Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Case for "Nicer" Villains

by R.C. Lewis

Yeah, read that title again.

Here's what I don't mean. I don't mean antagonists need to ease up on the meanness and be warm and fuzzy by the end of the story. This isn't even about antagonists having a reason—maybe even a sympathetic one—for being how they are. (Although that's not a bad idea.)

There can be as many kinds of villains as there are heroes. Sometimes the straight-up evil kind fits the bill. Voldemort had some lousy childhood moments, but in the end, how many of us feel really feel sorry for him, even a smidgen?

And here's another thing. How many of us genuinely think we'll ever run into a Voldemort in real life?

But there are real villains in the world. Bad ones. They're not 100% evil, with a deformed snaky-face to serve as their membership badge in Club Evil. They're not all psychopaths and sociopaths like you see on crime dramas.

If you ask me, that makes them scarier. We can't look at someone and know that he hits his wife, or that she's emotionally abusive to her son. Wouldn't it be nice if we could? So much easier.

Abusers can show kindness. The "bad guy" can have legitimate "good" traits. It doesn't excuse the evil they do, and I think that's the point in making at least some of our villains nuanced this way. Because otherwise, when real-world villainy happens, victims and third parties alike may think things such as...

"But he's a nice guy, so what happened can't be bad. Not really."

"But she's a good mother, so this must be a mistake."

"But they're all good students. It's not possible they could do something so terrible."

Does any of that sound familiar?

I think perhaps reality-based stories (contemporary, for example) may be better at including some of those shades in their antagonists. More so than speculative genres, anyway. We have more Voldemorts. More mad scientists and megalomaniacs. More extremes.

Maybe we can bring a little more reality to our stories. More dimension to our Big Bad. And help our readers see that all kinds of people can do very, very bad things.

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. Her debut novel Stitching Snow is coming from Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.


JeffO said...

I agree completely, RC. It's funny, my wife likes shows like Criminal Minds, CSI and the like. I find the bad guys--particularly on Criminal Minds--to be largely ridiculous. The mustache-twirling, hand rubbing, cackling mastermind has a place, but I do like a 'villain' who isn't quite so villainous.

Madseasongirl said...

Excellent post. "Nicer" villains are scarier because as you said, they hit closer to home. It's the ones that make you go, "WTF?? I didn't know they had that in them!" that make for an evil that gets under the skin.

Don't get me wrong, I do love a good obvious bad guy, but even Voldemort and Valentine and the Volturi (wow, what's with all the Vs?) weren't evil just because it was cool. Even they thought they were doing it for some greater good or higher purpose.

But I agree. Bad guys, whether they're a sheep in wolf's clothing or wearing a neon sign broadcasting their evilness, can benefit from having redeeming qualities and a bit of subtlety to their villainy.

Time to go check on my own antagonists.

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