Thursday, April 13, 2017
JUST A Villain? Seriously?
'A villain is just a victim whose story hasn't been told.'
I've seen this phrase in various places, from being splashed all over Pinterest to showing up in fairy tale retellings. Every time I come across it, I grit my teeth and hiss. A couple of weeks ago, I encountered it in a middle-grade fantasy I was reading. I managed to repress the strong urge to throw the aforementioned book across the room and finish the prologue before yanking a notebook towards me to scribble the foundation of this blog post.
Why do I loathe this particular piece of writing advice/inspiration/what have you?
Simply put, because it's poppycock. A lie. Rubbish.
A villain is not 'just' anything, least of all 'just a victim'. True, many villains started out as victims, and naturally, that experience shaped them drastically. But somewhere along the way, they made choices that led them down the road to villainy.
Every victim has a choice. They can allow their past to define them and turn them into something dark as they take revenge on others or attempt to revenge themselves on Time itself for the wrongs they have suffered. They can choose to continue the cycle of abuse and evil and become the villain oppressing others, creating more victims.
They can stand up and they can say 'no more' and do their best to move beyond their victim past, not allowing it to define them.
Is being a victim horrible? Yes, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. But just because someone was a victim doesn't mean that they will automatically become a villain. Many heroes were victims, too. But they made the choice to overcome that experience. People in real life make choices every single day to overcome their past as victims and live as survivors and heroes.
It doesn't matter how misunderstood a person is because of their past, or how much pain and agony they suffered, or how warped and twisted were the people they knew. Everyone has a choice. Every person (or alien or whatever) chooses good or bad. And if they consistently make the wrong choices, if they refuse to choose good when they could, that's what makes them a villain.
Do I think there are opportunities for villains in books to have been misunderstood victims and be written as gray characters whose pain and grief drove them to inflict pain on others? Sure. And as a writer, reaching into that victim past enables us to guide the reader to feel sympathy or understanding for the villain, thereby making them more well-rounded (hopefully without blurring the lines of morality in the process). But the fact that the character is a villain still comes down to choice, not their history.
"Well, fine," you say, "but what about the saying 'every villain is the hero of their own story'? Doesn't that nullify your point?"
Absolutely not. According to the technical definitions of hero and villain, that is an erroneous saying. (Definitions courtesy of the New Oxford American Dictionary.)
hero: a person who is admired for or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities; also, the chief male character in a book, play, or movie, who is typically identified with good qualities or choices, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize
villain: a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot
A villain may be the main character of their own story, but they are not the hero. Writing a story from the POV of the villain- or including their POV- doesn't change whether what they did was right or wrong. Stories seen through the bad guy's eyes can be fascinating, when well written. But one's past can never be used to excuse one's present.
The choices of others make people victims. A person's OWN choice makes them a villain or a hero.