© Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman
VILLAINS—NATURAL AND UNNATURAL
Villains are the bad guy. Whether human, monstrous, alien, spiritual or other, the villain is the person or being whose aim is to do some kind of harm. Real world villains range from vicious dictators like President Robert Mugabe who has been accused of a laundry list of human rights violations to a snatch-and-grab thief who robs a convenience store.
Some villains are reluctant, and many are villains only from the perspective of political or ethical ideology. This is the case in every war ever fought.
Some villains fill that role briefly—perhaps a momentary lapse in which they succumb to greed or lust or one of those other pesky Seven Sins. Some are opportunists who see something and grab at it. The 2008 financial collapse was filled with bad guys of that kind.
Some villains, on the other hand, revel in it. Villainy is their choice. They groove on the negative energy released from their actions. This, sadly, is a pretty large category that includes child molesters, rapists, mass murderers, corrupters of youth, and many others.
Movies –perhaps more so than novels-- are often structured to present the villain as the most interesting characters. Filmmaker John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, The Fog) agrees and shared his views with us: “The villains always have the best parts. Darth Vader had the best part in Star Wars, The Wicked Witch had the best part in The Wizard of Oz, everybody loves villains. And these guys are just actors in makeup, but we all love them. They have a power to them. They’re strong. Everybody knows about them. So they become incredibly familiar. It’s hard to get people riled up and scared by them anymore because they’re so familiar to us. For Halloween we dress up as scary characters, but we love them, we enjoy them and celebrate them. That’s what movie storytelling’s all about.”
So…why the great love affair with the bad guys? “The reason we bond so much with the movie villain,” says Carpenter, “is that we secretly want that kind of freedom, to be able to break all the rules. especially when we’re young. That’s what we long to do, we want to break the rules. That’s the appeal of horror films in general. Especially when they’re on the edge. We go in there and we want a thrill. We want to get out of normal society. But as you get older, and become more responsible it becomes less fun.”
Robert Gregory Browne, an AMPAS Nicholl Award-winning screenwriter and the author of Down Among the Dead Men, shares this insight into bad guys. “I think the key to any villain in fiction is to make him human. He may do evil things, but he’s still a human being and he reacts to the world in a very human way, although with a complete lack of impulse control. My character of Vincent, in Whisper in the Dark, for example, feels that he has been wronged. That after he has worked so hard to make a name for himself, creating his ‘art,’ some impostor has come along and stolen his thunder by, more or less, taking credit for his work. At least that’s the way Vincent sees it. He sees the impostor as a plagiarist—and a bad one at that. So he’s very human in his reaction, although he goes about getting revenge for this insult in ways that most of us wouldn’t think of. Or maybe we’d think of, but wouldn’t act on.”It’s interesting to note, however, that very few people ever regard themselves as evil. Wiretaps of conversations between members of organized crime families bear this out. You rarely get statements like, “Hey, let’s go out and do some evil stuff.” Though that would really make court cases a lot easier.
However, in myth and storytelling there are plenty of villains who delight in simply being evil. That’s a club that has Satan as its chairman emeritus and includes Baba Yaga, quite a few dragons, the occasional ogre and troll, vampires, child-eating forest hags, and others. When it comes to child-eating hags there’s no moral gray area and heroic slayage is both acceptable and encouraged.
These days it’s all about the gray area. Even a monster like Hannibal Lecter—a mass murdering cannibal who was voted the second greatest villain of all time (after Darth Vader)—was a character people actually liked. In Thomas Harris’ chilling novel, Silence of the Lambs and Jonathan Demme’s nail-biter of a film, Lecter was charming, likeable, even admirable in certain ways. We rooted for him to escape from his captivity and the warden was made to look like the villain. The character’s charisma blinded us to the bare facts that the warden was justified in maintaining the harshest security standards because the prisoner was an incredibly dangerous monster. But gray areas are at the heart of modern storytelling.
NY Times bestselling author Rachel Caine shared her view on crafting these ‘gray area’ characters: “I can’t really warm up to characters who are just one thing or another. Black or white. Real people don't fall into those categories, and for me, the characters I create have to be realistic, if not real. My characters make mistakes. Bad choices. Sometimes, they compromise their ideals for short-term gains. I have a hard time making stock heroes or stock villains without mussing them up a little bit -- most of my villains have redeeming qualities, and most of my heroes have less admirable ones. It just makes them more interesting to me.”
A lot of modern horror and fantasy fiction explores those gray areas of evil and villainy, and that makes for some fascinating reading. It also allows the writers to throw some curves at the reader. Few things are more boring than a completely predictable villain. When it’s hard to make a clear distinction as to whether someone (or something) is a villain, it infuses the encounter with paranoia, tension, and real scares.
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestseller, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winner and a writer for Marvel Comics. He has written a number of award-winning nonfiction books and novels on the paranormal and supernatural, including THE CRYPTOPEDIA, VAMPIRE UNIVERSE, THEY BITE, ZOMBIE CSU and PATIENT ZERO.His latest novel is ROT & RUIN. Visit Jonathan’s website at http://www.jonathanmaberry.com/.
Janice Gable Bashman has written for THE BIG THRILL, NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, THE WRITER, WILD RIVER REVIEW, and many others. Visit Janice’s website at www.janicegablebashman.com.
[Note from Book Rat: Want it? I know I do... :) ]