, “Your evil is my good,” is painfully cliché. The author must bring so much humanity and conviction to the character that his villainy is called into question. The reader is no longer is ready to pull the trigger, and is in fact not sure whom to shoot – if anyone.
If the writer has done a masterful job, if the villain dies in the end, it is tragedy. (If everybody dies, it’s Shakespearean tragedy.) If nobody dies, and a new level of understanding is reached, it’s Star Trek. It’s a kind of optimistic vision where the reader is brought to a third possibility, where there are no good guys or bad guys, but monstrous misunderstandings that must be somehow resolved. The nihilist says that’s impossible, East is East and West is West, keep your gun loaded and be ready to use it. Personally, I’m tired of nihilists.
In my own work, and what I enjoy in others, is the humanizing of villains that turns the enemy back into a thing again. It is ignorance, intolerance, belligerence, mistrust, envy and greed which must be overcome. These are the battles worth our salt.
Indeed, if we don’t overcome these enemies, we’ll all end up as Shakespearean tragedy.