Vilify Me

In a book I finished several months ago, I had an epiphany about villains. They don’t think they’re villains. The evil cheerleader who picks on the ugly girl with glasses? She doesn’t think she’s evil. Maybe she’s picking on the ugly girl because the ugly girl did something that hurt her when they were in grade school, and she’s holding a grudge. In that case–according to the cheerleader, the ugly girl is the villain and is only getting what’s deserved.

Let’s consider Professor Snape in Harry Potter. He’s the ultimate complex character. He’s the bad guy, a constant thorn in Harry’s side. And yet . . . he’s also a sympathetic character. We feel sorry for him, we understand his motivations, and sometimes he’s helping our protagonists achieve their goals. Sometimes he’s doing things that good guys do. So is he good or bad?

That depends on who you’re asking. Harry would say Snape’s the villain. Snape would call himself the hero. He made the hard choice, did what had to be done, and he did it all for the love of one woman. Isn’t that heroic? Doesn’t that deserve our approval? Or if not approval, at the very least, it deserves our understanding, and certainly doesn’t deserve our censure.

In fact, all bad guys are the heroes of their own stories. They don’t think of themselves as diabolically evil. They usually think of themselves as avengers of wrongs done to them. Or they’re egomaniacs who really think the world would be better if they were in charge, and they can’t figure out why everyone’s trying to stop them.

This is important to remember when writing about bad guys–They usually have some strong motivating factor to act the way they do. A bad guy with the depth of the puddle isn’t very interesting. Your hero is only as strong as his nemesis. You write a strong villain, and it will force your hero to step up to the plate and be equal and surpassing of that strength–because the hero has to win and he can’t if the villain is stronger.

But if you have a weak, two-dimensional bad guy, your hero will also be weak. The best way to give characters complexity and therefore make them interesting is to avoid the “absolute” personality.

No one is absolutely evil. No one is absolutely good. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

I truly believe that the very best humans are capable of horrible acts if given the right circumstances, and the very worst humans are capable of great kindness if given the right circumstances. Keeping in mind that everyone has their reasons for the things they do will enrich your story and make sure that the characters stay in character. So now you know Snape is my favorite villain and why, who is yours?

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3 Responses to Vilify Me

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Orrin Porter Rockwall, of course. (You didn’t limit me to fiction.) My mom used to be pretty high up there in my villain/hero dynamic, too. Of course I’m being cheeky there, but with a point. Its very likely that, at some point in our life, someone we love became someone we also hated. Ultimately writers should tap into that when writing villains. Don’t just respect the villain, remember what there is about him/her to love.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    I think there’s a significant difference between how villains see themselves, and how the reader understands them. Arguably, every villain in fiction or history saw themselves as justified by circumstances, but that doesn’t mean they actually were (Cain, Judas, etc.). The fact that there are reasons or that sense of self-justification may explain the act(s), but it doesn’t make those actions either good or noble.

    So as an issue of craft I think the statement is right-on. The tendency to draw simplistic villains whose monologues express their desire to do evil for no purpose than because it’s evil or to oppose good only because it’s good is silly, and useful only in melodrama, fable, or the simplest morality tales. The villain has reasons that can be understood as justified (if not always good, reasonable, or proportional). How their actions flow from those justifications is an issue of craft for the writer and judgment for the reader.

    For me David Farland does a nice job in his Runelords series of exploring how understandable and even admirable intents can lead to the commission of hideous wrongs (as opposed to evils, which is an entirely different discussion)—with the difference between heel and hero being recognition that the act was in fact wrong, and attempting to repair that wrong versus shrugging it off and charging ahead.

    Which is part of why Snape was too despicable for me to really appreciate. The intensity of his loathing for a child who had done him no (direct) ill and his use of social and political authority to abuse that child put him beyond justification for me. His love of another man’s wife may (partially) explain his reasons, but it doesn’t redeem that abuse of authority in relentlessly bullying a child (his abuse of Lupin, Sirius, and James Potter remained within his peer group and were both understandable and justifiable, if arguably disproportionate).

    For me Snape was mostly understandable, but not admirable because his good acts were all selfish and he never accepted that his abuse of Harry might have been wrong.

    Other characters in the series worked better for me. Dumbledore’s racism as a young man was ugly, but he spent the rest of his life reversing his bad acts (even if Aberforth never accepted Albus’s repentence). I understood Umbridge’s sense of earned entitlement and moral authority even if I didn’t accept either her conclusions or her actions in light of it. Even the Malfoys made sense to me as part of an old aristocracy trying to retain separation and regain lost honor and authority in an increasingly democratized society. The goblins were fantastic.

    I think there is a meaningful difference between reasons for behavior and excuses for excess. As a beautiful and popular cheerleader my personal enmity to one who wronged me in the past justifies my sense of vindication at succeeding where the bespectacled ug-oh over there failed, and it even explains my choice to actively exclude or ignore her, or to return a bad act for a bad act. But it doesn’t quite justify ongoing and constant grinding of the faces of the poor for me, or justify constant abuse on the basis that they brought their misery on themselves.

    Proportionality has to play at some point for me to appreciate the villain as justifiable. Arguably the point of a villain is precisely that lack of proportional response.

    Interesting stuff. Thank you for raising the idea.

  3. Ivan Wolfe says:

    “That depends on who you’re asking. Harry would say Snape’s the villain. Snape would call himself the hero. ”

    Hmmm – really? What’s that line in the last chapter of the final book/final scene of the latest movie? Something like: “Albus Severus Potter – You were named after two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin, and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”

    Of course, Snape wasn’t the main villain anyway. Voldemort was, and he was absolutely 100% convinced he was doing the right thing. He was totally evil – I don’t think he has one redeeming characteristic, but he was the hero of his own story, as the saying goes.

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