Society’s Fascination With Villains

Being a writer is a tremendous blessing and equally a curse because inevitably other people will read what you have written and pose their opinion. (Unless you are one of those types who hides their notebooks full of novels in the closet!) It is always interesting to gain an outside opinion on one’s brain child — unless of course it is a negative one! But the resounding response to my work is always, “You know how to write terrific anti-heroes.” I cannot seem to write a villain that my readers absolutely hate and I have tried. My last villain did many truly horrific things and all my test reader said when she reached the end was, “My, what a wonderful character he was! I adore him!” and I thought, “I may as well give up… writing tormented anti-heroes is in my blood.” (Although secretly, my own affection and fondness for these character, even the evil ones, probably makes me incapable of writing them in any other way! Villains do not become villains without effort and trauma and exploring what drove them to such depths of depravity is bound to incite the barest semblance of compassion in even the most hardened soul.)

Looking back, with one or two exceptions, that has become the most formidable body of my collective works, the concept and execution of a character that is not completely the villain but is also no hero — essentially, an “anti-hero.” It is a notion I became first aware of many years ago when I first read Susan Kay’s Phantom, a prequel, continuation, and sequel to The Phantom of the Opera rolled into one. (And consequently, my favorite novel.) Throughout, the audience experiences the circumstances that led Erik to seek sanctuary in the depths of the Paris Opera house, in the full knowledge that he is neither the hero nor a man you can find it in yourself to entirely hate. From his abusive months in the carnival to the tragedy that strikes him in later years, you cannot help feeling a sense of compassion for him in spite of the knowledge that as an adult, he will go on to murder and mayhem. He is desirous of nothing more than affection, than for a woman to hold out her arms to him and care nothing for his appearance, but to embrace and love him in spite of his hideousness. In that respect, the beautiful tragedy of Erik is that he is so near redemption and so willing for salvation, yet eternally damned.

Not all villains are as empathetic but many of them have experienced traumatic events that have brought them to a particular set of events or circumstances in which their evil manifests. I think in part it is human nature to be fascinated with not only what transformed them into villains but what keeps them there. The truest villain, the most powerful villain, is one not entirely devoid of humanity, in which the audience senses the barest flicker of potential salvation. Just as we want Phantom of the Opera to end differently, some portion of our soul hopes that Lex Luthor will return from the darkness into the light, because some distant corner of our heart questions whether or not all humanity has the potential to be saved. If God meant it when He said all sins could be forgiven, then that means there is a promise of salvation for anyone who reaches out for it — even the most demented of creatures. Interestingly, a lot of writers (including myself, at times) have incorporated this subtly in terms of love transcending evil and bringing about a form of redemption.

I am by no means a fan of horror films (and indeed, find them overwhelmingly worthless and badly written) but on occasion I make an exception of sorts for the most infamous villain of all time — Hannibal Lecter. Originally created by Thomas Harris, this character has fascinated audiences ever since Anthony Hopkins first donned the blue jump suit and stepped behind the glass walls of his “cage” in Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is remarkable in his conception, a figure entirely without a moral conscience but who places emphasis on politeness. Over the years he has manipulated many tormented souls and often assisted them in their downfall — as a psychologist, he discerned their various evil instincts and manipulated them into situations in which they were punished for their misbehavior or simply wound up dead thanks to his murderous hand. Occasional flickers of empathy are nothing more than an illusion as he soon shifts into a sadistic sort of pleasure at the torment of others. He is, quite frankly, the sort of character you would not care to pass on the street, but one audiences and readers worldwide have found perversely intriguing.

Though I have not read all of the novels revolving around him, I know enough thanks to like-minded friends that Hannibal’s journey is an interesting and emotionally-driven one, from a compassionate child forced to endure unfathomable horrors during the Second World War to the adult who murders without conviction and cannibalizes certain portions of his victims. (He has his reasons.) But even Hannibal it seems is not entirely without his own variation of morality — he never harms children and only rarely threatens women. His past is tragic, his current nature the result of childhood trauma and his eternal quest for revenge. Many of his victims were a genuine threat to society and others merely had the misfortune to irritate him — or in the case of one unfortunate musician, hit all the wrong notes in a performance. I am told however that in the end, his demons are put to rest and he finds solace in “love” with Clarice Starling, who can at long last silence the screaming of his soul and put an end to his murderous nature. Hannibal, meanwhile, is the only person capable of silencing the screaming of the lambs in her mind and helping her to find peace. They are one another’s redemption and salvation. It does not excuse his behavior or make him any less frightening, but it is intriguing.

One might find reason for concern in our society’s increasing fascination with villains, but in a way I think it is indicative of our human nature and our eternal quest for redemption. There is more than the intrigue that surrounds our interest in what “creates” a villain, in what circumstances and choices take him down a path from which there is no return. There is tremendous power in the concept of good and evil and writers should not be afraid to approach material with an earnest desire to explore what we know to be true. Christians should have a greater understanding of evil than anyone, because it is the opposite of all we know to be pure, and true, and good. Our comprehension of the nature of Christ permits us to also understand the nature of Evil. But that also leaves us in an unusual place as writers, because much like God, often we care for our characters even if they forsake good and choose evil. Sometimes, we even covet their redemption and must mourn them when it is not possible. Many authors throughout time have written stories of good and evil in which the villain is triumphed over, but it intrigues me that the majority of villains who find redemption are not written by Christian novelists. Perhaps that is because we understand that certain kinds of evil is so gripping it cannot be easily renounced… or maybe we are simply too intimidated to grant them redemption.

[ music video of Dr. Lecter ]

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