Sympathy For The Devil: The Villain Protagonist
I’m going to start this off with two quotes from Frank Herbert, who was one of the greats.
“The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.”
“Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely, absolute power attracts the corruptible.”
So I can’t guarantee that I’m the one that came up with the subject, but it certainly is one of my favorites. Believe me, on this one I know of what I speak.
As I have said before (And very possibly here) one of my personal favorites anecdotes involves the editor who got annoyed with me because he asked me to write the story of the bad guy in an anthology based on a role playing game (Mage: The Ascension if you must know) and it really irked him that he wound up not only liking the heavy of the book but also understanding why he had done the things he’d done.
To me that’s just plain flattering.
Here’s the thing. I know that we often deal with the stuff of legends. I mean mythic tales and fantastic creatures. That does not to me at least, mean that we should be writing in black and white. I tend to believe that part of what makes dealing with the stories of legendary creatures more palatable to the average is the fact that the world they are found in is believable. Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash work just fine in five minute cartoons, but if you try to go that black and white in most stories, I genuinely think you miss out on a lot of the fun. For me it’s vibrant Technicolor for the special effects, and it is definitely shades of gray for motivations.
Again and with feeling: Darth Vader’s a bad dude. According to George Lucas STAR WARS was never about Luke Skywalker. It’s about his father, Anakin, who eventually becomes Darth Vader. He’s got the chops, he’s got the attitude and he’s capable of mayhem on a very large scale. But even he has his reasons for acting like he does. Same is true of the guy who was his inspiration (George Lucas even admitted that much) my pal, my favorite comic book villain, Doctor Doom. I’m not saying either of these guys should be invited over for dinner or allowed access to your cache of passwords, but they have motives for all that they do.
All of the best villains do.
Frank Herbert’s THE WHITE PLAGUE starts off with John Roe O’Neill, a scientist specializing in microbiology and vacationing in Ireland when his wife and children are killed in a random bombing by the IRA. The randomness of the violence and the scientist’s sense of loss and moral outrage break him in that moment. His actions lead to him creating and releasing the plague that is the source of the novel’s title. A plague that leaves men alone but kills women and threatens to kill ALL of the women on the planet. His revenge is definitely a case of overkill, but my, he’s an interesting villain.
Harry Harrison’s THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT is the story of a bank robber and grifter in an era when crime has basically been eliminated. James Bolivar “Slippery Jim” DiGriz, is a criminal who always justifies his actions and abhors killing. As the story progresses he becomes a proper anti-hero when he tries to stop another criminal in the future, one who kills without hesitation and who, again, has good reasons for her actions.
Once upon a time a young writer named Anne Rice decided to do a story from the vampire’s perspective. You might have heard of the tale, a little ditty called INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. The tale of Louis is intriguing and well told. And by the time it’s done if you haven’t figured out how to have a little sympathy for that particular neck biter you might have to question your own empathy. His is a tale of tragedy and hubris and suffering and even the most jaded can feel a few pangs for his losses through the centuries. Another writer who did that with a different vampire, by the way, is Fred Saberhagen whose THE DRACULA TAPES did a great job of showing the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from a decidedly different perspective. They might sound like similar stories, but they are not. Saberhagen most decidedly did not make Vlad Tepes (Dracula) a sensitive man. Instead he went to the source materials and considered the rather violent and tragic history of the real life man. He was dark, he was brutal and he, too, had his reasons. I recommend both books, by the way.
So what is the appeal of the anti-hero? What makes the villain so damned much fun? That’s simple. They do what we WANT to do. They do what we THINK about doing and would never let ourselves get away with. They give in to their Id and sometimes (not always) tell their consciences to sit in the corner and wait this dance out.
