A while back, after watching a few episodes of the Netflix series Daredevil, my husband Scott and I had the following exchange:
Me: I’ve never seen a villain with so many cracks. Fisk is a fascinating character.
Scott: Well, it seems that villains are becoming an art form.
That comment got me to thinking about villains and their portrayal in stories. To me, the villain is often the most interesting character in a novel or movie or TV show. My favorite characters on Once Upon a Time are Regina and Rumplestiltskin, respectively the Evil Queen and the Dark One. Likewise, Black Jack Randall from the Outlander books was someone that I alternately hated and pitied, but always found compelling.
That seems to be the new way to portray the bad guys–by making them complicated and reminding readers/viewers that people are rarely so black and white as to be purely reprehensible. The aforementioned Fisk drew my attention for being someone who kills, but who takes no enjoyment in it; someone who is not so confident that he can’t feel fear; someone who firmly believes in the rightness of his cause for its own sake; someone who is a broken child in the body of a man. Turned to lawful pursuits, he would be someone to admire, but as he is, he elicits a kind of horror mixed with pity.
Look at all the villains I have listed already, and you’ll see that the one thing they have in common is a complicated past. They have a backstory to explain why they act the way that they do. This level of understanding fosters a level of, if not sympathy, at least of empathy. Watching Fisk as a boy and seeing how his father’s violent personality impacted him, we can’t help but wince on his behalf. We can’t agree with his actions as an adult, but it’s hard not to think “Wow… okay, I can see how he became what he is now.” And as I’ve often heard, it’s hard to have that insight and not feel a certain degree of understanding.
The other side of this coin is more sinister: it’s easy to forget that there are people in this world who have no reason for their actions. These are people who simply enjoy inflicting pain and sorrow and chaos. This is where the archetype is useful in reminding us of this fact. Look at the old folklore and fairy tales, and you’ll see the purely evil characters that we rarely see today. When the live action movie Maleficent came out, Wendy Pini (author and artist for the long-running comic series Elfquest) said the following on her Facebook page: “The power of the pure archetype is fading from western culture…being dumbed down, sanitized and neutered. And with it goes our children’s ability to feel awe, wonder and humility in the face of unexplainable, uncontrollable forces greater than themselves.” And frankly, I think she’s right.
Nuanced villains are all well and good, but we may be losing something vital in focusing solely on evil that we can understand and ignoring the evil that defies explanation. I think we need to remember that monsters do lurk in the shadows, and that they wear human faces. I was surprised (pleasantly, but still surprised) to see Once Upon a Time make the character of Cruella de Vil nothing more than a woman who enjoyed inflicting pain, both physical and emotional. In this day and age, that’s a bold choice.
I have to wonder if we crave the villain that we can understand (and perhaps deal with) because of the terrible things that have happened in real life. The bombing of the World Trade Center, the Boston Marathon bombing, the beheadings by ISIS, more school shootings that I care to remember… we struggle to comprehend how people can do such things. Often, in these real life scenarios, we don’t get answers, of if we do, they’re not satisfactory. Fictional villains with a backstory we can relate to not only gives us the illusion of understanding, but also gives us the hope that one day, evil can be turned around and the horrifying things we see on the news will cease.
As with all things, I think balance will be the key. Sure, give us Black Jack and Maleficent, but also give us the Joker and Cruella. Show us both sides of the coin. Each has their place in our shared cultural consciousness.
And I find it fascinating that evil seems to need an explanation and good doesn’t, but that’s a subject for a separate post.