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Villains - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
I read the early Warriors books very quickly a few months ago, and I decided to re-read, and I realized--I love Tigerclaw as a villain. Kidlit, fantasy, whatever... he's an excellent baddie. I don't mean in the sense of "Oh, I like him better than the hero!" but in the sense that he works well. The authors take care to make him a needed and valuable part of the clan--even as Fireheart distrusts him, he comes to the rescue many times, and Fireheart is glad to see him--so that his treachery is painful, and they also make him genuinely threatening. The best part of that was in the second book (Fire and Ice), when Fireheart is playing with his (adorable) little kittypet nephew, Cloudkit, who he's brought into the clan against the wishes of Tigerclaw and several others. Cloudkit is playing with a little ball of moss, and Fireheart is really enjoying watching him when he knocks the ball into the shadows... from which Tigerclaw appears, carrying the moss ball and dropping it in front of Cloudkit, but looking directly at Fireheart and saying that it would be sad "to lose such a precious plaything"... making it absolutely clear that it's a threat to Cloudkit. (I wish the authors hadn't had Fireheart say it in so many words as he thought about it, but that's the thing with books aimed toward kids. They might miss it.) You can just get the visual right there, as surely as if it had been filmed. The expressions, the postures, everything.

I won't say that I don't like villains who have good in them. I'm a Vader fan, for criminy's sake. The problem comes when that villain is the only one, when instead of having the hero battling for some great cause, he's just battling some psychologically damaged guy who you can't help wanting to, well, help. If Vader had been the be-all end-all of the Empire, the Star Wars movies wouldn't have worked, at least not as a quest story, because he's movable. It would have been more profitable to deal with him as a human being and try to talk sense into him, or to help him rearrange himself. (You can cause serious problems with this through secondary means--in an AU that a_p_ and I did, an insane Amidala ended up Empress, and the plot was about how things got way out of control in both the Empire and the Rebellion, and they ended up having to help each other, but in that case, she's stopped being a villain at all; she's just a poor, deluded person who really screwed up, and the villains are a random Tusken thug, a bunch of truly crazy rebels, and the memory of Palpatine... who didn't even have much of a role. It's basically a villain-less story.)

I think that villains, like heroes, should have a bit of a mystery about them. What is that fatal character flaw that makes them respond to things in the deadly way they do? Harry and Voldemort both have fairly crappy childhoods, but one becomes a megolomaniac psychopath, while the other becomes a hero. I like that JKR mostly leaves this a mystery, even while giving Tom's story. That missing piece, in some way, is the very thing that connects hero to villain, that cross-wires them into conflict--kind of a cardinal virtue to counter a mortal sin (charity vs. wrath, I think, in the Harry-Voldemort conflict).

Is it possible for a villain to be complex without being sympathetic?

I think it is, but it's hard, because the nature of giving complexity involves getting to know a character, and it's human nature to try and like what you get to know. I have to give Tigerclaw props here--the "Erin Hunter" writers managed to pull this off. He's not even a little bit sympathetic (except in one scene where he wants to see his kits). Everything that happens to him happens because he is greedy and ambitious. At the same time, he does try to be a good leader, he doesn't shirk his duties, and he is a valuable teacher, early on, to the hero, who mourns him later. He has a lot of actual virtues--it's just that none of them really mitigates his sin at all, because he twists them all to serve it, kind of the inverse of the goal of being virtuous, in which even one's flaws are meant to be harnessed to the service of a virtue.

Umbridge, to some extent, was a good villain this way. She shows several of the virtues we're meant to admire--she's decidedly loyal, she's devoted to Hogwarts... but she's twisted all of them around her sadism and power-grasping. There's no reason for it; it's just the way she's put together.

Barty Crouch, Jr, I'm not sure I could even really class as a villain so much as a "danger," because he strikes me as not entirely responsible for his choices. He seems genuinely crazy, not in the sociopathic way that Voldemort is--with no concern for anyone--but in a way that really might impair his ability to know right from wrong.

Palpatine was excellent in this regard. Until he turned the Republic into an Empire, he did do all of his duties, learned proper behavior, was smart and well-learned... but he twisted all of this to serve his envy and hatred. Not half bad.


Thought for the day, brought to you by the talking kitty-cats.
6 comments or Leave a comment
gabrielladusult From: gabrielladusult Date: February 12th, 2007 04:33 am (UTC) (Link)
I notice you didn't mention Snape in all of this. Up until Half Blood Prince I would have cited him as the counterpoint example to your question:

Is it possible for a villain to be complex without being sympathetic?

Is it possible for a character to be complex and unsympathetic and still be a "good guy" if not a hero?

Snape fans would say, "yes." Well...Snape fans would say he is sympathetic and I suppose "Snape's worst memory" was meant to make him at least a little bit so. Frankly the moment I liked him best was when he exposed his dark mark to Fudge at the end of GOF and basically called the Minister a big idiot...but that's me.

I'm not really out to start a Snape debate, and I seem to recall you once saying you weren't a fan of his anyway (neither am I for that matter) -- but since you mentioned Umbridge and Barty, I wondered how Snape fit into your Harry Potter villians scheme.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 12th, 2007 04:38 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm going to hedge my bets and wait for DH to find out his moral status. If he turns out evil, I'll definitely add him to my "complex without being sympathetic" list. :)
stephantom From: stephantom Date: February 12th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Good thoughts. Villains can be a lot of fun to think about. But you're right that there really is a difference between a sympathetic villain - who doesn't work in quite the same way (or just changes the nature of the story and the conflict) - and a complex and compelling villain who you want to see defeated. I really liked Agent Smith in the Matrix actually - aside from the "Platos's cave" basic premise, he was my favorite part. Hmm... Who are some others? Iago? -the one from Othello, not Aladdin ;) Two of my favorite villains. Not including ones that I really like, you know. Hateable but fascinating villains.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 12th, 2007 04:41 am (UTC) (Link)
I've actually never cared much for Iago (never did like Othello; oh, well), but yes, he's complex without inspiring sympathy. I only saw the first Matrix, and that only once, so I can't comment on Agent Smith. :)

Hannibal Lector comes to mind as an archetypical villain of this type, even with his prequel out giving his horrible history--you just can't really be all that sympathetic to a sadistic cannibal, but you can sure be fascinated.
akilika From: akilika Date: February 12th, 2007 05:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I'll agree with you--but only until Hannibal, and I'm gonna guess that the prequel's gonna go in the same vein.

The movies might have been different, but Hannibal the book played out a lot like a failed bid for sympathy that took away a lot of what was interesting about the character. (But then, I suppose that's not just taking away the mystery--a lot of Hannibal's characterization just seemed off.)

. . . come to think of it, I really hope the movie was better than the book. ^_^; I'm still going to read Hannibal Rising, but only when I find it half-off at a used bookstore. >_>;
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 12th, 2007 05:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I just mentally block the existence of Hannibal. It's like a magical incantation. :does not exist, does not exist, does not exist: There was no Hannibal story between Lambs and Rising.. I haven't read or seen HR yet, actually. I was pretty much just thinking of Lambs.
6 comments or Leave a comment