I recently posted a paragraph on my Facebook page to the effect that I was considering writing a book about the importance of villains in literature, and dissecting the characters of some of my favorites. Clearly this wouldn’t be the first time that someone has explored this territory—I’m not the first person to notice that bad guys dominate the story development of most large-scale, epic-style literature. It’s pretty obvious. Where would the “Lord of the Rings” be without Sauron (and Middle-earth overall without Morgoth)? Where would comic books be without Dr. Doom, Thanos, Lex Luthor, the Joker, and so on? Where would “Paradise Lost” be without Satan (the arguable “hero” as well as villain of much of the story)? Where would Othello be without Iago, where would Hamlet be without his uncle, where would MacBeth be without…well, without MacBeth?
I think, though, that even though it’s territory that’s been explored before, I can still put my own unique spin on things. After all, what subject of interest hasn’t been visited in the past, and yet cannot still be fruitful to explore further? “You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs,” as the song says, “but I look around me and I see it isn’t so.”
In any case, as someone who has had a lifelong fascination with villainy in literature, and has often found villains to be far more interesting than the heroes of a story*, I think I can bring a unique if not original point of view to the subject. For one thing, I often sympathize deeply with the villain’s point of view, though that’s not a necessary requirement for me to enjoy his or her presence.
It’s curious that villains are so necessary in so many aspects of human story-telling. What is it about us that requires a bad guy against whom to fight to bring out our best, or at least our most heroic, selves? Why do we need a Red Skull to produce a Captain America? This is not something that merely occurs in literature. It often seems to carry through into real life, sometimes with lamentable results, but occasionally with inspiring consequences. There’s little doubt that the Apollo moon-landing program would not have gone forward nearly as quickly nor as well were we not aggressively eager to show the Soviet Union of how much we were capable. We certainly haven’t done anything so spectacular since the end of the Cold War. The United State/Soviet Union standoff was a terrible confrontation that put the existence of all civilization in a jeopardy which still partly endures to this day…but dammit we went to the moon!
Unfortunately, in real life, the need for us to have a designated “villain” often has terrible results, and can lead us to become villains ourselves, through our innate proclivities for xenophobia and our tendency to be less self-critical when we identify ourselves as the “good guys.” Of course, this also often happens in some of the very best literature (in which subject I include movies and television, by the way). The complexity of reality is such that we are nearly all capable of both villainy and heroism—sometimes practically at the same time! I do think, in the real world, that “good” is inherently more powerful than “evil,” by its very nature (I can go into the reasons for that judgment at some future time if anyone is interested), but it is a regrettable fact that often we need an antagonist to force us to become our best selves. It may even be necessary for us to encounter alien invaders, a la the movie “Independence Day,” to unite humanity as a species.
Beyond that apparent necessity, for story-telling at least, there is a level of admirability in the finest of villains. They are, in their own ways, heroic—and that is often the tragedy of their characters. In many of the greatest tales, the heroes simply react to events around them, swept along by the tide of their local history, while the villains are the ones who initiate action, who seize the day, and who attempt to change the world. If only they could do so in more positive ways! We can all wish (on behalf of the denizens of the wizarding world, at least, if not for our own entertainment) that Voldemort had been able to turn his magical genius toward positive things—imagine Tom Riddle as a future headmaster of Hogwarts as great as Dumbledore!—but perhaps there’s something inherent in the nature of villainy that causes those attributes of creativity and proactivity to tend to travel alongside antisocial behavior. The true creator—if creating something legitimately new—is in some sense anti-social, and genius tends to be a singular, or at least solitary, phenomenon.
However the presence and character of villainy in fiction relates to creative human nature in the real world, there is no doubt that the villains of fiction are often the best part of the story. Who could deny that Hannibal Lecter is, at least marginally, more interesting than Clarice Starling, Will Graham, or Jack Crawford? With that in mind, I’m occasionally going to write articles exploring the natures and characters of some of my favorite villains in all genres, and especially those villains which appear in multiple media. Most of the epic stories of history require villains (some of them not necessarily evil) to go forward, and in this—since I love the stories—those villains are my heroes!
*though not in the case of the Lord of the Rings, where Sauron basically exists off-screen, as it were, more a force of nature than a personality