Sitting here at the laptop, one ear on Radio 5 Live for the last of this week’s Premiership games, I figured it was high time I posted something of interest on the blog.
Last week or so the Telegraph published a Top 50 Villains of Literature supplement, and interesting reading it made too (here’s the link by the way). Together with the fact that one of my favourite shows restarts this week, Heroes, bearing the season title ‘Villains’, it seemed an auspicious time to discuss the subject of bad guys and why they always seem to be so darn cool…
We all love a villain. It’s one of those truisms that pervades throughout literature, movies, TV and all media. Villains, you see, are not as white-on-white or, dare I say, as two-dimensional as heroes. Shades of grey, even black, are always preferable to pearly white. Villains can be uncompromising, inscrutable; they can break the rules, walk their own path and stick two fingers up to the bastions of law and order, of conformity.
Let’s face it, villains get to do the things, we, as law-abiding, good-natured citizens, would always quite like to do. Being bad, even just a little bit, is a thrill. Villains get to do this with impunity, often with aplomb, occasionally even with humour. They’re usually powerful too – and power is attractive. Villains are the id to the heroes’ superego. Heroes are all ‘don’t do that, you shouldn’t do that, that’s wrong’. Whereas villains are all ‘you shouldn’t do that, that’s wrong, so do it’.
Villains realise the subconscious desires that dwell within most of us – after all, we are only human. Plus they tend to dress in black… and who doesn’t look good in black, right?
It’s worth celebrating these nefarious characters, who we love to hate, or hate to love. Who didn’t dig the Joker in Dark Knight or the Killing Joke or Dark Knight Returns? There’s just something pervertedly appealing about a guy who can act like a total amoral, entrophic lunatic with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.
Who doesn’t agree Darth Vader is the daddy and unmitigatingly cool? Come on, admit it, you wanted him to ice that insipid Luke Skywalker. Oh, and he’s about the only character who seems to be prevalent in pretty much all the best incarnations of the franchise. Ever watch Smallville? Lex and Lionel Luther, the dastardly and unscrupulous industry tycoons/megalomaniacs, are the best damn thing on that show (forget Tom Welling, wearing Clark Kent’s red jumper; slick-suited, slick-headed Michael Rosenbaum is totally the man).
The list could go on and on.
Taking a more highbrow tack, the Telegraph has some classic choices in their literary catalogue of neer-do-wells: Hannibal Lector (he’s a sociopathic cannibal, but you just couldn’t help but root for him in Silence of the Lambs, right? I wonder if that’s what Robert Harris intended when he created him?). Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, who himself isn’t exactly pure as driven snow) features in the list too, and highlights for me the importance of having a good villain to test our oft eponymous hero – a yin to our champion’s yang, the thing that by being his or her opposite, defines him.
Captain Hook, Moby Dick, Sauron, Patrick Batemen: whether it’s malfeasant pirates, indomitable white whales, demi-god like tyrants or self-obsessed psychopaths, villains in all their shapes and sizes are compelling. They represent fear incarnate, and this too is thrilling; less so the vicarious, cathartic experience of being a villain and moreover the oh-so-slightly masochistic experience of being victim to one, albeit through the safety of your own living room/easy chair. Horror as a genre has been predicated on this desire since its outset and has some great villains (Christopher Lee as Dracula, anyone? Gary Oldman single-handedly redeeming the otherwise turgid modern version of Stoker’s classic in the same role?)
All the most memorable heroes have good villains as their counterparts. A hero isn’t a hero if he doesn’t have something to fight against. Sure this could be amorphous: world hunger, natural disasters, drug abuse (check out the 70’s and 80’s era of DC and Marvel comics for a truckload of this type of thing), but isn’t it so much more interesting if it’s an individual that represents and articulates all of that negativity? One man (or woman, of course) that is the threat that will not think twice about sacrificing a bus load of school kids or a hospital brimming with patients. It’s horrifying; it’s compelling.
Good villains are sometimes hard to come by. They are just as important, if not more important than the heroes. Good is defined by evil, and visa versa. It’s all part of the same equation really.
Personally, I love villains. For a start, they are so much more fun to write about than heroes. The shackles are off, and the challenge is: how can I make them as horrific as possible? How can I do this in such a way that appalls but entices with equal measure. The trick is to make them bad, but not so bad that they can’t be identified with, that the villain acts so egregiously that you lose all interest.
It’s a balancing act of course, one that treads a thin line, akin to the line between good and evil.