Villains as Heroes?

Life is just too short to spend with people you don’t like or care about.

Assorted Villains

Assorted Villains

I find this is true when reading, as well as in real life.  Maybe it’s even more true when reading than in real life.  That came home to me last week when, with great reluctance, I gave up on Jonathan Stroud’s bestselling “Bartimaeus” trilogy.  The books had been recommended to me by Yvonne, the same friend who had recommended Maggie Stiefvater’s  The Raven Boys, which I’d really liked, so I started with cheerful anticipation.

The opening was pretty good:  light, sardonic narration from the point of view of the djinn for whom the series is named.  Jim, passing through the kitchen where I was listening as I worked on preparing dinner, commented: “That sounds good.  I may need to listen next.”  By the end of the book, he’d changed his mind.  I’m more stubborn.  The writing was good and strong.  The characters were well-developed.  The plots…  Well, a bit predictable, but that alone won’t stop me.

I finished book one (The Amulet of Samarkand) and started book two (The Golem’s Eye).  Two years had passed in the lives of the characters.  Despite the tremendously dramatic and eye-opening events at the end of book one, the protagonist, Nathaniel, had not changed at all.  No.  He had.  All his worst traits were intensified.  Many of his better traits had vanished.    The book introduced a new character, Kitty, for whom I initially had some hopes, since she was involved in a rebellion against the system that had created creeps like Nathaniel.

Since I can’t do so without  huge amounts of spoilers, I won’t go into all the reasons that I gave up on Kitty and her allies as well.  Suffice to say, I quit.  The Amulet of Sammarkand hadn’t given me a lot of hope that anyone would change in an interesting or provocative fashion in the course of The Golem’s Eye.

When Jim and I were talking about the books, I finally came up with a shorthand explanation for why they didn’t work for me.  “They were like the Harry Potter novels told from the point of view of Draco Malfoy.”

Since then,  I’ve been trying to figure out why I couldn’t finish.  After all, some of my favorite characters in fantasy fiction would be classified as anti-heroes rather than heroes.  Corwin of Amber and his brothers (with the possible exception of Julian) are definitely anti-heroes.  Elric of Melnibone.  Definitely an anti-hero.  Actually, most of Zelazny and Moorcock’s protagonists are anti-heroes, rather than heroes.   Poul Andersen wrote many a hero, but my favorite of his characters is Nicholas van Rijn, “The Man who Counts” – a definite anti-hero.  Even many of my own characters are closer to anti-heroes than heroes.

A few weeks ago, when we were talking about dystopias, I noted that anti-heroes are hard to define.  I’ll give the definition I used there: an anti-hero behaves in a recognizably heroic fashion in some sense, but does not embrace the idealized concept of how a hero should behave.  (If you want more detail, see WW “Dystopias and Anti-Heroes,” 8-21-13.)

That’s when it hit me.  Draco Malfoy is neither a hero or an anti-hero.  He’s a villain, pure and simple – and that’s how J.K. Rowlings casts him in her novels.

The definitions of “villain” are many and various.  Let me make myself clear on the sort of villain I mean – a definition that leaves out abstracts like “evil” and focuses on qualities.  Villains care more about their own gain than what will happen to anyone else around them.  They do serious harm not to be abstractly “evil,” but because the end result will benefit themselves.  They have allies and associates, but rarely friends, (because a friend is someone whose benefit or happiness is important).  Even when their acts may seem virtuous, under the surface, a villain’s acts ultimately benefit the doer, not those  ostensibly done for.

Let’s go back to Draco Malfoy.  He has some family loyalty, but that’s about his only redeeming feature.  He has allies and lackeys, but not friends.  He’s a coward, because his own skin matters more than anyone else’s.  He’s a cheat, because his own gain matters more than honesty.  He’s alternately a bully and a sycophant.  A book told from the villain’s point of view simply doesn’t interest me.

I loved John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which retells the Beowulf Saga from the point of view of the monster but, although Grendel remains a monster in that he’s big and slimy and carnivorous and all, there’s no calculated malice to him.  In some ways, he’s almost an innocent.  He wants to eat the nice squishy humans and can’t understand why they’re so rough on him.  It’s Beowulf who becomes the villain in this variation of the tale.   He’s relentless, tracking down the monster, even after the monster has retreated.

Would I like to invite Grendel to dinner?  No.  Am I sympathetic enough to him that I would like to be his dinner?  Again, no.  But I found that John Gardner made me understand his point of view.  This was not the case with Nathaniel.

Like Draco Malfoy, Nathaniel is so invested in the abusive system in which he lives that he ignores how flawed it is – even when, as in the events at the close of The Amulet of Samarkand, his own trials should have awakened him to its flaws.  He thrives on a system of slavery and torture.  He lies and weasels to justify getting what he wants.  He has no friends, only more or less reliable allies.  Maybe Nathaniel changed his mind by the end of the series but, as I said at the start, life is just too short to spend with people you don’t like or care about.

By weird coincidence, as I was writing this piece, I received an e-mail from someone responding to my request in last week’s Wandering for topics that readers would like to hear me wander on about.  The very first topic on her list shocked me by being perfectly in key with the subject I was already musing over.  I quote:  “How have villains changed with the times?  Culturally, anti-heroes are very popular.  How’s that different from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s in science fiction and fantasy?  How does that relate to current events of the time?”

