What is a villain?
As writers, we know the answer to this (or we should, anyway): a ‘villain’ is an antagonist. They’re the person standing between your protagonist and what they want. Almost every genre has them.
The question is, are those antagonists really villains? How do you think the poor Wicked Witch of the West felt to have some strange, rude girl crossing her lands and killing her pet flying monkeys?! How did she get to be the Wicked Witch of the West, anyway? Who made up that rule? What if she wanted to be a shoe designer instead? Well, sadly, I’m not the first to consider those questions – Gregory Maguire beat me to it by several years, and the result was Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.
It is, as author Anna-Marie McLemore points out, all about the point of view.
Yesterday, I attended the Nimrod Writers’ Conference at the University of Tulsa. One of the sessions I attended was by McLemore’s “Unpossessed: Reconsidering the Demonized in YA and Speculative Fiction.”
This was one of those great sessions that makes you think about things in a new way, that makes you reconsider tropes and villains. Even if you already subscribe to the notion that ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’ (and you SHOULD subscribe to this notion, because it’s true!), a lot of what McLemore said made me look at this in a slightly new way.
First, she said, we need to consider who is a villain? Who decides that? In history, villains are your opposition. The Brutus to your Caesar. The Jefferson to your Hamilton. The Al Capone to your Elliot Ness. The Donald Trump to your Constitution. Need I go on?
McLemore writes stories based in fairy tales, and in fairy tales, who is always the villain? Well, think about it this way: who is the villain not? The villain, in a fairy tale, is never the young pretty princess, is it? It’s never Snow White, or Cinderella. Nope. Why? Because the villain is always the old ugly woman. But when that young pretty princess is no long young, or pretty, she disappears from the story . . . or maybe, just maybe, ends up the villain, the Wicked Queen, in someone else’s fairy tale.
Let’s take the example of Snow White. Imagine if Snow White got old. Imagine if some other young, pretty princess – let’s call her Silly Sally – came along and decided to ruin Snow White’s quiet existence with Prince Charming. Snow White might go all rogue on Silly Sally’s ass, right? Right. But is she the villain? Well, for Sally she is. IF it’s Sally’s story. Which brings me to my next point:
So not only do you need to ask yourself who is the villain, but you also need to ask, whose story is this? McLemore used the example of Jane Eyre to discuss this idea. Obviously, the heroine of Jane Eyre is Jane Eyre. No mystery there. She gets her happy ending; she marries Rochester, so Rochester gets his happy ending, too. Who doesn’t get a happy ending? Poor Mrs. Rochester, locked away in that attic for years and years before committing suicide. But. Does Rochester deserve that happy ending? Do we know – do we really know – what happened after that? How did Mrs. Rochester end up in that attic? Did Rochester drive her insane? Will he do the same to Jane? What if that ending is just the prelude to a horror novel? (Obviously, Mrs. Rochester did get her own novel, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which makes that her novel. And in her point of view, wouldn’t Jane be the interloper, trying to steal her man?)
The last point may be the most important: The villain of a story is often an inconvenient character. Not inconvenient for the author – though sometimes that is the case – but for the culture and society of the book, and for the other characters. They tend to challenge the world and its norms and laws. They tend to revel in rebelling against society. At the very least, they are standing in the way of what someone else wants. Their rebellion might be about race, ethnicity, gender, or anything else they find important. They might be engaged in illegal activities that, for whatever reason, society has driven them into. (Or it could literally be almost all of the above, like my rumrunner, Nicky.) They might be gay in a world where that is illegal. They might be an outspoken woman, fighting for feminism in 18th century America (the heroine of my new work-in-progress, Sarah, does precisely this; her argument is that if we’re going to be asked to fight for liberty from Britain, what are the women going to get out of it? She is incredibly inconvenient!).
Truthfully? The worlds wants this character to be convenient. The world wants them to slot into their rightful little place. The world wants them, really wants them, to do what they’re supposed to do, without complaint. But this character simply cannot do it. It might be just who they are (Alex in Red, White, and Royal Blue – he can’t help that he’s bi and in love with the Prince of England, but that is sure inconvenient!). It might be that they’re fighting against injustice in the world (Harriet Tubman), or fighting for a Great Cause that isn’t popular at the moment.
But this is where point of view comes in . . . and villains are all about point of view.
As readers and writers, we have to ask ourselves: when a character is demonized, who is making that choice? Is it society? The hero? Who finds the villain inconvenient? Does the villain find the hero equally inconvenient? If so, why? You’re writing about this person, after all. You should know them as well as you know the hero. Why does your villain – your antagonist – do the things he does? What drives him or her? Remember, in a good story, your protagonist is just as much a villain to your antagonist, as your antagonist is to your protagonist.
You may have heard the saying ‘history is written by the winners.’ That, to an extent, is true. When you win, you get to tell the story however you want. You get to demonize the enemy. You get to make it all up. So . . . when it comes to the villain, who tells their story?
Or . . . is this the villain’s story?
Are they not the villain after all? Are they, in fact, the hero of their own story? Are you sure you’re telling the right story, with the right hero?
It’s all about the point of view.