Typically, science fiction conventions will offer a panel discussion on villains. Writers and readers love to talk about the bad guys. After all, more often than not, they’re more interesting — not to mention sexier — than the good guys. Of course they’re attractive. They’re dark, dangerous, edgy — in other words, forbidden fruit. Even Jane Austen’s naughty boys have a certain intoxicating allure.
Bad guys are also likely to be complex in interesting, tortured ways, and to be charismatic and cunning, but with fatal flaws that prevent them from being heroes. They possess the capacity for grandeur, except for… But you know all this. You’ve read the rewrites of classics told from the point of view of the villain. You know every villain is a hero in his own story, it’s just that his goals don’t align with those of the protagonist, but none of them get up in the morning and say, “Evil! Evil! Rah-rah-rah!”
I’ve been thinking about why we keep coming back to having villains, as distinct from flawed heroes or misunderstood monsters, in our stories. Aha, you say, to provide conflict, to place obstacles between the hero and his goals. Sure, you say, because there are really only three plots: Man Against Nature, Man Against Man, and Man Against Himself. (I think this is an oversimplification, and I’m not at all sure it’s true, but the point is that conflict between characters is one of the enduring themes in story-telling.) Once upon a time, all you had to do was put a man on a black horse or in a black hat, give him a mustache and a name with too many consonants, and everyone would understand that he had no socially redeeming qualities (and bad dentition). Later, it became desirable to give him a few aspects to admire, and to play around with expectations. Then it became fashionable to portray him as not-really-bad, but wounded or misinformed or warped by his culture. Science fiction and fantasy, not to mention the whole of English literature, abounds in examples.
If we want a character (our hero, protagonist, viewpoint person) to have to struggle against something outside himself, we create an obstacle, a menace. No matter how we deck the obstacle-character in nifty-stuff, his or her function remains the same: to make things difficult. The more dangerous, resourceful, and recalcitrant the obstacle is, the more dramatic the conflict. Who wants an obstacle that is sympathetic, compassionate, reasonable, or helpful? Courage and intelligence are fine, as long as they’re in the wrong cause. But kindness? Loyalty? Humility?
I think we do the same things in our minds with our villains that we do with our real-world enemies. We selectively enhance those characteristics that make them less like us and hence, less understandable. Less human. We transform them, we demonize them, and eventually we see them not as fellow men and women, but as “the other.” We eliminate all possibility of an “I-Thou” relationship, substituting an “I-It” of the most pernicious kind.
In many ways, I prefer Chthulu to human villains. It’s absolute and terrifying and utterly incomprehensible. I wonder if the original vampires — not the sexy, angst-ridden, sparkly ones — were so scary because they had the outward semblance of humanity, but their nature was antithetical to life.What’s even scarier is when we start thinking about “those people over there” in the same way.
Then there is the problem of evil itself. Whether or not we begin with a belief in a universal force of corruption and harm-seeking, we will surely create it in our own imaginations by this process of turning an adversary into “the other.” But aren’t there people — and characters — who do terrible, terrible things? Aren’t they evil? I think we use the word in different ways. If I said Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin were evil, I would mean that they caused such horrendous suffering and committed such heinous crimes that words fail me. It’s shorthand for horror so great it will take generations to heal.
Evil in story-telling, on the other hand, can be a force in its own right, the distillation of everything that makes the hairs on your neck stand on end and your mouth turn dry; there is no reasoning with it, no way to bargain with it or earn its respect. None of the things that are important to us — integrity, generosity, fidelity, altruism, for example — avail against its implacable, relentless power. It will overcome and corrupt us no matter what we do. This is, I think, the shadow that has haunted Western civilization for a long, long time. If I picked any particular era, I’d have half my historian friends on my case, so let it rest as “a long time.” My point is that it’s influenced how we see those obstacle-characters, and how we distort the enemy-of-the-moment.
Regardless of our politics, as writers it behooves us to be mindful of how we portray our antagonists. I’m not suggesting that all quarrels can be resolved with a little touchy-feely therapy and a cup of tea. We want our protagonists to have something substantial and competent with which to strive, and we want the consequences of failure to be terrible indeed. But that doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate hateful stereotypes. If you want your hero to wage a battle against Evil Incarnate, then make Evil Incarnate truly inhuman. If, on the other hand, you want your antagonist to be human, then make him or her gloriously human.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.
The image is Lucifer, from Cathédrale Saint-Paul de Liège, Belgium, by Guillaume Geef, mid-19th Century. Photo by Vassil.