There’s nothing quite like a good villain. What would Silence of the Lambs be without Hannibal Lector? It wasn’t Clarice Starling who got the spin-off series. Where would George Smiley be without Karla? And as for Bond… the stories we all remember are the ones with the proper megalomaniac antagonist.
A good villain also makes writing tremendous fun. To get inside the skin of evil is a wicked delight. To inhabit that warped mindset brings a smile to the face – which, if you think about it, isn’t entirely healthy.
There are categories of villains, all of whom present different challenges to create and make real. I’ve been thinking about this. The difference between good and evil is a small one. Almost everyone is the hero in their own story; the difference is merely one of perspective.
Think of a sliding scale of interest. At one end is ‘self’: characters on this end of the chart are purely invested in themselves alone. A lot of pretty thugs – henchpeople – fall into this category. But so do psycho- and sociopaths: people like the aforementioned Hannibal Lector and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. It’s a rare novel that has a hero with this (limited) amount of world perspective.
After self comes family. Here we see someone acting not simply for themselves but for ‘their own’. Mafia stories are pitched at this level: the Godfather is concerned not simply for his own advancement but for those around them. ‘Protecting their own’ is the primary concern; we can add in the warped concerns of racists, anti-immigration parties and the like in here.
And this is where we can also start to see an opportunity for anti-heroes and more genuinely ‘good’ characters here. A Mafioso is a bad guy fighting for her own interests against rivals. A heroic small-businesswoman fighting against an evil corporation bent on destroying his local community is not a million miles away. The difference simply is the structure you build around them. Atticus Finch, one of the best-loved of all fictional heroes, isn’t trying to save the world: his family is his small town.
In a way all the global conflicts – inter-state, inter-nation, inter-species – are all just extensions of the family: it’s all about what we consider ‘ours’.
At the top of the Scale of Evil are the ideologically-driven villains; the world-changes, universe-hammerers, nation-reforgers. These people agonise over the damage they’re doing but truly believe they’re saving mankind. They may be prepared to sacrifice 90% (or more) of the population to do it, but they’re convinced by their vision. It is, they say, the only chance for the species. Are they heroes or villains? In their own minds they’re saints. The James Bond’s of their novels are the real villains. Similarly, in Le Carre’s novels, the Russian spymaster Karla is a hero. George Smiley, who we follow and will on to win, is his villain and villain to the Soviet people.
Sidebar: I’ve always had a thing about the Support-Network of Evil. Where did all these villain’s minions come from? Who answers the phone? Who builds their bases, maintains the reactor? Either the crew lies in blissful ignorance, a mere wage-monkey, or they’ve been convinced by the villain’s vision. To inspire people willing to die for a cause indicates either their malleability (implausible for such a large number) or they’ve been genuinely convinced by the Man with the Plan. They’re heroes too. The ones at the sharp end, the ones the protagonist cuts down without a thought.
Sidebar sidebar: Who hires all these people? Is there a Human Resources Department of Evil? Or is it all outsourced? Is there a special agency that specialises in placing henchpeople with the right villain for them? ‘Great career advancement possibilities, a wonderful pension scheme, funeral expenses included – oh, but you have to pay for your own ammunition… And there’s a strict ‘no nunchucks’ policy.’
Villains who are interested in only ‘the self’ – nothing more than their immediate circle – can make great antagonists. It’s clear-cut, small-scale and intimate. But I’m fascinated by the improvers, people who can see further than the rest of us. People who genuinely believe that the only way to save homo sapiens is to waste a continent in the afterwash of rocket-fuel needed to propel humanity to a new future. And I’ve read enough books to see that all we’re looking at here is a difference in perspective.