One of the most popular characters I’ve personally created is a guy named Jonathan Crowley. (Yes, I know there’s a writer by that name. It’s just a coincidence.) Jonathan Crowley is NOT a hero. He’ll be the very first to tell you that. Instead he’s judge, jury and executioner for anything supernatural that he decides has to go away. He’s also, to be kind, not a very nice man. He can be, but that’s the exception and not the rule. He doesn’t like people: he doesn’t like dealing with them, talking to them or treating them with the least bit of common decency. He is exactly and precisely the sort of mean bastard most people would do well to stay away from. He will threaten all kinds of bodily injury on his enemies and he will, by God, follow through on it.
It’s always interesting to examine the ideas of what we would do if our moral compasses were just a little off kilter. In the novella LITTLE BOY BLUE, I have Jonathan Crowley hunt down and torment a man who offended him on the road. The man nearly caused not one but two accidents involving Crowley because he could not wait long enough to get off the road before making a call on his cell phone. Crowley stalks the man to a public restroom and steals his phone. He throws the battery in one trashcan and the phone in another after terrorizing the man and then plays a complete innocent when the police pull him over in an effort to find the phone he has been accused of stealing. Trust me on this: I’ve been tempted a few times. I’ve never actually done it, but I’ve come close. Crowley is willing to do the things I only dream about.
And you want to know the part that still makes me scratch my head? Damned if I haven’t had a substantial number of female readers tell me he’s sexy as hell. I’ve described him a dozen times as plain as the day is long and meaner than he should be and the ladies seem to think that’s just delicious.
Now he’s technically a good guy. He actually does save people, however begrudgingly. But he does what he has to do whether he wants to or not. On the other end of the spectrum is Rufo the Clown. Rufo has hunted down and killed a lot of people. Sometimes he has his reasons. To be fair he’s also a raving lunatic so the very thinnest possible excuse will do for him. He doesn’t mind flaying a person; beheadings are just a good way to pass the time. He has been soaked head to toe in other people’s blood. He has killed children, infants and lots and lots of innocent bystanders in several books. He has also, because it’s in his character, gone out of his way to help a few people at random. In all cases, however, there actually is a motivation behind his actions.
And it delights me to know that several readers found themselves cheering him on and then felt bad about it. Because even dead, psychotic clowns should have reasons for what they do. They need motivations and reasons for what they have become and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to get what they want. And my job as the writer is to make the reader understand those motivations.
There are a lot of heavies in SUBJECT SEVEN, but one of the worst of the lot is the main character himself, Joe Bronx, AKA Subject Seven. For the first ten years of his life he is considered nothing but a lab rat. He is tortured daily and then examined as his body heals itself and his mind begins to scheme. And then one day he escapes from the lab where he is regularly vivisectionized. Being of relatively sound mind and being superhumanly strong, he makes his way in the criminal underworld, learning skills that will eventually be useful to him and slowly, methodically learning all he can about the people who held him and used him as research. He works out careful plans for how to help out the others like him that were left behind. His reasons are not altruistic. He wants others like himself, yes, but he has every intention of using them to his advantage. He has his reasons for being a sociopath, but he is still not a nice guy. That said, he is still the hero of his own story. No one ever came along to help him when he was being tortured regularly and in fact a few of his early victims were people he had a grudge against.
I’m not saying that every villain should be sympathetic. They are, after all, villains, but I am saying that they should have reasons for what they do and if those reasons are intriguing enough, they can justify their actions, at least in their own twisted minds. Seriously as I have said before and I very likely will many more times, no one gets up in the morning, chortles to him or herself and says “Today I will be the bad guy!” or if they do, they should immediately seek professional help. There should be a method to the madness. There should be a driving force that spurs on the devil. The reasons may not always make sense to rational people, but they should be there because without them the villains (or anti-heroes) in your works are shallow and ring false. That’s my take on it at least.
Just as heroes who don’t have a reason for fighting against the villains come across as two-dimensional, villains who don’t have a reason for either opposing the hero, wanting to rule the world or wanting to destroy it hardly seem interesting.
Art by Alan M. Clarke