Redemptive Traits

I’ve talked before about causing readers to experience hatred for villains, and I probably will again, but today I’ll look at the other side of the coin:  loving villains.

It’s easy enough to hate a bad guy.  There are some outstanding examples where the opposite is the case in recent pop culture, but usually audiences want the bad guys to come to a bad end.

However, villains are people–well, characters–as much as heroes are.  People are complicated, especially the ones who do terrible things.  Reflecting that truth in a villainous character can make them incredibly interesting, and when I want to write such a villain, that starts with the aspects of the character that wouldn’t go on their bad guy resume.

The wholly evil villains aren’t terribly realistic, after all, any more than wholly virtuous heroes are.

Take Star Wars, for instance.  Emperor Palpatine is a backstabbing, scheming tyrant who really likes power and doesn’t much care about who he walks over to get it.  We never see a single redemptive act during Palpatine’s screentime.  Darth Vader, on the other hand, loves his son and misses his wife.  That doesn’t make up for the slaughter of the Jedi younglings or the destruction of Alderaan, but it gives us a look at him as something other than a scary black mask.

Star Wars would not be Star Wars without Emperor Palpatine, but Darth Vader is the face of the dark side.  In some ways, his redemptive qualities make his terrible acts even worse–how can you love that deeply, and kill that easily, at the same time?

It’s similar with the Lord of the Rings.  Sure, Sauron and the Ringwraiths are terrifying, but Gollum is the bad guy we remember, and Boromir the hero whose fall from grace speaks loudest.

It’s easy enough to look at popular villains and say what it is that makes them so interesting.  It’s harder to write similarly interesting baddies without accidentally slapping a new name on an old character.

However, there are some common themes which the most memorable villains tend to share.  Love.  Revenge.  Fear.  Hunger, in some cases.

Loving someone, as Darth Vader does, is the simplest way of giving a villain extra depth.  Real love, valuing someone else at least as much as oneself, is universally considered good.  Or so I assume.  If it isn’t universally good, then there are dark corners of the universe that I do not wish to visit.

Because of that belief in the goodness of love, baddies who love someone are fascinating.  Those who slip to the dark side as a result of their efforts to protect a loved one are doubly interesting.  Artemis Fowl loves his father enough to do practically anything to find him–and Artemis is definitely a villain in the beginning–and so we understand him.

Revenge is another common theme in the genesis of a villain, and it usually begins with love.  (Blank)’s need for vengeance against (blank) because of the death of (blank) in Captain America:  Civil War makes him far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill “I will destroy the Universe!” villain.  His destructive tendencies have a purpose and a motivation, even if they’re misguided.

Yes, the censoring was necessary.

That said, vengeance because of some slight against oneself can be as interesting as vengeance because of love.  It can establish the villain’s selfish nature, as well.  Loki joined the dark side initially because of his father’s rejection and finding out he’d been lied to his whole life.  We’ve all felt rejection, and we’ve all had some aspect of our worldview prove to be false–even if it was just Santa Claus.  The rest of us don’t normally try to destroy planets afterwards.

Well, I thought about it.  Briefly.

Giving our villains those redemptive traits so both we and our audience can better relate to them can be complicated.  Everything worthwhile is.  I keep at it anyways.  The characters that result are often at least as interesting as the flawed heroes.

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