Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Villains are People too?

On Monday I announced that I changed my blog settings so that anyone (not just account holders) can leave a comment. I wanted to repeat this as this post lends itself a bit better to discussion. Enjoy.

Hello readers,

I wrote an intense villain scene in my thesis the other day (that I’m probably going to have to rewrite), and it got me thinking. What are villains?

The obvious answer is the antagonist—the guy that does everything in his power to make sure the protagonist(s) doesn’t succeed. Is that all, though? Are villains more than simply evil?

I’d argue yes and no.

I know—so helpful.

One of my Seton Hill chats last semester (which one escapes me at the moment) included a lengthy conversation about humanizing villains. Most of my fellow WPFers agreed that it was important to give the villain a good quality to fill out his/her character.

I, being the ever-present devil’s advocate, argued against this idea, siting Lord Voldemort—the world-famous villain of the Harry Potter series. What good quality does Voldemort really possess? He wants to live forever, has demonstrated the ability to kill without remorse, was willing to divide his soul (thus mutilating his body), and, even at the very end when Harry presents every ounce of truth, refuses to acknowledge that he was at all wrong. Aside from all this, he’s deceptive, uncaring, arrogant, and power hungry.

No one countered these points. The overwhelming response to my analysis was that Voldemort was the example to prove the rule. He was one of the few villains with no good qualities.

I took this as a personal victory. I’ve always been able to find examples to prove the opposite of the prevailing theory. I was that student in Spanish class who, when it was explained that the -ar, -er, or -ir at the end of a verb was dropped to conjugate, asked “what about ‘ir’” (translated as to go)? My teacher shook her head at me a lot.

However, on closer examination, I did find a possible good quality in our dear Lord Voldemort.

-His undying devotion to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Toward the end of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Voldemort says (after the first half of the battle at Hogwarts) that he wishes not to spill anymore wizard blood. In “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and Deathly Hallows, it is shown, through Harry and Dumbledore’s extensive study of Voldemort’s past, that the young Tom Riddle exhibited great care when handling the items that would become his horcruxes. Note that it was items that had strong connections to the wizarding school that Voldemort used as the hosts for his soul.

As loathed as I am to admit it, the almost love that Voldemort shows for Hogwarts and its founders is moving. If you discount the fact that behind it was a plan to see wizards in a position of ultimate power over muggles and the possessive desire to kill a boy made guilty only by Voldemort’s own actions, he could almost be a hero. (All right, not quite.)

That’s the hitch. Voldemort has this “redeeming quality,” if you will, but it’s only redeeming if you remove all of the evil deeds and motivations that surround it.

So I’d like to amend my earlier statement. Villains should not have “good qualities” but rather the potential of good qualities. If they are too easy to relate to/like, they’re not villains. It’s that element of potential that makes them real but still evil. It’s knowing that there’s a part of them that could make them good but that they choose to ignore it. I don’t want to be able to root for Voldemort’s plan of ultimate destruction. I do want to know that, deep down beneath the layers of horcrux damage, there is a boy who was misunderstood or misguided somewhere. But I want to be able to forget that. I want to hate him—need to hate him. Give me just enough to remember that he could clean up his act but won’t and never will.

Rowling does a very good job of this, and I, for one, can only hope to emulate her.

Does this mean that every villain in history has a “potential redeeming quality?” Probably not. I can’t seem to find one in Darken Rahl—the ruthless D’Haran overlord from Terry Goodkind’s “Wizard’s First Rule.” Maybe he’s the one truly evil villain.

Thoughts? Have something to say about villains you’ve read about or your own villains? I know mine always want more attention—greedy jerks.

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