My oft-misquoted literary idol, Stephen King, said in his manual On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” I find that to be easy to do, because—and here is confession time—my hero characters are not usually my darlings. Oh, they are certainly interesting (I hope), and fun to create, but they are not nearly as exciting to write as my villains! And, of course, we kill off our villains, all too often. The real question, though, is why are they so exciting? Just what is it about these terrible people that entrances us so much?
Cyndera’s most recent post gives some compelling answers, and I’ll not go back and repeat them. I will expand on them, though, and suggest this: Villains are fascinating characters because of the lure of the forbidden. Does it matter what, exactly, is forbidden? Of course not! But there is not a human on the planet who doesn’t know the temptation of forbidden fruit. We get it honest; Adam and Eve ate the apple, after all. For your villain, the fruit isn’t forbidden—or rather, he (or she) doesn’t care. When he bites in, we get to find out the answer to that age-old question, What if?
Villainy is a hot topic these days. More and more writers, on the page and on the screen, are creating villains who are complex, not to mention heroes who are flawed. This can only be a good thing. After all, we live in a jaded society; and let’s be honest, how many Supermen do we really need? Much has been written about Superman’s relevance as a heroic character, because he is, in essence, a god. He’s untouchable, aloof, and dare I say squeaky-clean? Give me Batman any day. For that matter, give me Two-Face! Now, there’s a character we can relate to. A hero or a villain is only relevant inasmuch as we can see ourselves in him. It’s a tight balance; we want to see something that we can aspire to (our Superman), and yet we want to see that we can, in fact, rise from where we are. Hence, the flaws in our heroes, and the virtues in our villains.
This brings us to the question: Can the villain be the heart of the story? In essence, we’re trying to make the villain into the protagonist. The protagonist of a story is the one whose goals are central to the story; the story is “about” whether the protagonist achieves his goals or not. Most of the time, the answer will be yes, but not necessarily. In popular culture, we could make a case that Darth Vader, while being the villain of the Star Wars films, is the protagonist (now that we have all six films to examine, at any rate; had we only the original trilogy, we would absolutely cast Luke Skywalker as the protagonist). He is clearly the villain, and yet it is his goals that shape the story. As well (and setting aside issues of the actors who played the part), the early chapters cast him in a sympathetic light: hard, single-minded, yet not wholly evil.
Viewpoints in literature, as with the rest of society, swing like a pendulum. Decades past have been dominated by Superman stories: clear-cut, squeaky-clean heroes; dastardly, reprehensible villains; diametrically-opposed goals for each; and good always wins. We may be swinging now to the opposite extreme, where everything is grey, and absolutes are frowned upon. I think that’s a fantastic turn of events for characters; I’m not so certain that it’s a good thing for plots. Call me old-fashioned, but I like stories where good wins. (To be fair, I don’t think that means the hero should always accomplish ALL of his goals! Sacrifice and loss have been making stories great since the dawn of time, and always will.) Nevertheless, I think there’s a place for the complex villain in today’s world; the type of complex, gray-area plot that is becoming more common, can allow a good villain to come into his own. Certainly there is no excuse for any writer who neglects his villains! They deserve as much respect as the heroes.
After all, our villains are part of us. Our heroes show us where we may go; our villains show us where we came from. They’re as complex as us; they took the choices before them, and went the other way. Rarely are they one-dimensional; rarely are they, in a nutshell, just plain bad. That’s what makes them worth our time. To borrow another line from Stephen King: “Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do—to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.”