Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Value of the Vulnerable Villain

by Gary Fearon

With Halloween not far away, it seems a fitting time to honor the bad guys of fiction, without whom there wouldn't be much of a story.  Without a worthy foe, a hero is just another joe.

It's not hard to come up with a character whose wants are in direct opposition to those of our protagonist.  The trick is creating a bad guy to whom the reader can relate, a connection which inherently increases the fear factor.  To see ourselves reflected in a villain can be quite disquieting.

Hungry Hungry Hannibal
Who could resist the cultured charm of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs?  Certainly not FBI ingénue Clarice Starling, in spite of — or perhaps because of — his ability to get into her head. But Hannibal wasn't always a cannibal.  His propensity for people eating has its roots in a childhood tragedy in which his own sister was devoured.  While that would ruin most normal appetites, we can appreciate that it could put a side of insanity on the menu.

Speaking of charmers, the man Harry Potter fans know as Snape made his mark in the movies by playing Die Hard's dapper terrorist Hans Gruber.  (Not to be confused with classical composer Heinz Gruber, although there was a certain artful orchestration to his masterminding.)  

We may think of the Wicked Witch of the West as little more than the green face of evil.  But I'd be a little miffed too if someone dropped a house on my sister.  And I don't even have one.

Captain Hook's beef with Peter Pan goes way back, but wasn't helped by the fact that the very reason he has a hook is because of Peter.  Avenging an injustice, again, can be a powerful motivator.

More recently, a pivotal character in The Fault in Our Stars seems at first to have no redeeming qualities until the cause of his unsociable behavior is revealed. 
A look at most of the classic movie monsters — presumably the most heinous of the horde — reveals a deep-seated humanity, often that of a misunderstood or tortured soul.  From the Wolfman to the Frankenstein creation that started it all, most were innocent recipients of their lot in life. Quasimodo and The Phantom of the Opera are at their core pathetic figures deformed by life and a lack of love.  

We do well whenever we can cast a villain who is more than a cardboard cutout of crime.  The more relatable he is, the more we sympathize with him, and the more real he becomes.

Basically, we love a villain who has a heart.  As long as it's not someone else's.

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