Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sympathetic is Overrated

I was in a twitter chat the other day, and we started discussing villains. Since bad guys are some of my favorite people to write, I enjoy the enthusiasm everyone seems to have for them lately. The villain, in a lot of ways, is stepping into the spotlight. That works for me. I always liked him best anyway.

And I'm not going to disagree with the idea of a sympathetic villain...well, not completely. I understand what makes a sympathetic villain compelling, and I think all characters should have depth. Of course. But, a lot of the common thread in that villain conversation went along the lines of: a villain has to be sympathetic.

Well I've never liked absolutes.

In fact, personally, I'm getting a little sick of the sympathetic villain. Not a popular opinion, I know. When I said it in chat they looked at me (a nice trick on twitter) like I'd grown a second head. But I meant it. I don't think a sympathetic villain is wrong, I just wish EVERYONE would stop doing it. But I feel the same way about anti-heroes too, and tortured, badass heroines. So I may be the one with a screw loose here.

As to villains, sometimes, every now and then, I like one that is just plain, old fashioned, bad to the bone. For no good damn reason. I don't always want to know that they exploit the weak and terrorize the country because their father didn't love them, or their kitten was stolen or whatever the feck happened to them to "make them this way."

I miss a villain who exploits the weak because he can. I like a villain who takes from others because she wants to. Who seeks power because he's power hungry. Because maybe he's just a selfish asshole. Maybe he thinks his needs are more important than others, and maybe we want a sympathetic villain because we don't want to admit that that sort of person exists.

And that's where I think we might be deluding ourselves a little.

I like to think that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, and I usually am the first person to give it to them. Most people in this world have very good reasons for what they do, even if they aren't reasons we agree with. But I think it's pretty naive to say that ALL evil is done for a sympathetic 'reason.' Too many people have proved me wrong.

Bad people exist. They don't get a sympathetic excuse from me. Not always. Selfishness exists, corruption exists. Etc. I don't want to sympathize with everyone, because I don't want to be tempted to excuse their behavior.

Also, bad to the bone villains are fun. This is fiction, people. Mythological and archetypal models exist for completely, gloriously good heroes (They don't all have to be tortured, do they? Even if it's okay for some to be.) and wretchedly nasty villains. Fiction and myth is a safe place to let good be good and bad be bad and not get all judgey about it.

I miss that a little. And there are some great less-than-sympathetic villains out there. We never get to see Sauron's motivation, do we? Even Sauroman is, I'm sorry, just a power-hungry asshat. Baron Harkonen? Not a nice guy. Not even a good reason for being an ass. Not really, and I doubt anyone found him sympathetic in the least.

And I like a sympathetic villain too. I adored Vader until they cast him as a whiny teenager. I did. But sometimes when something is shiny, we do it to death. It's all good until we say, 'have to.' If we said all villains have to be sympathetic, or have some motivation that justifies (away) their evil acts, I think we'd lose a lot of good villains. I'm okay with keeping those that are sympathetic, I just want to keep my baddies-who-are-bad-because-they-love-to-be-bad too.

And with the trend the way it is, I'm kind of scared to see the movie, Maleficent. I love her in the spotlight, I do. She's my all time favorite. But I'm worried someone will want to explain her...and what made her so amazingly wicked, what made her (in my opinion) rise above all other Disney villains, was how bad she was. She was evil. Just for cuz.  And that's scary and awesome at the same time. If we find out why, I'm not sure it will be anymore.


  1. Maleficent is my FAVOURITE. (Sleeping Beauty is my favourite in general, but she's my fave villain.) The trailer makes it look maybe revenge motivated? I'm kind of okay with that, I like revenge tales, but I just hope they don't soften her edges too much. She is so delightfully wicked.

    I sort of have a similar issue with crime shows--I still watch Criminal Minds periodically, but I am sick to death of sympathetic killers who are just suffering from delusions or are paranoid/schizoid/bipolar/whatever mental illness. Besides the fact I get irritated by frequent depictions of the mentally ill as violent...sometimes I just want to watch a bunch of cops go after a sadistic psychopath. That's it. Just a bad guy who does bad things, the end. I don't want to feel bad for his awful childhood or hope he gets rehabilitated, I want to see a monster defeated at the end of the hour.

    It's cathartic, I think, to have a purely evil villain who is just evil and is then defeated by the "good" guys. Sometimes we need that experience without a whole lot of gray area.

    "I miss a villain who exploits the weak because he can. I like a villain who takes from others because she wants to. Who seeks power because he's power hungry. Because maybe he's just a selfish asshole. Maybe he thinks his needs are more important than others..."

    I think you basically described most of my protagonists... *cough*

  2. "I think you basically described most of my protagonists... *cough*"

    So...I'm just reading the wrong books! :D


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