The Anatomy of a Villain

When you think of the bad guy, you think of a really bad guy. A guy who does nothing but stand in our hero’s way. He’s evil, despicable, horrible…except when done right, he’s so much more. I recently watched ‘Rise of an Empire’ (AKA 300 part 2) and am an hour and 15 minutes away from finishing all three books in the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi. In each case we as an audience are presented with villains so evil, so clearly wrong and then somewhere along the way they change in our eyes. Somehow, we love them, maybe even more than the hero. But how?

Full disclosure: Eva Green is my girl crush and sweet Jesus I love it when she plays someone bad and slightly broken. While I do think she brought a level of pain to the roll only she could, the writers gave Artemisia a perfect character arch for Eva to work with. When we meet her, she’s bad. She’s down-right evil. It seems she’s got a nation on a string, controlling them all as if they were a puppet. As the story unfolds, we catch glimpses of her life up to that point and by the time the end comes we’re (at least I was) rooting for her. We know she cannot win. We know the story has to unfold without her, but there is a part of us that wants her…to be saved, to take her revenge? I’m honestly not sure. Typically, I’m annoyed when I feel I’ve been manipulated. When writers or Hollywood do the ‘ol bait and switch I find myself angry – but not this time.

The movie, by the way, is freaking fabulous. We saw it last weekend and I’m still talking about it.

My second example is Aaron Warner in the Shatter Me books. I thought for sure it was Adam. I thought Adam was our hero and how wonderful that it wasn’t instalove because they’d known each other before. Warner was evil and cruel and how could he ever be anything but a bad guy, right?

Full disclosure: I listened to all of these on audiobook and think the narrator did a fabulous job with all the voices. I might not have even made it through the first book if I’d read it myself. An entire chapter of “I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane. I am not insane.” Might have been a little too much for me on the printed page.  But thankfully, I did make it through. And truth be told, I knew the moment I started falling for Warner and it was so well done, I just thought I was falling for the bad guy. I didn’t know he was going to redeem himself or have explanations for all the things he did and so help me, I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t care what he did or how black his soul was because (Spoiler! Skip if you haven’t read the books) when he kissed her before she shot him, I felt it. I felt his desperation for her, his need for something good and I knew he could change.

His character arch was similar to Artemisia’s; a broken boy who grew into a cruel man. We are shown glimpses of his past and eventually have all of the facts as to why he is the way he is. Even if Adam didn’t start acting like a whiney 15 y/o girl (which he did) I still would have wanted Juliet to be with Aaron.

Like the movie, these books are amazing. I highly recommend them.

Looking back at all of the stories that have griped me, touched me, changed me in some way, it’s never because of the hero. It’s always been the ‘villain’ and their story. I wonder, is a villain or antagonist more important than the hero or protagonist? Is the bad guy making or breaking our stories and have been all along and we just never knew. Maybe some of you seasoned writers out there already knew this. There’s probably some class in college-level English and creative writing classes on this, but this girl didn’t go to college. This girl moved out, got a job, got married, had a kid – and then realized what she wanted to be when she grew up. This girl always has to do everything the hard way. This girl, is going to write about a villain.

What about you?