THE SYMPATHETIC VILLAIN
By Tess Collins
First published in The Writer, Feb. 2001.
Tess Collins is the author of Law of Revenge, The Law of the Dead, two plays: TOSSING MONTE and BARBARIANS, and has published articles on writing for Byline Magazine and The Writer. Miss Collins is a member of Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America and received a B.A. from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from The Union Institute.
If Hannibal Lector were a real person, not many of us would invite him to dinner. Fewer people would accept a date with Dracula, sign a contract with the Devil, go on a cruise with Captain Ahab or want Javert as their local police inspector. Yet writers can make these characters so compelling that they are as memorable as the protagonist. By sympathetic, I do not mean that the writer is in sympathy with a villain, but rather an empathy is created to enhance the dimensions of the character.
The simplistic villain is mindlessly evil or mischievously wicked. This bad person bedevils the hero-with reason, without reason-it doesn't matter, so long as an obstacle is created. The problem is that a one-dimensional sinister person isn't particularly interesting to read about. An opponent's actions are predictable in so far as they try to thwart the hero. What makes the villain riveting is the same qualities that make the hero compelling. Shades of Antagonism
Villains can be written as rivals, enemies, obstacles, or forces of nature. An adversary may compete with the hero for a job, a spouse or even respect. Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William's Streetcar Named Desire is at odds with his fragile sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois from the moment she arrives. They compete for space in the apartment, her sister Stella's affections, and ultimately, for who has more right to respect as a human being. With each conflict the stakes become higher until their final confrontation where only one will emerge with their sanity.
What makes this kind of character like the protagonist is that he or she wants the same thing, probably for the same or similar reasons. Blanche has called Stanley an animal in his own home. She undermines him with his wife, exploits his friends, and would have him turned out of the apartment for his brutish behavior. Blanche needs a home. Stanley is determined that it not be his.
In some instances it may be more exciting to have the rival need the goal even more than the hero. How the two go about accomplishing the objective is what makes them different. Whether or not a rival becomes an enemy is played out in his or her actions and motives. In Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz, both Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West need the ruby slippers. Dorothy has to have the shoes for protection, and though unaware, needs them to get home. The Witch wants them to boast her powers, and in her viewpoint, the shoes belong to her by right of kinship. The hero plays it straight, helps her friends and walks the yellow brick road to seek her way home. The Wicked Witch throws obstacles at every turn. She grows poppies that makes the hero fall asleep, writes threatening messages in the sky and sends flying monkeys to kidnap her. In the final showdown only one of them can have the slippers. In this sense, the villain drives the story while the hero responds to these nefarious actions.
Antagonists should be psychologically complex. Disregard for the welfare other characters is only the surface layer of sinister skin. The reason for the indifference is more intriguing. Captain Ahab's mission to kill Moby Dick overrides the welfare of his own crew. He leads them to their deaths rather than give up his quest of destroying the whale that he considers a greater evil. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Creature kills everyone around the doctor who created him. The Creature wants the scientist to suffer as he has. Alec d'Uberville is a ladies man accustomed to having his way when he takes advantage of Tess. He manipulates her and is determined to own her. Yet throughout Thomas Hardy's novel, we see him sincerely concerned for Tess's family, disturbed by her back-breaking labor at the Flintcomb-Ash farm and his numerous offers to help her stem from genuine regard and remorse for his actions.
The hero is an obstacle to what the villain wants; maybe there is a past history of family discord; or the hero could have done something the villain resents. Consider this previous sentence once again. The hero is an obstacle, has a history with the antagonist and acts to impede or stop the villain. Aren't these the same circumstances in which heroes find themselves in regard to the villain? Doesn't this make them somewhat alike? Being alike, we can now take the leap of recognizing that they have some of the same conflicts.
Showing the adversary's conflicts makes for a multi-dimensional character and lets the reader struggle along with these disharmonious aspects for a more intense emotional experience. This can be deepened by adding elements of surprise to the antagonist's internal discord. The choices made will also be what makes the reader identify with the hero. Villainous choices are not usually moral actions. The reader will want the villain to fail because his or her goals are not sympathetic.
Suppose the villain comes to the conclusion that the only way to achieve a goal is to kill the hero's mother. A terrible act. A cold-blooded killer pulls the gun, shoots, walks away, goal accomplished. Probably a better choice is to make the character conflicted about this decision. In varying degrees, he or she could be physically sickened by the prospect of murder. They might try to get another character to talk them out of it, or try to talk themselves out of it. Complicate the scenario more-what if the mother is a childhood friend of the villain; what if the mother saved the life of the villain's kid; what if during the implementation of the killing, the villain falls in love with the mother? These complications conflict antagonists and make their choices as much of a struggle as the hero must face. It makes them more interesting to read about than the bad-guy who grips the gun, pulls the trigger, and deed done.
In Les Miserables Inspector Javert hounds Jean Valjean for a lifetime. When finally is in the position to returned the fugitive to prison, he lets him go free. Afterwards, the gravity of his decision tortures him. He struggles with his singular belief in the sanctity of the law, his own conscience and his sense of duty. Unable to come to terms with what he has done, he ends his life.
