Man or Monster: Unmasking Villains

The villain: literature’s favorite gray area, and a character with many faces.

“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.” ― Agnes Repplier

A manic cackle. A signature move or weapon. A dastardly plot and the dogged determination to see it through―no matter the cost.

These are just some of the stereotypical traits we’re taught early on to help us identify the villain of any given story. We weren’t supposed to analyze this character’s motives, or find something human in his or her actions―only the darkness splashed across his or her outward appearance, accentuating every evil deed and depraved threat. The truth is that this flat, unyielding, fairy-tale villain never even truly existed. I propose to you, my fellow writers and bibliophiles, that we put the final nail in its fictitious coffin today, and never look back. There is always more to the storyanother moving piece, a catalyst that shapes a character into the one we read about. The bad guys don’t always live in creepy castles or warn off innocents with their hideous looks, nor is it always so impossible to understand―at least to some degree―why someone might throw morals out the window in favor of one vendetta or another. “Villain” is, at best, an arbitrary assignation in storytelling. The villains that do the most damage aren’t void of all emotion, bumbling idiots, mindless killing machines, or clichés sitting around petting their hairless cats and twirling their mustaches―even if it is indeed one killer ‘stache. But if we can’t rely on stereotypes, what makes a villain leap off the page and exemplify the kind of antagonist that readers love to hate? There are plenty of angles to explore, but here are a few of my favorite elements of the ultimate villain. You might even think of them as masks that they don or conceal as needed. After all, we tend to prefer the devil we know, not the one we can’t seem to figure out.

A thorn in the paw 

To be a really awful (great?) villain, one must be properly motivated. Most of the time, this comes from past trauma, which has inspired some kind of prejudice or even a deeply rooted fear that the character in question feels the need to either run from or lash out against; the latter reaction tends to bring out the worst in anyone, so it’s a typical mannerism of the most notable antagonists in literature. It’s this personal history that adds to their mystery, but also makes them relatable. Even if you never reveal the cause in all its gory detail, you might find that, in developing this backstory, you identify some flaws, a belief system, and even a certain amount of humanity in a character for which you initially had different intentions. Take Shere Khan, the man-eating tiger from The Jungle Book. If you defer to the Disney cartoon, he was just a tiger with a bone to pick and a killer singing range. But, if you read Kipling’s book, Shere Khan went through a lot. He had a pretty damn good reason for hating humans, and it wasn’t just because they were gradually taking up more and more of his jungle home. Shere Khan saw the ugliest side of man when they started killing his kind for sport as well as for survival, and the resulting bitterness left him bloodthirsty. When you know all of that, it’s a lot harder to hate him, right? That’s because Kipling’s dry delivery gives the facts and lets readers analyze them in whatever way they see fit as they read along and process all of the other narratives contributing to the entire story. But the key is that he did provide you with Shere Khan’s history and insight into his belief system. Without that, he really was just an angry, spiteful tiger persecuting villagers, poor Mowgli, and all his more docile animal pals.

A soft side 

A villain’s soft spot is both a chink in their armor and a source of strength and determination. It’s what they use to vindicate themselves when or if their actions are ever called into question. Phrases like, “I did this for you,” or, “I did this for us,” come to mind. In fact, purported love and devotion can often be found at the core of a villain’s origin story and throughout their tenure as a story’s respective big bad. This goes back to what I said about the best villains retaining their emotions rather than becoming these blank voids who only exist to do terrible things for kicks. Emotions drive us all to do crazy, outrageous, sometimes even despicable stuff; some of us just take it a step or six too far in the process. The legend of the fabled phantom of the opera has seen a lot of edits and rewrites over the years. And yet, at the center of them all is Christine and her admirer. Now, let me stop right here and say that I am aware that while their relationship has often been painted in romantic shades, it is a toxic arrangement. But do villains ever really set themselves up for love that lasts, or that doesn’t destroy someone before all is said and done? A young, impressionable woman trying to hone her craft, Christine became this masked genius’s obsession and inspired him to terrorize everyone at the opera house―even, on occasion, his beloved. He might’ve argued that it was all for her, to help her reach her potential, or to remove the obstacles in her path, or to make it so they could be together. But for all his intelligence and forethought, the opera ghost failed to grasp one crucial reality. His love, his soft spot, would be his ruin. To quote the 1933 version of King Kong, “It was beauty killed the beast.”

