Era of the Villain

We are living in the era of the villain. I mean, first there was Lolita, and now there is Dexter. And how many books, movies, TV shows, plays (etc.) which would otherwise be pretty classical in scope, these days, have a very sympathetic take on the villain? Suddenly, vampires are boyfriends and serial killers are saviors. The Ones are really Us, and the seductress is a superhero. Are they even villains, anymore?

I suppose it is the result of being in the era of psychoanalysis combined with a culture of equality (or tolerance, or however you might put it). I mean, we can’t just damn the bad guy. He has feelings, too. And motives. And a complicated reason that he killed the hero’s girlfriend.

Now, I am all for writing sophisticated, in depth characters. And I abhor a flat villain as much as I abhor a flat hero. None of us are painted with only a white or only a black brush, and our characters suffer when we paint them that way. But then again, I kind of like villains to stay villains, for the sake of story, for the sake of justice. After all, story is not always (or even often) about representing life exactly the way we find it. That would be boring, not to mention repetitive. But story does define or magnify things for us, pick things up and turn them around so that we see them differently. And rarely do they mimic life in a one-to-one way. Villains have long been there to strengthen our moral compass (even if that means changing it, a bit), but I’m not sure I like villains completely overthrowing our moral compass.

Let’s put it this way; it’s one thing for Javert to question his motives and to perhaps even feel guilty–it would be perfect for these people to have families that love them, even, and some respectable attributes!–but in the end, I know that what Javert did was wrong and he deserves to get the raw end of this literary deal (even if, in a tragedy, he does not). Even if that means I, too, deserve his fate.

And while I had about 100 examples in my head as I formulated this theory over the past several months, of course I can’t think of them right now. Here are the few I could think of off the top of my head:

  • Sylar, from the TV series Heroes (although his is a case of repentance and change, I think, so that wouldn’t count)
  • multiple characters from the TV series Lost, including Sawyer (although his is a case of seeing him though the lens of another character’s love, so I’m not sure that would count, either)
  • Dexter, of course

Are we under-shadowing the heroes and heroines in order to make this happen?

Does anyone else have some thoughts on this? Some examples for us?

Do you write literature with non-villains? Why?

Does it bother your sense of justice to see this trend?

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One thought on “Era of the Villain

  1. “Wicked”! That’s one of the many examples that I forgot. Turning fairy tales on their heads so that the evil character becomes the wronged antagonist is a common modern practice. Think of “Hoodwinked 2,” as well. Hansel and Gretel are now the spoiled sociopaths and the witch is a misunderstood villain who can be quickly friended out of her forced evil. And “Hoodwinked” sees the revelation that the Big Bad Wolf is really just a dim-witted cop, which is why he’s always around in the shadows.

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