Villains (huah!), what are they good for?

a guest post by William Davidson

Hi, and thanks for having me.

I am aware that it’s usual for a guest to adhere to a certain social etiquette during their visit: not putting their shoes up on the sofa; not helping themselves to food from the fridge (although I’m afraid that half-eaten trifle was just a bit too irresistible…); and not setting out comprehensively to undermine their host’s entire raison d’etre. So, that said, um…

I want to talk today about whether (and if so, why) we really need villains.

Bear with me.

I’m not talking about the sort of balance of light and shade that we get in real life or most genres of story. It would be an extremely unrealistic tale (and a slightly dull world) if everyone were sweet, gentle and kind all the time. There will always be a place for the difficult, the cantankerous, the obstinate. But a villain is something else – a central implacable opponent who epitomises all that is dark and wrong in the hero’s world. What is it about fantasy (in the broadest sense) that requires the existence of this type of ultimate enemy? As Austen might have put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a heroine possessed of magic, or super-powers, or even just a croissant-shaped hairdo, must inevitably be in search of an arch-nemesis against which to wield them. Which got me wondering (if I may momentarily channel Carrie Bradshaw rather than Carrie Fisher), what is the point of the villain?

There is, I accept, something pretty awesome about the epic showdown between a hero and their nemesis. That dialogue fraught with tension, the opportunity for each combatant to showcase the full range of their talents and powers. But… let’s say that you are a hero, with certain specialised skills that you have honed across a series of increasingly challenging adventures. Isn’t a climactic showdown against someone who represents the ultimate test of those particular skills just a little bit, well, convenient?

But it’s more than that: if you are a hero who has decided to set the world to rights, and have a set of flashy powers that are physical and dramatic and above all just crying out to be used, isn’t it frustrating to be spending your time going after bag snatchers and rescuing cats from trees? Isn’t the emergence of an all-powerful, dehumanised enemy who is clearly and unequivocally a bad thing something of a… relief?

I want to talk about three of the greatest super-hero stories in recent years: the Avengers series, Watchmen and the Incredibles. What was the greatest enemy that the creators of these stories could conceive of, in order to put their heroes to the ultimate test? It is not the super-villain, although of course each of those stories does contain plenty of villainy. In each case, it is the stifling constraints of a legislative regime which seeks to regulate super-heroic activity, or to prohibit the heroes from existing at all.

A couple of thoughts came to mind recently while I was re-watching Captain America: Civil War. Firstly, that this is absolutely how humanity would react to a group of super-powered vigilantes. A group who had wreaked enormous damage on civilian property and populations without accepting responsibility for the consequences. We would want to shackle them in bureaucracy, regulate their activities, provide for redress in the event that innocents came to harm. Their loss of autonomy, the possibility of impairing their rapid response, an emboldening of the criminal classes – these would all be risks that were worth running in order to safeguard the citizenry as a whole.

The second thought was this: if I were one of those super-heroes, there would be a little bit of me that really hoped for some massive alien menace to come and beset the Earth, leaving death and destruction in its wake, so that those grey and faceless bureaucrats could see how wrong they were. So that I could be given back my freedom to act. Society doesn’t need villains… but maybe heroes do.

This starts to cast in a different light the role that many heroes have in creating their nemesises… nemeses… ultimate opponents. Psychoanalysts would have a field day with the number of times a hero has a hand in creating his or her villain, whether through action or inaction. Can it be that there is something in the psyche of a hero that drives them to behave in ways that draw out the worst in those around them? Think about Mr Incredible. Stuck in a tedious job into which he has been forced by the rule-makers who have legislated away his powers, physically and emotionally straining against the constraints of a role that prohibit him from doing good in the way that he has always wanted to.

His self-interested, insensitive handling of a fanboy years earlier gives rise directly to the main villain of the piece. But, more critically as far as Mr Incredible himself is concerned, it sets in train a series of events which liberates him from his tedious office-based existence, gets him back in the super-suit and, in the process, enables him to rediscover a sense of self-worth and care for his health and physical appearance. It even, again through the direct agency of the villain, leads to him reconnecting with a family from whom he has become increasingly distant. For everyone else the emergence of the villain is bad news, but for Mr Incredible and his nearest and dearest, it represents almost literally a life-line.

