“Who is to say who is the villain and who is the hero? Probably the dictionary.” – Joss Whedon
Author Astrid V. Tallaksen and I spent hours discussing villains this morning. Movies like Maleficent took a character we believed was wholly evil and retold the story in a way we could sympathize and even like her. Astrid pointed out that Game of Thrones watchers love Arya but hate the Hound, why are they so different? What makes a character sympathetic, either as a villain or a hero, so that we will forgive them anything? I’ve touched upon the idea in the past of villain not being simply black and white. Like all people, villains are three-dimensional and possess the capacity to express the whole spectrum of behaviors. We’re a species of contradictions. What motivates a villain to act? Is it on the orders of another, to gain something, revenge, a misguided sense of entitlement? History is written by the victors. The history we learn in school in one part of the world is vastly different from what a child somewhere else will learn. When a mutual war is discussed, who do you think is cast in the role of villain in each classroom?
“All things truly wicket start from innocence” – Hemingway
I’m a believer that to have one extreme, you must balance it with the other. I can’t hate without having loved. Crimes of passion are the greatest example of this and Darth Vader is the epitome of a passionate villain. His reasons for allowing himself to go over to the dark side weren’t selfish in the beginning. He allowed grief and loss to cloud his judgement and once he was on a trajectory for the Sith, he couldn’t change his course. The movie Legend (1985) is all about the balance of good and evil and how they rely on each other to keep the world level. The unicorns are the symbol of purity and light. They are being stalked by Darkness, the personification of evil and shadows played wonderfully by Tim Curry. In the movie the girl Lily is curious and I believe a parallel to Eve. She wishes to do the forbidden, touch a unicorn, even after her love interest Jack (Tom Cruise) warns her against it. Throughout the movie we watch Lily grow from curious innocent to corrupt. Darkness delights in his corruption of Lily because as an innocent she was a greater prize to win.
“You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world” – John Rogers
Game of Thrones is a wellspring of characters believing wholeheartedly in their own cause. Tywin Lannister is protecting his family name, Arya Stark is avenging her family, Daenerys Targaryen is building an army; everyone has a reason to justify anything they do. No one is willing to go as far as Queen Cersei Lannister. In her own mind she is cementing her children’s position in the world. She’s a brilliant woman with a mind to rival many of the male strategists in the series and yet she is treated like a simpering maid because she is a woman. Her hatred for her brother Tyrion is because she blames him for the loss of their mother. She’s not a nice person and extremely dangerous but I can understand the reasons she feels pushed to act the way she does.
Astrid V. Tallaksen: What about Arya? She’s killed a lot of people, she’s a little psychopath, but she’s not considered a villain even though Joffrey or the Hound are.
Bridget Blackwood: Because we’ve been with her from the beginning and know her reasons.
Astrid: But The Hound has reasons too. What makes her a ‘sympathetic’ character and him not?
Bridget: We watched her family tragedy, she’s a kid, and a girl. None of that is an excuse to go around killing people though.
Astrid: Right. And she doesn’t do it in self-defense. Usually it is cold-blooded or for revenge.
Other examples would be Artemisia from 300: Rise of an Empire and The Winter Soldier from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” – Nietzsche
Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of Batman was beautifully done. The truth and what we perceive as the truth are not the same. Batman is the protagonist but he’s hunted as the problem in Gotham many times. Harvey Dent doesn’t stay on the straight and narrow becoming Two Face. His transformation and single-minded desire to kill Batman is understandable given what he’s been through. If he’d had more time to process he might have been fine. Instead he’s goes out a villain but is praised as a hero by the citizens of Gotham. Crusading for a cause is one of the fastest ways to find yourself labeled a villain.
“Ahh but I’m the villain, and villains don’t get happy endings” – Rumplestiltskin, Once Upon a Time.
Some villains break my heart. Once I can feel for them I want them to find a way out of the darkness and get their own happy ending. It’s rare for this to actually happen. Magneto, Khan, General Zod; there just isn’t any plausible scenario I can see for them to get out of their stories alive and well. Even in a world where you can empathize with the villains, someone always has to pay the price in the end.
“But who prays for Satan? Who, in 18 centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner who needed it most?” – Mark Twain
Regardless of their reasons, villains are guilty of crimes. We shouldn’t allow them to get away with heinous acts simply because we might understand what pushed them to the deeds. On the flip side, trying to view a villain as a horrible non-human creature bent on nothing but destruction isn’t the way to go either. Where is the line between the two?
I think that it’s all about relatability. If a character is relatable, we tend to be more understanding of their flaws & character traits, especially once we understand their deeper motivations. Kinda like the “Evil Queen” on OUAT. At first we hated Regina, but as we heard her back story, saw her inner tragedies and pains, we felt for her…and then began to cheer for her. – Kitt Crescendo
Pure evil characters can be fun to write, but it is far more realistic to show how easily you could become the villain with the right circumstances. I leave you with a final quote to ponder and ask you to tell me what you think about villains.
“The fact is that we have no way of knowing if the person who we think we are is at the core of our being. Are you a decent girl with the potential to someday become an evil monster, or are you an evil monster that thinks it’s a decent girl?” – Derek Landy