Monsters and Villains

Here is a secret: I am locked in eternal warfare with a tiny creature that lives inside me. No, I do not have a parasite (that I know of).

Right now I’m working on a new novel, and one problem I’m running into at present deals with villain creation. I have a pretty good idea of the major plot points, but I’m having trouble coming up with The Big Baddie Behind It. The more I think about monsters, the more I feel like there is nothing more monstrous than ourselves at our worst. At the same time, I resist labeling anyone irredeemable. Villainizing someone is Othering them, making them so remote, so foreign, so unlike ourselves that there’s no possible way we could be like them. The shiver we get up our spine when encountering true villains comes because we know these thoughts are a lie. None of us are so human than we can’t be monsters, so divine that we can’t be the devil.

This evening, I was indulging in a bit of harmless (I thought) Facebook stalking when I ran across some pictures of someone I occasionally hate. I know this person is toxic to me, so normally I just pretend this person doesn’t exist. It’s not charitable, but it’s the best I can do so far. Anyway, insofar as photography can tell, this person appears to be doing well. Extremely well. Blissfully, top-of-the-world, golden fingered, successfully well. I’m normally a pretty easy-going person, with a dash of melodrama thrown in for spice, but this person’s success (which can only benefit me, since it means that person will want nothing to do with me) turns me into someone else. It’s like inside me there lives this tiny, angry being. It’s dark and twisted and crookedy. It has bright green eyes and long, jaggedy fingers. It has very sharp teeth. Whenever I see that this Facebook person is doing well, the twisty creature leaps out of me, reaches through the pixels, and shreds all the digital images of Facebook person in effigy. It’s not me at my best.

There are several ways for managing my hateful little sprite. 1. Be smart and avoid toxic situations. 2. Pray for people who bother me. 3. Pray and work towards being a more charitable person. I know what I ought to do. It’s just awfully hard to remember to do it before the sprite escapes. To be honest, sometimes I take a certain satisfaction in my hate: this person deserves to be hated; this person is unworthy; this person ought to be punished, and I know just how to do it. But, however temporarily satisfying, my self-righteousness doesn’t actually make me feel any better. My thesis director (kindly, helpfully) once pointed me to the verse in Romans where Paul says “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It’s as true of me now as it was then.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’m a monster. I’m a villain. How, then, can I create a true-to-life narrative that has a genuine hero and genuine monsters and a genuine villain? Part of the problem with our current era – a problem that is usually a strength, I think – is that our heroes and our villains are the same people. I’m a monster, but I don’t want to be. Do you think Voldemort ever felt that way? Or Mordred? Or Sauron? How could those questions ever be answered satisfactorily? How can we ever even know what lies in another person’s heart? I’d like to say it’s the wishing to change that separates the heroes from the villains, but I don’t know. I’m inclined to be suspicious of mere wishing.

Alma might disagree with me. He says that if people can’t quite have faith, but can just desire having faith, can just wish that they believed, that is a good starting place at least. He says that if people feed that initial desire, true faith will grow. But Alma is speaking of having faith in Christ, not in one’s self, which is perhaps the problem I’m having. I’m not the hero. Christ is the hero of all our stories, and we are victims, at best, and our own villains at the worst.

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One thought on “Monsters and Villains

  1. This is a great post, Susan. I like the point you raise about our heroes and villains being the same these days. It’s something that I find intriguing and uncomfortable at the same time, and it’s one of the reasons that I really like The Dark Knight–I think that movie shows Batman treading perilously on that line. But at the same time, I love reading young adult fantasy because the lines are much more cleanly drawn. I always know who is evil and who is good.

    Something I’ve noticed, though, is that we seem to be much more comfortable with heroes that are also monstrous or villainous than villains that are also heroic; Batman may not be entirely good, but the Joker is entirely evil. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s just an outgrowth of what you’re talking about–we recognize our own capacity for evil and our personal struggles against it and so we can accept that in our heroes as well. But we still our villains to be wholly evil. This, I think, is a condition that we see enacted in the way we view, for example, terrorists.

    You know, for a paper I’m writing, I’ve read about a dozen adaptations of an old Irish tale, and in most of them the antagonist (who isn’t all that bad in the original tale) is made into an evil and villainous king. But in one of the adaptations, he is written instead as a very human character, one who does evil things, but who is not wholly evil. And because of that, the weight of tragedy in the play falls not on the death of the protagonists, but instead on the broken and pitiful condition of the antagonist, who is clearly devastated by his own actions. I think that’s maybe why we resist allowing villains to be humanized–because there’s something deeply, almost unbearably tragic in a person who has been overwhelmed by his or her own evil and knows it.

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