I’ll offer this as a start.  How have villains changed?  They haven’t.  What has changed is that some writers or creators of television series or movies think that by making a villain a protagonist they’re doing something daring and creative.  Why are anti-heroes popular?  As we discussed earlier, they’ve always been popular, in part because they push limits but still get the job done.  What’s different is that some people don’t seem to see the difference between an anti-hero and a villain.  Even when you make a villain a protagonist, that doesn’t make the villain a hero, except in the most facile linguistic sense.

Why the change?  (Or, I’ll add, the new fascination with villains?)  How does it relate to current events?

There I have no idea.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

5 Responses to “Villains as Heroes?”

  1. paulgenesse Says:

    Hi Jane,

    Another fascinating post. I don’t have any interest in reading about unredeemable villains for a long period of time, as in, a whole novel. I like a short scene from their POV sometimes, but not for a whole book. Some “horror” novels from the POV of the disgusting murderer/psychopath are just not for me. A high fantasy told from Draco Malfoy’s POV would be terrible as well.

    Personally, I love writing from the POV of the villain/antagonist, but just to give the reader a taste, and show their internal thoughts. Anti-heroes like Eric of Melnibone was great, but so different as you pointed out.

    I don’t really know if villains have changed. I know that some modern writers craft villains to be more realistic psychologically, and not make them just plain “evil,” which seems more like children’s stories anyway.

    We are all the hero of our own story, right? The best crafting of a “villain” I can think of is Jamie Lannister, and Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. Is Jamie really a villain? His sister, Cersei certainly is, and Littlefinger (Peter Baelish). They are so well crafted as to seem real. Do I hate the chapters from Cersi’s POV? Yes, but they’re fascinating, because they are so realistically written.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    I’m not sure that villains have really changed. What’s regarded as villainous, OTOH, has – except that there’s still not a consensus on all the changes. I know there are things I regard as base that others think light entertainment.

    On a tangent, thinking about this got me to chasing down the origin of the word and its connection to ‘villein’ [a serf entirely bound to a specific farm]. That leads naturally to the OED, where I find, only slightly to my surprise, that they really are the same word. I think the following is as good a definition as any, and it’s the presentation of people who meet the primary definition as _not_ being ‘d’ that you – and I – take exception to. It’s ‘base’ and ‘criminal’ that are shifting around us:

    1. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes:

    d. (Usually with the.) The character in a play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions form an important element in the plot. Also transf., esp. in phr. villain of the piece.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Hmm. All I know about Bartimaeus is on Wikipedia, with a long plot summary. It appears that the human protagonist does an extended Darth Vader (aka a heel-face turn) in the third book and ends by sacrifices himself for the greater good. Perhaps skipping the second book is advised?

    As for the whole hero/villain thing, isn’t it partly a matter of viewpoint control? For example, it’s easy to make a villain by controlling the story’s point of view to the hero’s side, and staying out of the antagonist’s head. The antagonist then doesn’t have to be completely evil or wrong, just the person who, for whatever reason, opposes the hero. The antagonist is the other, understandable or not.

    However, if you start getting inside the antagonist’s head, then you’ve got a problem, because it’s all to natural to see the good in the antagonist and make the hero look worse by comparison. The normal solution to this is to make the antagonist into a evil villain (which is what we normally do as a society before we go to war–our violence has to be justified). Then, since we have to make the hero more flawed for that precious sense of realism, we end up with a gray hero facing a black opponent, and the story dives into the murk.

    However, if you have a protagonist and an antagonist and stay within the POV of the protagonist, you don’t have that problem. However, you do have a nice recipe for writing a tragedy, where two not-necessarily-evil antagonists fight each other to the death or whatever. Perhaps the issue is that, given a choice between tragedy and murk, people prefer murkiness at the moment? I’m not sure either. How many tragedies have been written recently?

  4. Paul Says:

    I’m not sure our fascination with villains as heroes didn’t begin with the 1962 movie, “Dr. No,” wherein James Bond guns down an unarmed man, puts a second slug into the body for good measure, and we applaud him for it. By 1984, Clint Eastwood, portraying a police lieutenant, could gun down an unarmed baddie and we didn’t even blink.In our genre, Darth Vader could ruthlessly kill people and even be in on the destruction of an entire planet, and yet end up in Jedi heaven. Of course, as far back as 1965, E.E. “Doc” Smith made his villain from the “Skylark” series, which started in 1915, the hero of the final book in the four-volume series, but then “Blacky” DuQuesne was never a total villain. I do think our elevation of what would once have been villains to hero status has been a gradual process, and it all probably has to do with the times we live in — distrust of authority from Watergate to the latest congressional debacle. You begin to wonder who are the real villains.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    One of the “ghosts” comments that she enjoyed the “Bartimaeus” books very much, but that she “never thought of Nathaniel as the protagonist.” I think that’s an interesting take. I certainly did, since the story uses him as a main POV character. However, maybe if I’d had the series title in mind (which stresses the djinni) I would have been differently inclined.

    I very much enjoyed the comments on why as a culture looking at events from the villains POV — to the point that they are main characters, rather than alternates — was interesting.

    As someone who was a child in D.C. during Watergate, I certainly was influenced by the events of that particular political mess. And anti-heroes like James Bond and Dirty Harry certainly answered to a wish that things could be like in our fictional “Old West” where bad guys could be gunned down in broad daylight.

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