Crooks, cannibals and crazy fashionistas: Why I love a villain

I’M 11 YEARS old at MGM Studios in Walt Disney World, surrounded by giddy tourists and fairytale music. Despite being in the best playground in the world in glorious sunshine, I am, however, just for a moment, captivated by an entire shop devoted to Disney’s villains. They’re all there, in every form of souvenir you can expect from Disney: cuddly toys, face paints, on T-shirts, pencil cases, badges – you name it. Not one to buy handfuls of lurid use-it-for-two-weeks-before-it-ends-up-in-the-bin souvenirs, I boldly spent $88 of my spending money on an ornate snow globe,  adorned with villains from all the films I grew up watching. After trundling onto a plane with this thing (which, unfortunately, served as my hand luggage), I can still say it sits in my room nine years later. I love it – it plays music and lights up and is very well-made, albeit a bit tacky and probably a bit childish, but I still like it. But these days it doesn’t just remind me of that holiday, no more than it does sat watching Aladdin when I was three, but more about the staying power of the villain, the antagonist, the ‘baddie’.

Villains are indispensable to a story. Where there is good, there is bad. Where there is a hero(ine), there is a villain(ess) (just being politically correct). It seems that it’s just how so many stories work if you break them down: an unwritten rule that a balance between good and evil is what keeps a story grounded and sensible. Without something like a wicked witch or a “vegetarian” shark, there’s no depiction of morality, no cat-and-mouse action, no external problems for our protagonist. For instance, what fun would Genesis have been if it weren’t for that talking snake? The message of the story would have been nearly non-existent, not least a little staid. Without the snake, there would have been no temptation for Eve and no consequences for taking the apple, and all the rest of it. There has to be evil in some form, because after all, isn’t that a representation of life? Temptation is everywhere and whatever you regard as ‘evil’, that can be found everywhere, too. I see this might be getting a little too religious, now (heaven forbid (aware of the irony there)) but I hope you see my point…

Their importance aside, it’s hard to ignore the appeal of the adversary. They’re always exciting, dangerous, sometimes irritating, sometimes seductive, misunderstood, complex, and mysterious – I could go on. Don’t get me wrong, heroes are great: I’m sure Superman is a nice enough guy and you can’t hate James Bond (even if I think he’s not the best conversationalist and has slept with more women than you), but they’re constantly challenged by an array of opponents, all different in their cruelty and countenance. I mean, Bond is tested by a man with metal teeth, a man with an eye patch and even a nastily-scarred bald man with a cat. Maybe that’s what makes the villains so interesting – the creators can be a bit more explorative with a villain than they can with a hero. Certainly, whenever I’ve created stories, the possibilities with the bad guy (or girl) are a lot more exciting. A hero has to be true to themselves throughout the story, because without integrity, it’s hard to like a hero let alone cheer them on when they’re slaying a dragon. A villain – well, a villain can be so far-removed from any degree of integrity that it can border on humorous. That’s what makes a villain memorable – the distorted, but often sometimes true-to-life, representations of extreme human traits. Take the Queen of Hearts, for example; she’s so megalomaniacal that it’s ridiculous. Norman Bates is so deranged by his endoctrinated childhood that he is the ‘psycho’ in Psycho. The Evil Queen from Snow White is so hell-bent on being prettier than a teenager (which is in all honesty a bit misguided in itself) that she’s happy to turn herself into an old hag for it.

This is exactly what nudges it for the villain over the hero. Unlike heroes, who are often a bit more complete in their character – or at least a bit more human – villains have usually got some major deficiency of human nature, or sick and twisted reason for being the way they are or doing the things they do. I was watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part II) not so long ago, and I picked up on something that I never really thought about in the books, or any of the preceding films. Rowling succeeds brilliantly in making Lord Voldemort a heinous, psychopathic, dehumanised freak of nature in both appearance and personality, but towards the end of the series, I started to feel a little sympathy for him. Please don’t shoot me, or cast an invisible killing curse on me, because I think I am just. It’s not Voldemort’s fault that he turned out the way he did; he had a pretty messed up childhood and was born into an even more messed up family. Splitting your soul seven times was a step too far, I know, but somewhere in this complex and callous character’s past were real, human emotions – a desire for belonging and longevity, borne from a lack of love – and any reader or viewer can at least understand it, even if he does look like a snake. It takes a good deal of fictional hating and literary soul-searching to get to that point of empathy for a villain, but it’s fascinating when you do. The evil side of them disappears for a moment, and you realise that they’re just as human as the rest of the characters. Yes, all right, some villains are really evil (Iago comes to mind) but some of them aren’t really that bad; they’re just misunderstood. They’ve been dealt a bad hand, and are probably the way they are through some insecurities of their own, or just following the crowd, or maybe a twist of fate. And if they want revenge because their sister was squashed beneath a Kansan farmhouse, then let them.

On another note, it’s worth mentioning that we humans like to be scared. It’s fairly well-known that watching a scary film causes a rush of adrenaline, quite like being on a roller coaster. And of course, a good villain is important in making this feeling even more powerful. They need to exude negativity, and maybe even echo real-life villains. For example, I’ve noticed that Voldemort has some “Hitleristic” qualities about him – perhaps we can see that in his character, making us hate him even more. Let’s not forget that he’s horribly ugly as well. That helps. Freddy Krueger’s just as bad, too. With that clawed glove, fedora hat and beautifully-burned face, he’s also got the psychotic personality to match.  Ergo I think Mr Krueger would be far less intimidating if he looked like Mr Blobby. On second thoughts, that would be rather scary…

But what I’m getting at is that the villain stays with us, probably more so than the hero. In fact, most villains I’ve read about or watched have been pretty well-formed and believable forces of evil, while some heroes seem to get blown away like a house made of straw (Bella Swan, anyone?). Whether a villain scares us as Hannibal Lecter or make us angry like Miss Trunchbull (she really used to get on my nerves), we remember the people that make life difficult. Captain Hook is arguably just as memorable as Peter Pan and how many of you can remember the names of the dogs in 101 Dalmatians? (It’s Pongo and Perdita from the film, if you’re wondering.) And so when I go to bed tonight, I’ll admire my snow globe sat on its shelf once again. I’ll check under the bed for monsters beforehand, but I’ll admire it all the same.

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5 thoughts on “Crooks, cannibals and crazy fashionistas: Why I love a villain

  1. Agreed. Heroes and villains are binaries, without one the other cannot exist. Villains are far more interesting to analyse, write, and perform. I think the reason I loved the musical Wicked so much is because it provides the opportunity to understand the Wicked Witch of the West. Good post 🙂

  2. Then you obviously haven’t seen Disney’s recent ‘Brave’ — wee Merida rang my bell loud and clear from the cute little birthday girl start right through to the stand-offs at the end. The villain? A truly nasty guy you quite simply would NOT want to meet without at least at Challenger main-battle-tank wrapped around you and the hatch closed. And yet … at the end he gets you thinking, too.

    Currently our all-time favourite movie (we bought the soundtrack CD too). Mostly I try not to analyse, I just enjoy rooting for the Good Guys (and booing the baddies).

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