I love my bad guys. They are the most fun to write—their evil deeds flow effortlessly from my imagination. They are malicious, devious, merciless, and sadistic. But If I’m not careful, they begin to resemble cardboard cutouts in black hats and handlebar mustaches. While it is tempting to craft a character oozing with evil intentions and only despicable characteristics, there must be at least a kernel of humanity in him or her. Good literary villains must be imbued with their own desires, ordeals, personal demons, and credible motivations for their actions. All villains are the heroes of their own story, and with rare exceptions don’t consider themselves villains at all.
But are villains still villains if their actions are understandable? Consider the modern-day villains we love to love. Dexter is one. What could be wrong with ridding the world of parasitic pedophiles and murderers? We see Dexter as a hero until we consider the fact that his motivation for doing what he does is blood lust—not justice. Still, his boyish charm and loyalty to his sister align us with him.
Then there’s the villain whose ultimate gain is selfish, but he is so infused with charm and wit that we root for him anyway. This is perfectly exemplified by character Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Because other self-interested, amoral, politicians surround him, we see his keen intelligence, charm, and wit as justification to do what he does. After all, those dolts that he deals with deserve to be outwitted and bested. We are on Frank’s side despite his obvious immorality, even when he murders someone just to further his own agenda. It’s almost impossible not to like him. And of course, who can deny the fascination everyone had with Mr. White on Breaking Bad?
Are villains the new heroes or is this affinity for them nothing new? Reflecting back it is obvious that there has always been an appetite for the unsavory. One of my own favorites, The Godfather, made us fall in love with a mafia crime family. Going back even further, we remember Robin Hood as the good guy despite the fact that he was a thief.
My villains are more traditional; they are not heroes, but I am enthralled with the Frank Underwoods and Don Corleones of the world as much as the next person. Could it be that the reason we are drawn to these scoundrels is because there is a little bit of the villain in all of us?
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