"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What is the measure of a villain?

If you don't read Alexandra Sokoloff's blog, or Murderati, you should. Even if you are not a writer, but just a reader or movie buff, they discuss the way that stories develop, as well as what makes a good character, whether it be hero or villain.

So what makes a good villain for you? Do you need someone so deliciously evil, they will never be redeemed?

Okay, not her.

Hannibal Lector comes to mind. His character is solidly twisted. Whether it is nature or nurture, it doesn't matter anymore. He can be in prison for a lifetime, meet with a psychologist eight hours every day, get shock treatments, none of it will rehabilitate him. We are committed to seeing him caught and punished and we do not feel any guilt about that.

And then there's my personal favorite, Mrs. Danvers. Loony as a tune, crazed with grief over Rebecca's death, she will not rest until she has driven The Second Mrs. DeWinter out of Manderlay, dead or alive. There's something unashamedly malicious about her that I like. She is righteous in her madness.

Those characters are wonderful, because we can point all our anger on them and exact our revenge. We don't have to say, "Aw, poor baby. He probably just had a bad childhood. Maybe she's a little hormonal. If only someone would remove that thorn from his paw, why, he'd be right as rain."

Naw, we hate them, and we LOVE it.

The villains I find fascinating are the marginal characters, villains of opportunity. They're the people who could live nicely, who could be decent, until The Choice comes across their path. They could return the twenty-dollar bill that has just fallen from the stranger's pocket, or they could keep it themselves. They could call 9-1-1 when they see the man being beaten, or they could go back to their work. They could help the old lady on to the bus and give up their seat, or they could push her under the wheels and ride comfortably.

In some ways, I think of these people as more soulless than Hannibal and his ilk. Hannibal has a clear, although degenerate, path and a core set of beliefs. Evil Opportunists blow in the wind. Their tenets include nothing more than doing whatever benefits them the most. Perhaps they're Narcissists. Don't know. Don't care. Don't like 'em.

But they may be harder for us to hate, because they're our neighbors and our co-workers. Sometimes they're our friends.

When I was an engineer, I used to play The Earthquake Game when I was in a boring meeting. I'd look around the room at my co-workers and imagine that a giant earthquake struck. Then I'd try to guess who in the room would be pulling people to safety and whose footprint would be in the middle of my back as they escaped.

These are the "villains" I like to write about. It's hard to feel good about hating them, because in so many ways, they could be us. And hopefully, watching their bad choices makes us want to strive harder to choose Good over that slippery slope to Evil.

Who are your favorite villains, and why?

No comments:

Proud Member of ALA!

I support fair and equitable library access to ebooks and so should you.