On Villainy

I’ve written here before about the necessity — in my opinion — of making one’s villains well-rounded characters and not merely evil mustache-twirling sockpuppets. By which I mean granting them their virtues as well as their vices, and giving them friends as well as enemies, and generally treating them with a certain amount of respect even as they go forth to meet their richly deserved ends at the hands of the protagonist of the tale.

I don’t know if what I’m encountering a lot of lately is the start of a disturbing new trend, or just the result of seeing a lot of plain old-fashioned bad writing and worse criticism . . . but readers and writers both seem to be getting more into villains who are evil all the way through, from the flaky top crust of their characterization down to the soggy underbaked bottom. Anything in the line of subtlety or multidimensionality or (dare I use the word?) empathy is decried as normalizing or valorizing their badness.

This is, in my opinion, wrong. We as writers humanize our monsters in order to drive home the idea that not only are they people just like us . . . we are, if we’re not careful, people just like them.

And yeah, there are always going to be some readers who simply don’t get it, in the same way that there’s always some genius in the English Lit survey class who thinks that Jonathan Swift was speaking literally when he wrote A Modest Proposal.†

But we shouldn’t have to be in the business of writing for those people.


Spoiler: He wasn’t.

One thought on “On Villainy

  1. Reblogged this on Madhouse Manor and commented:
    The seven deadly sins are Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth.

    For your villains, pick any two. For your heros, pick one.

    The seven splendid virtues are Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Charity.

    For your heros, pick any two. For your villains, pick one.

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