A shadow of a doubt 

Have you noticed that, at least on the surface, no villains actively project their hatred for what they’ve become? Self-loathing or -pity is reserved for private, brooding reflection far away from their victims and nemeses alike. Anything other than confidence exposes weakness, and you’ll never be a successful bad guy if you’re constantly giving the hero new Achilles’ heels to poke at. And yet, if there’s a notable absence of that vulnerability throughout a narrative, then one might assume that your villain is deluded into thinking he or she is actually the hero of the story. This state of mind is just as dangerous (if not more) because the villain naturally believes that every action is justified. It makes for a good story, but also limits the antagonist to a flat, static existence. Conversely, a dynamic character’s vulnerability enables them to see themselves as more of a victim, and can inspire all kinds of behavior that beef up a story: erraticism or exaggerated control, emotionlessness or a hair-trigger temper.

Consider the Evil Queen and her machinations against Snow White. She was obviously self-conscious and insecure; why else would she base an order for her stepdaughter’s assassination on one mirror’s opinion? But notice that after the mirror declared Snow White “the fairest of them all,” the Evil Queen didn’t burst into tears or burrow into a blanket fort with tubs of ice cream. No, on the outside she was pissed and eager to eliminate the competition. While it doesn’t take much for the audience (the adults, anyway) to see through all that bluster, Snow White, the queen’s enemy and our so-called hero, was just a tad distracted (understandably so, I’d say) by the whole price-on-her-heart situation to see what the real issue was. Thus, the Evil Queen shielded herself from her own doubts and executed a plan that kept her firmly affixed to the top of the food chain. That doesn’t mean her negative self-perception went away or that she was cured of all insecurity before her end; she just buried it and channelled the underlying emotions in a different, yet equally destructive direction.

A likable fellow 

One of the most effective traits of a dynamic villain is that they are flexible; they can be charming, sympathetic, pitiable, or even agreeable given the right circumstances. They know this, and they use it to lull others into a false sense of security; it’s easy, after all, to be generous when you think you’re helping out a friend in need. By the time the other shoe drops, or they get what they wanted, it’s too late for a hapless victim or an overly optimistic hero to realize their error in judgment. A villain might develop these skills of emotional manipulation in a variety of ways―rehearsal, experience, study, etc.―but the outcome is almost always devastating.

In Treasure Island, Long John Silver became Jim Hawkins’s ally at sea, but anyone who’s read the book knows that Long John was also capable of some pretty underhanded stuff: the kind of malfeasance that made even a fearsome pirate like Captain Flint wary. To Jim, he was an ideal buddy to have while he got used to life on a ship―until he killed a fellow crewman and led the mutiny against the good guys so he could have the treasure all to himself, of course. Unfortunately for Jim, Long John knew just how to get in his good graces until it was time to show his true colors and (literally) go for the gold. Now, one could argue that it’s simple enough to pull the wool over a kid’s eyes, especially since that kid was all but desperate for adventure, a family, and a sense of belonging. That doesn’t explain, however, how Long John wasn’t sussed out by any of the adults onboard. The tricks he used to win Jim over wouldn’t fly with more experienced characters, so we can infer that, like any villain worth their salt, he tailored his interactions to best gain favor with each of his colleagues until he no longer needed to do so. Kudos to him for pulling it all off in the tight quarters of a ship at sea.

A common trait 

Still, the most repulsive enemy in the world might just be the one you can relate to, or even empathize with. Even if you don’t necessarily like them, it’s much harder to hate someone when the two of you have something significant in common. Setting aside the unnerving realization that the protagonist isn’t in fact a paragon of virtue, establishing such a connection between these characters presents a unique challenge for the supposed hero. If anyone else notices the similar trait―a god or a hero complex, for example, or perhaps a short temper―then their credibility takes an automatic hit. Can we trust someone who can relate to their enemy even after all the heinous things they’ve done? If pushed hard enough, would our champion switch sides? Similar questions began plaguing Harry Potter in the fifth book of the series, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. After Voldemort came back to life and infiltrated Harry’s thoughts, more and more commonalities crept up between the two of them. Not only did this wear on Harry’s mind, but even the great and powerful Dumbledore was afraid to get too close, sure as he was that the darkest wizard in history would somehow look out from Harry’s eyes and see something he could use to his advantage in the impending war. All of this eventually snowballed into the final battle at Hogwarts, where Harry came face-to-face with mortality in all sorts of ways and realized that he wasn’t the same as his adversary. The explosive climax of the series is all the more powerful because he was forced to address their similarities, whereas Voldemort only fixated on those that suited his purposes. It was a smart strategy for a short while, but he still got his ass blasted in the end.

Oops―should I have said “spoiler alert”? 

Think you’ve got a handle on your villains? Writers and readers beware―they’re more complicated than you might think, and sneaky, too.

Man or Monster: Unmasking Villains written by Katelynn Watkins in association with Beauty & the Beast Publishing, Image: stockpile

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