Villains can be a turn-off. But they can also be compelling, fanciable, even sexy. Think Alan Rickman as just about any movie baddie you care to name. (Confession here — I’m a Rickman fan and this blog was partly inspired by him. But there are other baddies here too, and many are from books as well as films.)
DenOfGeek.com (and others like LA Weekly) rated Rickman’s outright (and not so outright) villains, big time. The four above — L to R, Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; De Valera in Michael Collins; Gruber in Die Hard; Snape in the Harry Potter films — filled the #2 #3 #4 & #6 slots in their 10 best Rickman movies, in a tribute after his death. In their top spot was Truly, Madly, Deeply — a film where Rickman’s enigmatic ghost appeared as a self-centred character who may (or may not?) have been playing a part in order to release the beloved for a new relationship. Audiences had to make up their own minds whether he was hero or antihero (or even villain?) in that one.
So . . . Antiheroes rather than Villains?
Your average antihero, according to Wikipedia lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality, and may have dark personality traits more commonly associated with villains.
But antiheroes are not villains, right?
Well… It can sometimes be difficult to be sure. Usually it’s the story telling us, as readers, that Mr/Ms Antihero is the main character — and therefore we should be focusing on them — even if Mr/Ms Antihero is a pretty nasty piece of work.
Flashman is a complete rogue but very funny and clear-sighted about himself and the world.
Scarlett is snobbish, wilful, dishonest and manipulative, but crazily brave and determined.
Both have redeeming features that make them more antihero than villain. With both, we want to read on.
James Bond kills people, lots of them, and his moral compass often goes missing in action, especially where women are concerned. But Bond is an antihero, not a villain, because he’s always battling against a much more villainous villain. And millions of readers and viewers find him compelling. Is it the violence, or the humour, or the sex? Whatever it is, we happily pay to have the Bond experience in print and on screen.
From comments made in response to Sophie’s post about Heyer Heroes last week, it’s clear that the Duke of Avon, in Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades, may be as close to a villain as an antihero can get without actually being one.
Avon certainly has villainous traits and he can be pretty nasty. But he is redeemed by falling in love with Léonie. For her, he gives up many of his wicked ways. Mind you, he is not totally reformed. He accepts, many years later in Devil’s Cub, that he is “a man of few morals and no heart” and still “unscrupulous and sinister”. In spite of that, Avon remains both attractive and compelling for readers. We may not like him — he could become a villain again and that frisson of danger is still there — but we keep on reading the books in which he appears.
Can evil Villains be attractive? Or Is a Villain just a Villain?
I’d say it depends, first and foremost, on the writer.
We don’t usually find it difficult to recognise the intended villain on the page or on the screen. So often he,
or occasionally she — remember Servalan, the military commander turned president in Blake’s 7? — personifies evil and lust for power.
The villain is the antagonist to our hero or heroine, the opponent who must be defeated if Evil Is Not To Triumph.
Even outright villains like Servalan can be attractive. Admittedly, that may be easier to show on the screen because a subtle actor can make the villain less of an evil cardboard cutout and more of a human being, with virtues as well as flaws. Servalan was a bit short of virtues (apart from charm) but she was no cardboard cutout. She was such a compelling character that her role in the series got bigger and bigger. Decades later, she’s still seen by fans as an ideal villain — and sex and power personified.
In some films, by contrast, you might wonder whether the cardboard villains have ever had any virtues. Other than — perhaps — caressing a long-haired white cat?
That Moggy looks desperate to escape. With reason, maybe?
Cherish your villains
Dear Authors, please don’t make your villains from cardboard. Please make them rounded characters, and preferably attractive as well.
Because, as readers, we much prefer to read about them.
Because rounded villains make your story more believable.
For the sake of the story, you may want to turn them into heroes later, so they need to be rounded and real to start with. Think Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books, revealed at last as a Sidney Carton figure, conflicted and jealous as hell, yet sacrificing himself for Lily for years as a double agent. (That villain-to-hero transformation is obviously easier if there is an even worse villain, like Voldemort, in the background.)
At the other extreme, your twisting storyline may tempt you to make the ultimate sacrifice by turning your hero/antihero into a villain. That’s a common trope in spy stories, of course.
But your audience may hate it, as many of us did when Lucas North, Richard Armitage’s brooding and conflicted spy in Spooks, was outed as a traitor.
The viewers longed for him to be redeemed. He wasn’t.
And as a traitor, he became, by definition, a villain. Yet, even as a villain, he was still compelling.
Do you have a villain you love? If you’d like to share your favourite, please do.
RIP Alan Rickman 1946-2016