There tend to be two main types of villains: the type of villain that is Just Plain Bad, like the rats in Redwall or the orcs in Lord of the Rings. Then there's the complex, potentially redeemable villains, like Darth Vader in Star Wars or Loki in the Marvel Universe. Watch the video below or scroll down to read the blog post for my discussion!
The Just Plain Bad Villain
When I was a kid, I read the classic fairytales, in which the bad guys were very obviously bad. You didn't have to guess who the bad guy was; you recognized him the second he stepped onto the scene. Why the one-dimensional, Just Plain Bad villain?
I think it has to do with the type of moral questions that the story asks. The questions that fairtyales ask are simple enough for children to understand, but they're so loaded that even adults struggle with them. What are we willing to do to stand against evil? What do we do when we face evils that are so much bigger than we are? How do we meet evil with courage and truth?
Not every book that falls into this category is a fairy tale, per se, but it follows the same pattern. Redwall by Brian Jacques was the series that prompted me to write my first novel at 11 years old, and this series follows the classic fairytale pattern. The good guys are very obviously good, and known by their specie (mice, squirrels, rabbit, etc.) and the bad guys are very obviously bad, and also known by their specie (rats, foxes, ferrets, weasels, etc.). The entirety of the stories are focused toward the epic showdown between good and evil. You know who to root for and you love following the good guys on their journey to restore peace and goodness to their world.
Another example: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Who are the bad guys? With only a few exceptions, the bad guys are the orcs and the "Dark Lord." C'mon, if your title is "the Dark Lord," you've got to be the bad guy! (I do have a bit of a pet peeve about bad guys being stereotypically ugly, but, again, the point of these tales is to make a clear distinction in order to ask specific questions.)
In each case, the bad guys can be picked out a mile away and remain distinct from the good guys throughout the harrowing battles between darkness and light. The choices that our heroes make focus around perseverance, sacrifice, and hope.
When I read The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander (Book 2 of the Westmark Trilogy), I experienced the first book that forced me to ask questions about the nature of the dividing lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Theo is fighting to protect his country against the Regian invasion and, in becoming the warrior that he feels he needs to be, Theo begins morphing into the very enemy that he hates. Theo does not recognize this change in himself, but I, as the reader, felt the horror of the shift in his motivations. I began to ask questions: Can you do the right thing for the wrong reasons? The wrong thing for the right reasons?
Even without getting into the antihero side of the equation, this is the type of story that forces you to realize that the good guys are closer to the bad guys and the bad guys are closer to the good guys in many ways. Which brings us to an interesting possibility: the possibility for a redeemable villain. (Note: You can read my review of The Kestrel here!)
As opposed to the type of villain where you can only say "good riddance," these are the villains that are just relatable enough that we see ourselves in them and we hold out hope for redemption. The good guys ask different questions in this type of tale, such as: How do you bring about justice while still offering your enemy a chance at mercy? The protagonist not only wrestles to save the world from the villain, but wrestles to save the villain's soul.
This is a pattern you clearly see in Star Wars, as Luke Skywalker appeals to his corrupted father to return to the Light Side. He truly believes there is still good in his father and he longs to see Darth Vader take that step toward redemption. And there is, indeed, a deep satisfaction when the villain we've all hated up until now rebels against the Emperor and chooses a last-minute redemption.
(As a side note, I discuss the problems with naive mercy in my previous post: "Should the Hero Kill the Villain?")
In conclusion, there's no right or wrong to either type of villain--the Just Plain Bad villain or the redeemable villain--but I'm curious as to whether you have a preference. Let me know in the comments below!
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I write YA/adult fantasy & sci-fi that explores fantastic and interconnected worlds, with stories that burn through the darkest realities with hope and redemption.
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