Which, of course, almost irresistibly draws us to Watchmen – arguably (in graphic novel form at least) the greatest super hero story of them all. For every bright colour and pure ideal to be found in the Avengers or the Incredibles, Watchmen has darkness, death, depression and deception (yes! nailed the quadruple alliteration!). But look at the similarities – here we have a hero who quite literally creates the villain (and of course, therefore becomes the villain themselves) in order to demonstrate the need for heroes. What is more, again and again we are presented with heroes who, deprived of the outlet for their core impulses, have deteriorated into something less than what they once were. Seedy, melancholic, and almost heroically pungent in one case, they are washed up and directionless without the ability to be the hero in their own story. Once again, the emergence of the threat, of the villainy, is what resurrects them and re-gifts them their sense of purpose.

Is it really any surprise? Super-heroes (and, I would argue, all fantasy heroes) are essentially coercive characters. Possessed of some capability more potent than those around them, they seek to assert themselves on the world in order to change it. This is all well and good, to a point, where their ideals align with the society which they inhabit. Captain America in the 1940’s and 1950’s could fight against Nazis and Commies all day long without treading on the toes of the land whose name he carried. But it is no surprise that as those obvious threats faded, the stories of Captain America changed, to the point where he no longer felt able to associate himself with his fatherland. To the point where… well, if you know you know, and if you don’t I won’t spoil it for you.

A hero is well-equipped to take on the dark tower, the evil mastermind, the overwhelming invasion. They are singularly poorly equipped for the slow business of diplomacy and compromise. Faced with the task of negotiation, of seeing another point of view and maybe even recognising the truth of it, heroes start getting the urge to smash something up, to punch someone in the face. There is something satisfying for them (and, if we are honest, for us) to having that ability to lash out at a tangible opponent, at a symbol for all that is wrong with the world.

But there is a danger in that mentality. In our story worlds, thought is seldom given to how a new world order created by magical or super-heroic intervention might be sustained. Having demonstrated that an empire can be overthrown by force, any new republic that comes to replace it must expect to see that lesson learnt by their enemies and re-cycled against it in an a perpetual cycle of violence. A throne captured with the assistance of dragons or magic is unlikely to be preserved by liberal words and moderate tax policies. They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the same way, if the only tool you have is a magic sword, the solution to every problem looks like decapitation.

And if that is true in our fictional worlds, isn’t the risk just as great in the real world? The need to identify a villain, some figurehead against whom all of our vitriol can be directed, often blinds us to the more subtle and insidious problems in the system which they represent. If we spend our time railing against the CEO of a corporation or the leader of a political party (or even a nation), we can lose sight of the flaws in the system which brought them to power. As in George Orwell’s 1984, focusing our anger and our energy in hate of the emblematic figurehead drains us of the energy that we need to bring about the systematic (but slower, and more complicated) reforms that are really needed to effect meaningful change.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a great story of good versus evil as much as the next person. In the context of a simple story, the reductive clash of hero and villain can be a satisfying way to spend a couple of hours or a few hundred pages of text. Let’s just remember that in the real world the dividing lines are seldom so clear cut. Right and wrong are often a little more complicated than the colour of the armour (or cowboy hats) of the combatants. That’s OK, so long as we remember that the problems being confronted are no less real for lacking a visible evil mastermind who is responsible for them. The challenge, for a story-teller who hopes to reflect that reality, is depicting these more subtle challenges without losing the interest of readers who yearn for the epic showdown with the big bad.

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Will Davidson is the author of The Seventh Colour, a post-modern fantasy novel set in a world in which elves, dwarves and magic have disappeared and the humans left behind have slumped into lethargy and aimlessness. If that sounds like a laugh a minute, you might like to know that the British Fantasy Society called it “intelligent, amusing yet challenging on what is a very relevant subject” and Black Gate Magazine said that it is a “truly compelling… heist story”. It is the story of heroes with powers they are afraid to use, fighting against enemies who spend more time in bureaucratic committees and getting the folds in their cravats just so than in dastardly plotting or villainous scheming.

Will can be found on Twitter @WordDruid, and more information about his writing can be found at www.the-seventh-colour.com/.