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On the Nature (and Questionable Existence) of Villains

10.10.2011

In preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’m going to attempt a post a day, or at least every second day, and even then I might dredge up old rants and just post those. (Is that cheating?)

Anyway…

As I flicked through the newspaper, I found a review of a book called ‘The Calculus Diaries’. At first I thought it was going to be a cross between ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’. Then I read the subtitle: “A year discovering how maths can help you lose weight, win in Vegas, and survive a zombie apocalypse”.

Riiiiight… (Actually, it still sounds like a cross between ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’.)

It wasn’t particularly helpful as inspiration for a fresh blog post, but the thriller/horror/terror novel in the column next door got me thinking. (The picture was of a bloodied knife on the cover, so I didn’t read it. I don’t have anything against the genre; I just scare easily and don’t want to have nightmares.)

I thought about the saying, “a story is only as good as its villain”. Then I thought about what I understood the word ‘villain’ to mean. I don’t know about you, but I imagine a villain to be person despised by everyone around them, with murderous intentions and a loathsome countenance. At the same time, they must also radiate such lethal charisma that, in order to negotiate their way past a battle-ready SAS team armed with grenades, balaclavas and cool Velcro uniforms, all they would have to do is use their razor-sharp wit to confound the soldiers and then, with a tilted smile, make a clean getaway.

Someone a bit like this:

Villains and heroes are the stuff of myths and children’s stories, and I say that with the utmost respect for these narratives. Villains are a necessary part of young imaginations because, importantly, they help children recognise right from wrong. Of course, heroes assist with this as well, but it’s usually the villain who is the most colourful character in children’s stories and the easiest to spot in an identity parade.

As we grow older, we recognise ‘good’ and ‘evil’ much quicker, and as a result, we often go in search of more complex and unpredictable characters that will test our notions of right and wrong.

Such as these:

Or this:

We might learn what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘evil’ by observing the successes and failures of those around us, or sometimes we experience them ourselves. At some point, we learn to anticipate outcomes and identify consequences before they occur, and the further we plummet, the more aware we become of our ability to soar high above it all.

True success, however, cannot be tasted without first experiencing the most abysmal failure. The same goes for the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Books, movies, video games, mythologies – these help develop our understanding of morality. Characters allow us to experience what it feels like to lose everything, and then to climb up an impossibly steep slope to success. Or fail in the attempt.

In 2005, I wrote a thesis on the use of violence, crime and morality in contemporary young adult fiction. Part of my research focused on childhood and adolescent moral development and whether books have any impact on our early understanding of the concepts of right and wrong. I speculated that exposure to certain character types at particular stages of moral maturity would be beneficial. This is because a young reader’s moral code is tested in an environment that isn’t real. They read about a range of characters and their actions that are then interpreted as being moral or immoral, ‘good’ or ‘evil’, thus on some level preparing them for similar moral dilemmas in the real world.

Whether they know it or not, most publishers market books containing morally polarised characters to younger children, and save the novels that deal with more complex characters for older readers.

That’s why many 3-year-old boys find this character easy to identify with:

And many 13-year-old boys identify with this:

These types of characters help readers develop a moral compass. How? By reflecting aspects of the real world. The more rounded the characters, the more we recognise them as being realistic. People are layered. Ideas about morality are different for each of us, if only slightly. Over time, our moral centres are developed as a result of our own experiences and interpretations. We accept or reject other people’s moral views, depending on whether they fit with our own world views. This is how we establish our own code of ethics.

We see everyone around us through a subjective lens, a lens that’s clouded by our own sense of morality. That’s why ‘truth’ is such a tricky concept – in reality, ‘truth’ is nothing more than individual interpretation of facts. Only when multiple versions of reality overlap do we reach the ‘truth’ consensus.

And that’s why, in real life, there are no such things as ‘villains’ or ‘evil’. A person’s character can never be simply summed up as ‘evil’. No one is evil. No one is a villain. Not even those we consider to be the nastiest people on the planet are deserving of such base descriptions.

Of course, this also means that, if there’s no ‘evil’, there can’t be any ‘good’. And if there are no ‘villains’, then ‘heroes’ don’t exist either, at least not in the traditional sense of children’s stories and fairytales.

You can’t have one without the other. At least, that’s how it works in all the stories, right?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. stu permalink
    10.10.2011 8:29 PM

    where do I fit in?

  2. theasaurusvol82 permalink*
    10.10.2011 8:39 PM

    Wherever you like.

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