Blogger confession: I don’t like villains. I don’t get villains. I lost interest in the Walking Dead when Neagan was introduced. I find myself squelching yawns when the next Apocalypse-inducing bad guy threatens the Marvel universe. I watch Disney Princess movies with my daughters and wonder why those evil step-mothers even want the responsibility that comes with the power they crave.
It’s not that I like my stories to be all “Pollyanna,” innocent and sweet. On the contrary, Pollyanna had that awful neighbor, Mrs. Snow (an ironic name that brings to mind another popular villain!), trying to thwart her happiness.
I think what bores me is the simplicity of good/likable character versus bad/obviously wicked character. Life is seldom so black and white, and art should reveal something distinctly authentic about real life, shouldn’t it?
Since we’re talking about our favorite villains this month at quillsandinkblotts, with Jebraun starting us off, I had to scratch my head a little to figure out what villains I actually like, and to figure out why I like them. I came up with three types of villains who have affected me long after the reading (or watching) for more than simply being bad.
The Archetypal Villain
You may know of my undying and sometimes irrational love of Les Miserables, led by the Everyman, Valjean, and his lifelong nemesis, Javert. If you know the story well, you may think, “What’s so complex about that? It’s good vs. evil, right?”
Well, at its most superficial level maybe, but it becomes so much more interesting when you study Javert alone. Without Valjean to pursue and destroy, he could be seen as a man of integrity. He’s devoted to the welfare of the innocent. His duty, as he sees it, is to take criminals off the street and make sure they’re punished in accordance with the law–and he’s remarkably competent at what he does. He never goes outside the bounds of the law in his pursuit (obsession) of Valjean. Have you ever noticed that?
What makes him a villain is our love for Valjean. Valjean is guilty, and we know it, but we also desperately want him to escape the clutches of Javert. We cheer when Valjean, by his brute strength, cunning, or pure luck, gets away in the classic “cat and mouse” that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Though Javert is by no means wicked, we hate him, and rightly so. He’s a Pharisee, a man who loves the law more than his fellow man. A man who shows no empathy, sympathy, or compassion. He’s a man without grace.
Though his demise is shocking to us whose compassion swells as the story of Valjean unfolds, it’s also a relief. This archetypal villain must not win the day if there is such a thing as justice in this broken world.
The Non-human Villain
Sometimes the characters we love never face a nefarious, wicked personage whose sole purpose for existing is to thwart said character’s big goal. What is it that keeps us reading stories like these? Why do we care what happens if there is no literal bad guy making things difficult?
We care because the villain is present, still getting in the way and threatening ruin, just not in the form we expect.
My favorite example of this type of villain is found in the memoir Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Frank’s story begins when he is a toddler, roaming the streets of New York (and later Ireland) with his brother. He is hungry–constantly hungry–and lacking in every material way. His family is barely surviving (three children don’t survive, probably due to malnutrition) with an alcoholic father who can’t help but spend what little he has on “pint’s.”
As the story unfolds, the reader aches for him to “win the day” as she did with Valjean, but against what? What does it even mean for Frank to “win?” It means he finally sits down to a table with enough food to feed his family–and that there will be more tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. It means he will grow up into a young man with teeth in his head, and medicine for his poor red eyes, and books to read. It means he will find work. It means he will be able to look forward to a promising future.
What threatens that outcome? What keeps us turning the page, worried it won’t happen?
The villain, of course: poverty. It’s written plainly on every page, every bit as hateful and compassionless as Javert, but without a face or a body.
The Innocent Victim
This is a rare and supremely complicated villain. This is the one the audience roots against but feels guilty for it, because the villain did nothing to earn that role.
This describes the villain in Director William Stephenson’s 1997 film, “Firelight.” It’s a complicated love story to begin with: landowner’s wife is in a coma following an accident, and he needs an heir; poor single girl needs money to pay off her father’ debts. An agreement is made, a child is conceived, born, and given by her mother to the landowner. But the mother is unable to forget about the daughter she bore. Seven years later she finds the child and the landowner. In this incredibly tense and secretive time, love grows between the landowner and the woman. The audience aches for them to be together, but there’s just one huge obstacle: the wife in a coma.
In this sense, the wife, innocent and pitiable, becomes the villain because she is the only thing that stands in the way of our characters’ happily ever after. Though compassion for the innocent should compel us to hope for a just outcome, lovers of love stories will find themselves rooting against justice, against the comatose wife, because we yearn above all for love between the man and woman who’ve overcome so much, and who we’ve come to love ourselves.
Villains come in so many shapes and sizes, don’t they? Do you have any unconventional villains you love to hate? Please share in the comments!