How does one begin to define a villain? How about a hero? In old Westerns or fairy tales, the differences were typically obvious and easily recognizable. The youthful hero dressed in white taking on the bad guy draped in black. Yet, as stories advance and grow more complex than the often Disney-fied fairy tales, the distinctions between characters become far less clear.
My fascination with the role of the villain began in my early teens. I was about thirteen when I read my first vampire novel, Interview with the Vampire. It was a tale which took a creature traditionally found in the role of a villain, the vampire, and placed him into the role of the protagonist, generally reserved for the hero. The novel, written by Anne Rice, takes the reader into the heart and soul of its hero, a creature born of darkness. By listening to the character’s first person account of their life’s story, the majority of readers find themselves attempting to understand the viewpoint of the vampire and come to sympathise with this traditionally dark character.
In 16th & 17th century British Literature, the term for a villain placed into the role of the protagonist was referred to as a ‘villain-hero.’ Classic examples include Shakespeare’s Richard III, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Milton’s Lucifer. These stories had characters who often proved as, if not more, interesting than the heroes who attempted to stop them. The difference, however, was that in these older tales, the villain almost always remained true to their nature, and could never be called a hero.
This changes in the more modern era where villains have begun to rise from their traditional roles to not only take the place of the protagonist, but of the actual heroic role. From new versions of the fairy tale where the villain pleads to have their side of the story told, to the monster who proves himself capable of showing his once lost humanity, villains are rising from the shadows into the spotlight. This trend is popular not only in literature, but on the small screen as well. Popular shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Shield show heroes of questionable morals, more commonly termed ‘antiheroes’ in the modern day. Characters who can easily be identified as “other” by a normal, law-abiding society. Yet as the protagonist of their respective shows, audiences inevitably find themselves cheering for these corrupt individuals as they journey through the characters’ personal trials and tribulations, often involving the same issues of love, friendship, and hardships that plague more traditionally heroic characters.
What, exactly, causes a character to become a villain? Do they have a story to tell and if so, what part of their history helped to transform them into a character of dark portrayal? Are they villains because of their actions, or the more complex issue of possessing a different set of beliefs from those upheld by the hero or society at large?
When I began to write this debut novel, it was with these questions in mind. I desired to explore the nature of the villain writing from a first person point of view. Following the path of my protagonist from the innocence of youth, readers are allowed to travel with her into her slow descent to darkness. They watch her first experiences with seduction, torture, and death. They witness her inner turmoil as she is asked to take her first life and experience her pain as she is forced to surrender all she holds dear – friendships, love, and eventually, her very humanity.
Yet not all is as it seems. As my protagonist is slowly indoctrinated into the Empire, instilled within her is a belief system that is very alien to those upheld by the majority of the western world. She is taught and trained from her youth to believe that emotions are for the weak. That torture can be a necessary evil, or a priceless work of art. That, for the good of the Empire, you must sacrifice the lives of those lower in rank in order to protect those who are responsible for its survival, and above all – the most glorious achievement to be attained is to die in service to the Empire. These core beliefs come to define her character and are used to justify her actions when called upon to explain the dark twists and turns of her life. The question becomes, can this woman fairly be judged a ‘villain?’ Can she even be considered a human?
For an ‘antihero’ or ‘villain-hero,’ the definition of a moral code takes on a new meaning. With these characters, whether in Dexter, where a serial-killer only hunts other serial-killers, or in Rice’s novels where the protagonist vampires vow to only hunt the wicked, there is almost always a code by which these characters choose to live by. These codes often do not align themselves with the standards that citizens are expected to hold in regular society. However, they nevertheless stand in the place of more traditional moral requirements. Under these personal moral and behavioural codes, the reader or audience is able to hold the protagonist to a certain level of expectation which the character’s code serves to enforce. It is only in the act of breaking these often self-imposed codes of conduct, by which the antihero engages in truly ‘villainous’ activity.
For me, this novel comprises a very deep and personal journey into the exploration of what, exactly, constitutes, a ‘villain.’ One that is as capable of friendship, love, and heartache as any who might be called a ‘hero.’ I have attempted to align my protagonist with the traditions of the ‘villain-heroes’ who came before, exploring the nature of evil, humanity, and heroism to discover that not every hero is innocent and not every villain is soulless.
One response to “Dark Side of a Hero”
This is an interesting insight into a villain. Do you use a similar process when crafting the heroes in your stories?