Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Still Thinking About Literary Villains

In response to my post about literary villains, my friend Gary left some comments. The gist of what he wrote was the people like to dislike the villain. If you give them some virtue, the reaction will be that they feel sorry for the villain. Then they won't hate him enough. Then their enjoyment of the literary experience will be reduced, because they will not be able to hate the villain enough. At least, I think that's an accurate summary. Gary, feel free to comment if I didn't get that right.

Part of this all must be the role the villain plays. In fact, perhaps the word villain is part of the problem. Take Scrooge for instance. He certainly starts out as a villain, but goes through a character arc that has him come out the hero. He is the protagonist who goes through a transformation. Darth Vader is the same. He is the antagonist who goes through a transformation from bad to good—or actually from good to bad to good when all six movies are considered. He is certainly villainous, but ends up good.

Voldemort fulfills a different function. He is a villain who stays a villain throughout the seven books, and in fact seems to get more villainous as the story progresses. In the back story, it's clear he wasn't always a bad guy (again, I'm basing this on the movies only, since I haven't read the books). I understand he doesn't go through a bad to good transformation, so remains a villain to the end. We hate Voldemort in the end. We love Scrooge in the end. We sort of love Darth Vader in the end, though he has less time to make amends than Scrooge did.

This all brings me back to my beginning point: Is the conventional wisdom, as taught in the writing classes I've attended, correct? Must we give our villains antagonists a virtue or two, to flesh them out and not be cardboard characters? I'm still working through that. Maybe I can leave Colt Washburn, Chicago Mafia Don in In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People, as a bad dude and not worry about giving him any redeeming qualities.


Gary said...

Yes, Dave; that summary of my comment is about right. My Kate, a beginning fiction writer herself, thinks that villains don't need (and probably shouldn't have) real virtues to gain audience sympathy. All they need are realistic bad characteristics that readers can identify with. The villain's traits are exaggerated, of course, but readers will recognize their own small-mindedness in odious bigotry, their covetiousness in monstrous jealousy, their nastiness in stark cruelty, and their pridefullness in megalomania. The trick is not in finding a virtue that humanizes the villain; it's in making the villain's bad characteristics merely congruent with our own real faults. Thus we see the villain as more than a flat plot device and maybe even deserving of sympathy.

David A. Todd said...

If what you say is true, Gary (and I'm not saying it's not), then the writing classes I've attended are feeding wannabe writers a lot of huey concerning the villain's role, or rather how to craft the villain's character. This is worth some discussion. I may post again.