What if the threat is non-human? No one feels sorry for the shark in Jaws or for an asteroid or tornado that sweeps away everything the protagonists owns. But how much more chilling these forces of nature are when they are personalized as if they were human villains. Often it is the scientist or environmentalist who gives some sort of plausibility to the non-human menace. Hey, the shark was only hungry that is why it ate those tourists. The massive tornado was created because of weather changes caused by global warming made by man's abuse of the environment. The apocalyptic asteroid had been predicted since biblical times, and we foolish humans didn't invest enough in space exploration to deal with it. In Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain a satellite crashes in an Arizona town releasing space pathogens which kill the inhabitants and threatens the world. Man's intent to conquer the universe backfires while bacteria does what it has always done since the beginning of time. Evil requires a moral choice so the story of the non-human threat is made more interesting by human weakness. Unforgettable Villains
Sympathetic doesn't necessarily mean we want to befriend the villain. Thomas Harris' villain Hannibal Lector is a fascinating antagonist. He's charming, and despite the heinous deeds, we want to know more about him, more about what made him like he is. In Silence of the Lambs his manipulative interest in Clarice Starling engages our curiosity and increases our fear for her. Readers find themselves looking forward to the narrative which includes the villain. "What is Lector going to do?" becomes as important a story question as Clarice's journey to solve the case of the serial killer.
In Paradise Lost Milton gives the Devil most of the good lines. This simile-talking demon is a romantic at heart. Jesus Christ, plausibly the hero, has less interesting dialog though he is the moral success. The Devil is a more intriguing character because we feel sorry for his plight and to a degree, sympathize with the underdog. As a child Heathcliff is the scapegoat in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. He is beaten, denied an education and barred from the only home he knows. When he grows into a cruel and vengeful man who destroys two families, the reader still longs for him to find redemption and love. Only death releases the character's agony and gives emotional fulfillment to the reader who can now imagine the spirit of Heathcliff roaming the moors with his beloved Catherine.
Consider a character who is run out of town everywhere he goes. If he is caught, he faces death. He is shunned, despised and feared. This could describe Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Miserables. But what if every time this man appeared, the daughters of the town were found drained of their blood? Ahh, Dracula, you realize. On a subconscious level, we sympathize with vampires because they are hunted prey who will meet a terrible end. Once they were endowed with the sexiness, self-doubt and struggle of the vampire LeStat, well, the rest is fiction history.
We may or may not be intrigued by terrorists, depending on their goals and acts. Politics is a difficult genre when it comes to creating villains because readers are less likely to be swayed by political arguments if they already have firmly-held beliefs. However, remember that at one time in history George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were revolutionaries. Today's terrorist can be tomorrow's fathers of our country. Good Villains
What makes a good villain? Philosophy. Vision. Humanity. A sense of history. The same qualities that make a good hero. This doesn't mean a nice bad-guy or girl, but an unpredictable, untrustworthy individual who will keep the reader engaged. What the enemy will do next must be as thought-provoking as the plot twists. Being unsure of an adversary's future actions makes the reader keep reading. The antagonists goals involve the protagonist and that keeps the reader on edge. In fiction, two characters can't have the same thing-whether it is money, a job or a love interest. The good villain is a memorable villain. Try to forget Dracula or Hannibal, and then, see how many times they invade your dreams.
We fear these characters because they are so different from us. A vampire or serial killer takes actions that are so horrendous it is easy to fear them. Perhaps even more troubling is the villain in the mirror. Bad guys often appear as leaders in society and pillars of the community while the hero is the outlaw. These antagonists are recognizable and this time it's familiarity that makes them frightening. Big Nurse in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest runs a efficient, orderly ward. She is the model of competency and the kind of capable employee anyone would want. When the unruly McMurphy challenges her, she has him lobotomized with the same unemotional composure with which she ran the ward. In her mind, restoring order means taking whatever action is necessary.
Ultimately we put our empathy on hold to accept these characters as villains because they do sinister acts despite any sympathy we may have for their situations. Deep down we know Dracula will kill you, the Devil will take you to hell, and Hannibal Lector will eat you.
Clichés and Stereotypes
When characters are cowboys and Indians, the good cowboys always kill the bad Indians or the good Indians are attacked by the bad cowboys. Cowboys and cowboy stories are weakest when differentiated simply by clothes, with some wearing white hats-the good guys-and the bad guys naturally wear the black hats. Serial killers are becoming dangerously close to becoming clichés because they are so prevalent in fiction and rarely are portrayed as having comprehensible reasons that connect to the hero's goals. They are simply killing machines. When in danger of writing a cliché, consider the story from the villain's viewpoint and try to escape the stereotype. Malificent, the evil fairy of Sleeping Beauty, curses the princess. Why? She didn't get invited to the party! We know what that feels like. It feels like crap! If we think about it long enough, we might get angry. We might throw my own party or we might plot revenge. Malificent might have had a point-at least a point of view that though unexplored in the fairytale, her humanity should not be ignored by the modern writer.
Villain vs. Hero
The ancient god Zeus was said to be Janus-faced, that is, looking in both directions. The villain, perhaps even more than the hero, needs this same quality. By having a good side and a bad side, the adversary can more fully test the hero. He or she can strive more passionately to make the hero fail. An opponent can be drawn as an antagonist who is at odds with the protagonist but not evil. These are the foes which readers more easily identify. It is the truly evil villain who needs to be rendered as a more complex character. An infusion of humanity changes them into a worthy opponent. When these villains try to destroy protagonists they bet their life on it because what is at stake is important to every fiber of their being. With uncertain possibilites a reader can't help but become emotionally involved in the story. Most importantly, the writer should always remember that while they are writing a book about their hero, from the villain's perspective it is they who are the heroes of their own story.
[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]