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How Many Villains Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Villains in fiction have a lot in common: of course they are generally destructive, but on close examination we find a bewildering array of parallels: sporadic illnesses, resentment, revulsion for sex or towards children and much more. Part of what makes them antagonists in a story, though, is that they seek domination of others. Authoritarian, dishonest, they twist the truth to suit their own ends, appear continually threatening and are always negative, and often are outwardly repulsive too - like the bullying Mrs. Joe Gargery in Great Expectations:

My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg- grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much.

Openly mocking anything positive, Mrs. Joe is a model for such characters as she deals in hostile or threatening criticism in defence of her own view of life. As a character type she constantly attempts to undermine Joe and Pip, chronically disagrees with everything they say, and uses the fact that she has ‘brought Pip up by hand’ to further her own ends. She nags and bluntly criticises to demand compliance with her wishes. Occasionally experiencing a shadow of pleasure in extraordinary moments, she is often misunderstood.

In fact, there seems to be an archetypal perfect model for villains and anti-heroes in literature: Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Sauron and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and so on. Every standard villain comes from the same stock: similar, but with a few uniquely different details.

It’s probably true to say, though, that villains are more trapped than most character types, trapped by their own unyielding arrogance and determination to dominate. Whereas the protagonist must actually change or move emotionally to bring about change in readers, antagonists must necessarily refuse to modify themselves. How many antagonists would it take to change a light bulb? It wouldn't matter, they would refuse to change.

Villains are therefore the counterpoint, the usually unmoving opposite, to the protagonist’s motion.

It’s all to do with rhythm.

In moments of extremity, such important characters can get even worse: they actively destroy, get very angry, can become guilty of rape or murder, brutally treat others, and smash or destroy those around them or their environment. Failing this, they may (and often do) destroy themselves. Fascistic, insincere, they become a heavy liability even when their intentions are avowedly good.

When an antagonist does change, as Mrs. Joe does by the end of Great Expectations, or like Prince Andrew’s belligerent father does partway through War and Peace, we find that we, as readers, are often profoundly moved: their archetypal portrayal has meant that any shift in key has a deeper effect on us than it otherwise might have done. We feel pity, sympathy and a sense of lost potential, and the characters become more meaningful and real.

There is the kind of villain who lives in fear, promiscuous, perverse, sadistic, slyly controlling others, they operate on a kind of negative ethics, being perpetually dishonest without reason, but screening this behaviour with a devious masks and ingenious and vicious perversions of truth, like the brilliantly described Steerpike in Melvyn Peake’s Gormenghast (pictured):

If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

This character is an artful liar only occasionally and underhandedly displaying action - otherwise he or she is cowardly in the extreme. Despite an apparent confidence, such characters are invariably in doubt, and is incapable, capricious and irresponsible, vacillating on any given course with very poor concentration. Luckily, he or she nearly always fails.

Numerous other examples leap to mind: the mild example of the sycophantic Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, the devious Wickham being the more dynamic epitome; Mrs. Coulter is a stronger type in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The whole society seems to operate like this in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, while both Gollum and Wormtongue -'a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes'- demonstrate it perfectly in The Lord of the Rings. Baron Von Harkonnen is an example of it in Dune, while Gatsby in The Great Gatsby has at least some of these traits:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

As an exercise, examine the antagonist in any piece of fiction you like: are they not similar?

See my book How Stories Really Work for more.


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