Thursday, December 9, 2010

Literary Villains: Is the Conventional Wisdom Right?

Attend any class on writing fiction and before long you will hear this mantra: Your heroes must have some faults and your villains must have some good traits. You can't make your heroes so ooey-gooey nice and perfect that they are unbelievable. And you can't make your villains so absolutely awful that there is nothing redeemable in them. Well, you can, but your novel will be the worse for your doing so.

This was news to me when I first heard this in a fiction writing class at a writers conference, but it kind of makes sense. Fictional characters ought to reflect real life to some extent. Few people in real life are totally good or totally bad. Actually, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say no one is totally good or totally bad. Even if a novel is fantasy, and doesn't include humans at all, we human readers judge the novel by our human experience, and the non-human characters must be believable and real based on our human experiences.

But in literature, is this true? Do successful writers always give their heroes faults and their villains virtues? For heroes, I think this is probably true. A big part of any heroes' quest is to overcome obstacles, both those that the world throws at them and those that are within them. But for villains, is this so?

I'm thinking of the Harry Potter series, and of Harry and Voldemort. Now, I must preface this by saying I've not read the books! I intend to, and will be doing so within a year, I think. I'm basing this on the movies. I've seen all seven, and those who have both read the books and seen the movies indicate the movies are fairly faithful to the books. Harry has his faults. We easily see this in his movie portrayal. But does Voldemort have any virtues?

I looked hard for Voldemort virtues in the movies, and haven't found any. I suppose you might say he has a virtue of making an accurate assessment of his chances in a fight against Harry. He says he could not overcome Harry's wand and that Harry has a type of wizardry, provided by Lily Potter, that he, Voldemort, needs something more to overcome. He doesn't pump himself up by ascribing his failure to kill Harry to bad luck. But that's a pretty small virtue, I think.

We might be able to have some sympathy for Voldemort based on the circumstances of his birth and parentage. But sympathy and virtue are not the same.

So, as I write my fiction and flesh out characters, I wonder just how much virtue I should add to the antagonists, the villains. What good characteristics should I give to Tony Mancuso, the Mafia Don who wants to prevent the success of phenom pitcher Ronny Thompson, the hero of my In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People? Should I add a couple of good characteristics to Claudius Aurelius, the corrupt government official who want to stop Luke from writing a biography of Jesus in Doctor Luke's Assistant? I've worked hard to give these villains some redeeming qualities, but I'm wondering if it's a waste of time. Perhaps readers like their villains to be really, really bad—to hate them thoroughly, not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for them. Certainly, if Voldemort's abject villainy contributes to the success of the Harry Potter books, one would think that is the case.

What say you, my few readers? Do you want the villains in the novels you read to have a virtue or two? Do you want to feel some sympathy for the antagonist, and think, "Oh, if only his parents had treated him better he wouldn't have turned out so bad."? Or do you just want to hate the villain and love the hero?

An inquiring novelist wants to know.


Gary said...

I suppose it comes down to your definition of 'virtue.' HWMNBN (He Who Must Not Be Named) is relentless in his pursuit of power. Is that a virtue? Total devotion to a goal would be virtuous in the case of your baseball phenom struggling against the odds of a successful major league career. In a villain, however, it's more of a perverse obsession. Of course, HWMNBN is also a racist, the most foul of faults today, so that warps his otherwise positive quality.

I think that only if you have a subplot of the villain perhaps turning good, can you really endow him with any virtues. If you view character progression as inevitably moving to the ends of the good-bad spectrum, then villains must grow worse with time. The Lord of the Rings plainly shows that any touch of evil will drag the good from light to darkness and ultimately corrupt completely. Villains who merely are plot devices to challenge the protagonist don't need complicating characteristics.

Finally, people read fiction for vicarious experience. Most probably sympathize with the protagonist so they want the antagonist to get his deserved punishment. A redeeming virtue in the bad guy would make his doom less justified to the empathetic reader and provoke some psychological discomfort. That's going to translate into not liking the book and not recommending it to others in most cases.

Gary said...

Kate and I got to discussing this tonight at dinner. We tried to think of stories with bad guy protagonists and speculate on the virtues they possess:

Screwtape - of the eponymous letters



Scrooge - A Christmas Carol

Norman Bates - Psycho

What do you think their virtues are?

David A. Todd said...

Hmmm, good points Gary. I suppose we (meaning the society of readers) want to hate the villain, not feel sorry for him. We must tend to like it when the character arc is toward greater and greater evil.

Which makes me wonder why, in the writing classes I've attended (all associated with conferences), they say "give your villains virtues; don't make them totally bad." It seems that is something the reading public might disagree with. So maybe the experts are giving bad advice in this case.

A villain who went through a character arc from good to bad back to good was Darth Vader. Only at the last of the six movies, in the few scenes, did his redeeming qualities show. Of course, that's the movies, not books, but the same "rules" sort of apply.

David A. Todd said...

Concerning the other villains:

Screwtape's "virtue" is his unwittingly telling Christains how to live a better life, how to recognize and resist temptation. Of course, he didn't do that on purpose, so it isn't actually redeeming. Since TSL doesn't feel like a novel (though it is), maybe Screwtape's villainhood is an outlier.

I've not read Hamlet and MacBeth enough or recently enough to have an opinion. Shakespear has never been one of my favorites (probably I just spoke sacrilige to a literary man). Nor have I ever seen Psycho, so can't comment on Norman Bates. In this instance, my absenting myself from a lot of modern cultural things is limiting me.

Scrooge as a villain is quite a good story. His road to villainhood was failure of his dad to properly parent him. In the end he comes around to the man that was lurking within him. Since Scrooge is the protagonist, I'm not sure he qualifies as the villain, though he certainly is villainous.

I suppose, besides Darth Vader, another villain of note is Professor Moriarity. However I've only just begun my reading of Sherlock Holmes, and actually haven't come across him in any of the short stories I've read.