[Essay] The myth of the good villain

Many people nowadays misunderstand the role of villains in stories. This misunderstanding has ruined a sad number of good stories, so I call upon my fellow-storytellers, and our audiences, to correct it. The storytellers, by creating villains and heroes differently; and the audiences, by being alert and holding us to account.

Whether their creators realize this or not, too many films and novels are saying that villains are not to blame for being evil; that villains are more interesting than heroes; and that in some cases, villains can be good. In short, they convince us that a villain is a character like any other, without a particular internal logic, and with no specific role to play apart from creating conflict for the hero. Which is false.

Villainy precludes goodness

It should go without saying that villains cannot be good. The definition of a villain is this — he is evil. If he were good, he would not be a villain. I do not mean that he can’t occasionally do good. He can; but that good is accidental and isolated, it isn’t a trend and it does not define him. The villain’s defining marks are his habit to do evil and his consistent choice to deceive himself into believing that his conscience is only a nuisance.

Here we could ask: But what of Maleficent? She is a classic villain, but she only wanted revenge against treachery and injustice, and later she did everything she could to save Aurora. Isn’t she a good villain?

No. Because there is not one Maleficent: there are two. And while the cartoon character was the pure villain — a symbolic, simple, psycheless incarnation of evil — the film character is a flawed heroine on a positive change arc. She is another character entirely, except for the name and the aspect.

Maleficent and Aurora
Live-action Maleficent is no villain.

The problem is that while you and I can see this with a one-minute analysis, most children and many adults don’t analyze. They hear the name, see the horns and the black cloak, and think she is the Mistress of Evil. Then they watch her constant effort to do what is right, and voilà! chaos takes over their minds. Villains can be good, so evil is good, or evil is not evil, or there is no good and evil.

And all the while the evil character, the villain, the real maleficent, is Aurora’s father. He is the person you would not share a flat — or a kingdom — with. Calling the heroine Maleficent was great marketing, but it is feeble storytelling. Good storytelling gives the audience meaning: it does not muddle them. Audiences must demand that heroes do not dress in the apparel of evil.

Heroes live in conflict

Also, audiences must demand that heroes be more interesting than villains. Because no offence meant, but whoever says that villains are by nature more interesting than heroes is saying nonsense.

What makes a character interesting is inner conflict; and five seconds are enough for us to realize that following our consciences creates a lot more inner conflict than yielding to our instincts. Isn’t simply being decent a constant fight? The moment you wake up, you have to choose between lying lazily in bed and getting up to face your responsibilities; and from that moment to the hour when you have to tear yourself away from whatever you are doing in order to go to bed, your day is a succession of inner battles. And this is only in order to be a decent human being. We are not even talking of proper heroism.

Stepmother and Cinderella
So, it’s easy to be a hero, is it?

While the villain’s inner struggle is to silence one voice, that of his conscience, the hero has to fight the thousand voices of all the thoughts, ideas, memories, images, desires, feelings, that lure him from the straight path of his principles.

So, I’m sorry, but no. Villains are not more interesting than heroes. If they seem so, it’s because the heroes are badly written. Let us correct this and show our audiences how hard and exciting it is to be a hero.

Villainy implies responsibility

Also, let villains be responsible for their misdeeds. Yes, they work hard to deceive themselves, so that no villain is a villain in his own mind; but storytellers and audiences should not imprison themselves in those darkened brains. Let us stop making victims of villains.

After all, what do we want with characters who have no free will, who are not to blame for being evil because it was their parent or society who determined them? Those are not characters, they are vegetables with no claim to our interest.

Not to mention the fact that if society is to blame for driving the Joker to insanity and murder, who is guilty of making society what it is? Society is made of individuals; so it must be individuals who are to blame. If this is so, then they are the real villains. If they too are simply victims, we have only pushed the question one stage back. To solve the problem of a villain’s villainy by blaming someone else is no solution at all.

Cate Blanchett as Cinderella's stepmother
Cinderella’s stepmother — now we’re talking!

(And while we are at it, if a villain is only villainous when deprived of his psychotropic drugs, audiences should ask storytellers a favour: that we drug the villain and send him home, and get someone with free will to fill the role. Someone like the fully responsible stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.)

“Good” villains are useless

Stories are not about coincidences and accidents: they are about choices and consequences. This is why villains’ misdeeds must be capital crimes, chewed, swallowed and digested; wrongs they decided to commit, sins they chose to do.

And as a conscious, constant evildoer, a villain is not there to strut about the end of the third act unrepentant and alive. Storytellers owe their audiences a catharsis, the victory of the Good and of Justice, because this is how total reality works. Evil is the unreal intruding into reality; and because it is unreal, it cannot endure. A story which affirms that evil is the ultimate victor is a falsehood.

Because though a story is not reality itself, it is an image of it. Not a photo — a stylized image. But just as the lion on the escutcheon is a lion, even though it does not look like a flesh-and-blood lion, so do good stories reproduce, according to their own rules, the workings of reality.

And in this stylized image of reality which is a story, the villain has a precise and irreplaceable role: he symbolizes the evil we carry within ourselves, which will destroy us if we do not destroy it. Therefore, if we storytellers try to make our villain innocent or irresponsible, or if we deny him trial and punishment, we are doing him (and our audience) a disservice: we are depriving him of his reason to exist. He becomes meaningless, an empty placeholder, a hole at the heart of our story.

We owe our characters their due: if we are fair to our villains, we will destroy them. Their birthright, and their highest desire, is either to be annihilated or to be transformed.

Blanca Suárez and Alessandro Preziosi in La Bella e la Bestia
The Beast will suffer and be transformed. (RAI 2014)

And the Good conquers all

For yes, there are villains who can be converted. Not all of them; some evildoings are too grave, and reveal the hopelessly rotten substance of a character who is intrinsically evil. Give him one chance at redemption, give him a thousand, he will go on choosing evil. Therefore, if we want to redeem our villain we must make sure he does not cross certain lines, lest we create an absurdity, an impossible character. In story as in life, you can’t forgive those who don’t want to be forgiven, redeem those who scorn redemption, save those who prefer to be lost.

But those villains who do want to, will indeed be transformed. The moment a villain repents and changes, he becomes a hero on his own positive change arc; and he never was a villain in the first place. With one decision, the character has done the impossible: he has changed his past.

He is of course still struggling to conform to the Good; he has still to be punished for his past crimes; he will suffer, for only suffering can restore the balance of justice. The Beast must die before it can become the Prince. But this newly made hero has chosen the Good, and the Good will not forsake him.

We, audiences and storytellers alike, know this is true. We know it, because each one of us is that character. In face of the Sovereign Good, we are all villains; we deceive ourselves and choose to do the greatest of all evils — to forget our true nature. But if we decide to remember it, we will be transformed. For we are villains in whose deepest heart is the need to become heroes; who yearn for punishment and forgiveness, to be destroyed and to be reborn.

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