On Villains and Bad Guys

This year I was delighted to discover The Enchanted Inkpot, a blogging community “for writers and readers of high, historical, traditional and cross-genre fantasy intended for middle-grade and young adult readers.” Swoon. I think I stumbled across it through the resource page on Elizabeth C. Bunce’s website. As a reader, this is squarely where I fall in terms of preference. (Incidentally, The Enchanted Inkpot used to be located at Livejournal, and there’s a wealth of archived posts there that deserve meandering too. So check it out).

The members regularly interview authors whose books fit into the categories listed above, as well as pose questions about fantasy intended to generate discussion, such as this recent musing by Sybil Nelson, “If Loving You is Wrong….” More often than not, she says, she comes away liking the bad guy in books and movies. “The villain drives the story and makes the entire adventure more interesting,” she says. “The hero would have no purpose and no direction if not for the villain.”
Her post got me thinking about why villains sometimes draw us in. My daughter, age 5, has always been fascinated with the Big Bad Wolf. She even pretends to be him, instead of the smart pig who builds his home from bricks. Perhaps it’s the power such a character exhibits? The seeming limitless ability to get what he wants by the mere breath of his lungs? She is, on the whole, a sweet child. Prone to helping her brother up when he falls down and brushing off his hands and knees. So I don’t think it has anything to do with a particular proclivity on her part to be cruel or scary or mean; every human being has that potential given the right circumstance. Perhaps she’s just more aware of the potential. Children are like that. Able to see the bad when grown-ups have muted the awareness with the “nice” factor.
In his classic work, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim says this:
“There is a widespread refusal to let children know the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.” (p. 7)
And here:
“The wolf’s badness is something the young child recognizes within himself: his wish to devour, and its consequence—the anxiety about possibly suffering such a fate himself. So the wolf is an externalization, a projection of the child’s badness—and the story tells how this can be dealt with constructively.” (p.44)
So if the wolf represents the desire to be bad, I can’t help but ask why it is that we humans want to be bad, even when we are choosing good. You know what I mean, right? The longing to be beholden to no one, to make one’s own rules, to give free reign to every want regardless of the effect on others. Perhaps it all boils down to an issue of control. The universal attempt to find all the answers to life’s questions—justice, peace, love—within one’s self. Except that when taken to its furthest end and acted upon, we turn into megalomaniacs.
Take, for example, Sgt. Robert Bales, the solider accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. An op-ed in the NY Times recently, "When the Good Do Bad," generated an interesting array of comments from readers. In summary, the author, David Brooks asserts that Sgt. Bales is “like all of us, a mixture of virtue and depravity.” Some of people who commented on the piece seemed offended that Brooks should attempt something close to empathy for a man who appears to have killed women and children in cold-blood. Others preferred instead to think Sgt. Bales mentally ill and/or a victim of too many tours of duty. Some were willing to accept Brooks’ point that good and evil resides in all of us, but emphasized that Sgt. Bale made a choice, a choice that was fundamentally wrong. Few were willing to say, as one commenter pointed out via Pogo’s quote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Or “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” *

Regardless of where you and I fall in the spectrum, our attempt to analyze and understand real-life events like these suggests that fictional struggles between good and evil will continue to be written and read.  So let’s go back to Nelson’s assertion that the villain is what makes the story interesting. Certainly, in all Man vs. Man plot conflicts (as opposed to Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Self plots), I would agree that the bad guy is often what lights the fire under the hero and keeps him moving until the climax and the satisfactory defeat. The villain provides the struggle, and struggle is what make a story compelling.
So perhaps there are two different issues as far as villain appeal goes:
1.)    we like the conflict the villain provides the hero, the give and take, the struggle to win and/or 
2.)   we like the bad guy because of his own unique characteristics.

Personally, I don’t like books with one dimensional villains, or bad guys who are all huff and no puff. I want books where the main character is truly in danger, and where the threat is really present. Bunce’s villain, Lord Daul, in STARCROSSED is slippery and almost continually on the scene, while Kristine Cashore’s Leck, in GRACELING or Susan Cooper’s “The Dark” and its minions in THE DARK IS RISING is mostly an off-stage, rumored or suspected threat.

Arvin Slone from ALIAS is much more my cup of tea—a protagonist and villain all in one. At the shows beginning, he seemed to be such a nice guy, almost a father-figure, and at times even sacrificial in his concern for Sydney’s well-being and safety, when in fact he was manipulating her and her circumstances for his own obsessive ends. And then there was the charmingly unflappable and coolly attractive Julian Sark, a villain of a different stripe.

Evil that looks evil is far easier to categorize than evil that looks good. The wicked step-mother is easy to hate because she seethes so much hatred and greed that her physical appearance is one of ugliness. The sexy bad boy across the street however, is harder to pin down. Subversion mixed with a bit of mischief seems to bring out a darker side we are more willing to embrace. A not-good but not-that-bad mentality.
What I’m really curious about is why real-life villains have so much less appeal than fictional ones. Is the fictional villain easier to admire for his powers of persuasion (or insert your own descriptor) because he or she doesn’t really exist? Does our sense of him or her feel thornless because we know his or her actions don’tt effect the actual past or actual future?
So what’s your opinion? Why do some fictional villains ring true for you? Why do the ones that don’t, fall flat?
*There now appears to be eye-witness testimony suggesting that Sgt. Bales did not act alone. Does that make him any less a villain? When there is more than one villain in a fictional story, do we tend to rate the degree of their evilness or responsibility? Or do we just lump all the bad guys together?

1 comment:

  1. I think that villains are always interesting... heroes usually need to follow rules, but villains can play havoc outside the box. Often, they are portrayed as being handsome, or charming, and they show a little softness, and so the 'rescuer' instinct is engaged. Villains can, conversely, be so awful that they keep our attention riveted on them. And in the theater, it's always the villain who gets that great, juicy part. Look at Don Giovanni!