I like playing in my mind with the thoughts around the proverb there are two sides to every story / two sides of the same coin. What seems like the right thing for me might not be the right thing for someone else. We are all the heroes of our own stories and those who oppose us are the bad guys.
I have this analytical fancy with the fiction I read. I’ve always had a thing for the baddies, the villains. Both the morally difficult anti-hero and the straight up antagonist. It’s not an attraction to them, but definitely a fascination. I read, and watch, and since I can’t help myself, I find myself asking; What made them into the things they are? What kind of thinking lies behind the acts that are taken against their counterpart? What’s the underlying motivation, their reasoning, and excuses for behaving the way they do?
Books and films are full of them; villains, baddies, bad guys, black hats, evil agencies, antagonist, arch enemies and the nemesis.
I love flawed characters with rich back stories, even if it’s not told completely you can hint it, like a vague scent of childhood trauma or the death of their loved ones. I enjoy any type of well written character but give me a good villain and I’m sold.
Fantastic minor and major antagonists, and characters of doubtful allegiance can be found in many places. We have Darth Vader, Gollum, Voldemort, The Joker… Just to mention a few.
The word villain comes from an old anglo-french word that meant farmhand. Not that farmhands are cruel or evil but it was used as an opposing term for a knight. So a vilain was an unchivalrous character, someone capable of doing things that a knight, being noble and honorable, would never do. It started out as a derogatory term and became more and more the word we use today. More a general bad person than a farmhand.
Sometimes your story’s protagonist is the villain and you find yourself, at least partially, cheering for what you know is the evil side. Like when we follow Michael Corleone from The Godfather and we find ourselves rooting for the Corleones despite all the shady maffia dealings they get up to.
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” – Mr. Wednesday in American Gods, written by Neil Gaiman.
I like flaws. Flaws complete a character, they make them feel realistic. We all have flaws. However in the literary aspect flaws can range all from saying inappropriate things, to some more extreme flaws like Hannibal Lecter’s interest in digesting his victims. Flaws like that are harder to swallow, if you pardon my pun.
I think that my biggest interest in villains is my need for reason and understanding. I always want to know why people do the things they do. In real life as well as in stories. I need to understand why people sometimes do bad things. Characters on a page are easier, and probably safer, to study than visiting a psychiatric institution or a prison. I have seen some cruel people in my life and I have taken a long, hard look at them to picture their side of things. Some made me question my responsibility in the situation and others I could not comprehend at all. But I will keep trying to understand and find compassion, even if they do me wrong. I will look at the other side of the coin to see the story they see. Because I hope that if I do someone wrong, they would find it in their hearts to see my side, to do the same for me.