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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Importance of Complex Villains

My parents took me to see Singin’ in the Rain on Saturday. They were showing it downtown on the big screen and it was awesome.

But, as I watched for probably the hundredth time, I suddenly saw it from a different perspective- oddly enough, I saw it through Lina Lamont’s eyes.

We tend to simply see her as the villain, as the one who causes trouble for Don and Kathy. She’s fun to laugh and poke fun at and she’s simply there to cause trouble. She’s very one sided, very much a villain from the 50’s.

But, as I watched, the writer in me started to mold her into a different kind of villain. I started trying to see into her, in to how she ticked and work, and tried to find the motives behind what she did. And, I realized, if that movie were made in a different time, Lina Lamont could have been a much more interesting villain.

But, she’s not. She’s just a cardboard cutout posing as a villain to move the story along (don’t get me wrong, I still love that movie, I’m just not impressed as a writer with the way the villain’s portrayed…)

One of my favorite quotes ever about villains is by Tom Hiddeston- “Every villain thinks he’s a hero in his own mind.”

See, we tend to forget villains are human. That they are people with thoughts and feelings and desires. They want things just as badly as the hero does and will work just as hard to get them. They have things they care about and love and there are things that make them laugh and cry just like us.

But, we’re scared to admit that because if we do, then suddenly, it’s a lot harder to hate them. And, we need to hate the villain. Because that’s good, right?

 Personally, I don’t think so. Creating people our readers hate is easy. It’s almost the lazy way out. And, it’s not how we’re really supposed to live. We shouldn’t divide people into categories of good and bad and then root for the good one and hope the bad die.

But that’s what literature teaches us. We’re taught from a young age to learn who to love in stories and who to hate. Who is good and who is bad.

And then that’s what translates into our lives. We divide people into groups of good and bad and when someone gets up into the bad category, that’s that. There’s no turning back.

Yet, God teaches us that there is hope for the worst of sinners. That anyone who desires to can change. That we don’t have to remain in our filth forever.

So why aren’t we portraying that in our stories? Why do we insist on cardboard villains who are nothing more than a vehicle to move the story along? Why does their development begin and end with “villain”?

I think it’s because we’re afraid of making our villains too real. We’re afraid that if we make them human it will hit too close to home and we’ll start seeing ourselves in them. We’re afraid of finding out just how fine the line between hero and villain really is.

A truly great villain is one who people are conflicted about. He should be someone your readers want to root for. They want him to succeed. Obviously not in the ways he wants succeed but in other ways. They should want your villain to change to be better.

And, at the same time, he should scare them because they should see themselves in his thoughts and actions. He should mirror the reader’s fears about the person they’re scared of becoming.

Your villain should always represent a negative ideal. They should always be evil and cruel and violent. But, they should also be human. There should be a reason why they’re the way they are, a believable reason we can relate to. It can be something twisted and insane, but it needs to be a path the human mind can follow. “Because they’re evil” is no longer an acceptable motive for a villain’s actions. Readers deserve more than that.

So, I’d like to challenge you to take a long, hard look at your villain and see where he fits. Is he a cardboard cutout or a human being? Does he have things that make him smile or afraid? Does he feel love and pain and loss and joy? Or are his emotions simply a mirror of the evil he represents?

Is your villain going to be a person or a vehicle? If you’re going to work so hard to create a hero and supporting cast of characters who are both human and complex, why short change yourself when it comes to the villain?

You owe it to yourself and your readers to create something more than that.

How about you? Who are your favorite villains and why do you think they’re such great characters?

Also, my email is still open if you haven’t sent in a question this week for Candor Fridays yet (http://ivorypalace.blogspot.com/2014/07/candor-fridays-come-ask-questions-to.html) Looking forward to hearing from all of you!

1 comment:

  1. The villain I really like "dissecting" is Captain Hook. Because, especially in the book, there's this moment where Hook has a chance to change- and he comes within a breath of doing it. But, in that wavering moment- he rejects the good and embraces the evil. That's what makes a villain a villain. Heroes make mistakes too. They do stuff wrong. A lot of them even kill people. But when push comes to shove and the stakes are high, the hero, in his moment of wavering, makes the right call. The villain doesn't. #2cents