‘Villain’ might be one of the most overused terms in media: we analyse villains in fiction, we write about best villains in film and television, we rate villains in comic books. As a result, the term has become so vague that the only definition that remains is somewhat moralistic. A ‘villain’ is evil. Whatever that may mean. As we throw the concept around, we rarely wonder how evil exactly a character should be to be considered a ‘villain’. Also, in whose eyes should he be evil?
As a historian, I never use the term ‘villain’ because it comes with a certain ideological baggage. When I hear about ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’, I smell propaganda. If I need to describe the nemesis of the main character, I’ll use the term ‘antagonist’. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, not), most ‘antagonists’ easily come off as villainous, even though this trend is slowly fading away. As a rule, the more the term ‘villain’ gets thrown around, the less subtlety awaits you.
The total monster. I was never interested in either Ramsey Bolton or Joffrey Baratheon. Both are so irredeemably murderous and psychopathic that there is literally no one sane, who can take their side. Rephrasing the famous ’a villain is the hero of the other side’ quote, I dare say that nobody but mindless orcs or an army of zombies will join the typical ‘total monster’. Yes, sometimes Evil Overlords are fascinating to watch, but, ultimately, their absolute evilness makes them dull. You can’t sympathize with them, you can’t connect to them, you don’t even see their goals as anything worth pursuing. In the best case, they are subjects for a psychiatrist’s study. In the worst case, they just serve as nightmare fuel for both the audience and characters.
It may be interesting to watch serial killers plot their crimes, but, ultimately, genre fiction does not accommodate them as well as thrillers do. Had Prince Ruven been some serial killer from a thriller, I might have found his whole story arc interesting. However, since he was the antagonist in a YA fantasy trilogy, his presence in the otherwise interesting political story made it somewhat unbelievable: he was the only one-dimensional character. Thus, his psychopathic feats and murderous zeal made him bland and dull, not terrifying.
Forced morals. Another reason for my dislike of the term ‘villain’ is the forceful preaching it entails. If someone is labelled as a ‘villain’, his opponents are automatically ‘good guys’ (in most cases): The Rebels are good, the Empire is bad! Why? Because, villains kill, and heroes save. You can’t root for the villain without facing criticism from society, can you? You will unwillingly face moral judgement from either the author or fellow-fans.
As someone, who values efficiency and vision to the extreme, I oftentimes refused to support joyful idiots overwhelmed by righteousness because they neither were competent, nor had clear ideas and plans that could advance society. Unfortunately, most classical ‘fantasy heroes’ are stuck in the camp of ‘righteous idiots’. The designated villain, however, is often the only capable person in the novel/series/trilogy. Thus, this intentional ‘hero-villain’ dichotomy does nothing, but annoys the readers, who are ‘expected’ to see one side as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’.
Vilifying ambition and intellect. This point is an old pet-peeve of mine that is often associated with villains. In many fantasy and sci-fi works, villains or anti-heroes will share two qualities – creative intellect and daunting ambition. For some reason, this vilification of ambition and rationality goes too far. Partially, I stopped reading YA fantasy because it is the ‘power of love and friendship’ that defeats intellect. It is ‘selfless love’ (or whatever it was, I did not really get it) that takes down the Darkling in the Grisha Trilogy. The list goes on, but the theme remains: the cleverest and shrewdest person is the villain because he/she dared to have both ambition and the will to carry out his plan. Oftentimes, the plan will be ridiculous and unnecessarily bloody just to drive the point home. Most of these authors somehow forget that human progress is the result of intellect and ambition. Absurd Bond Villain Plans – not so much.
Black and white. We all love Tolkien. We also don’t mind the black-and-white morality of the Lord of the Rings. After all, there are plenty of complicated characters on the ‘good side’ that have their struggles and problems. Boromir may be the brightest example. However, nowadays the term ‘villain’ does not belong in the worlds that are everything but ‘black-and-white’. Is Glokta a villain? He is definitely not a good guy given his profession. He may be revolting. But he is hardly a villain in his native dark setting.
The term ‘villain’ reduces complex and conflicted characters to simple obstacles that the heroes must overcome. Similarly, the heroes themselves become one-dimensional once they are paired with villains. From a historian’s perspective, this is a cringeworthy topic. It is something many of us refer to as ‘the partisan dilemma’: Your partisans are someone’s terrorists. And your oppressor is someone’s hero.
In my childhood, I was blown away by this contradiction. As a kid, I despised one man – Count Ivan Paskevich. He was a military leader, who not only crushed the Polish uprising, but ended the Hungarian revolution of 1848-1849. Simultaneously, the count was a hero of the Russian Empire – a brilliant and respected officer, an epitome of bravery known for his unwavering loyalty to the Emperor, a man of his word according to many of his contemporaries. As one of the greatest fans of the Hungarian revolution of 1948, who had (still has) a picture of its leader Lajos Kossuth on her nightstand, I did not see anything, but an oppressor and an imperial lapdog in Paskevich. I missed the complexity of his character, because the only side I saw was that of his opponents, whose romantic nationalism I adopted and internalized as a kid. I still don’t share Paskevich’s views, but I understand his motivations. And I no longer consider him a villain. (
ok, I do, whom am I kidding?)
History with its imposed distancing makes you allergic to the term ‘villain’. Thus, my favourite novels are the ones that don’t have real villains. Instead, they show us worthy opponents. Why? Because it is an art to present conflicting points of view without passing immediate judgement. Literature is not as linear as philosophy. Fiction can let readers decide, who villains and heroes are. After all, Yang Wen-Li from Legend of the Galactic Heroes was right about one thing: ‘There are few wars between good and evil; most are between one good and another good.’