Had an exceptionally interesting conversation today with my literary agent about the need for an interesting villain in fiction. He spoke quite eloquently about the idea that the strength of a hero is really predicated on the force of opposition that your hero must face. After all, a weak villain doesn’t require any great, spectacular heroism to conquer — and this a problem with a large majority of the slush pile fiction he sees almost on a daily basis.
And to walk into his office and see all the manuscripts, all the aspiring writers, all the folks who are hoping to pen their way into the canon of our literary imaginations, well… let’s just say it’s remarkable how many books every year people were only hoping to publish… forget all the legions of books which are being published.
Obviously, as a writer, I know this. And I work at this. The better the bad guy, the better the hero must be… and therefore the better the book should be (theoretically) because, as Aristotle, Egri, McKee, Vogler, Campbell, and so on talk about — audiences crave heroic triumph… and if the odds aren’t bleak and the forces aligned against your protagonist aren’t insurmountable and phew, how in the heck will they ever be able to handle THAT curveball solid… then people have better things to do with their time. They will lose interest, tune out and walk away.
Now of course, I’ve read all the heavies… but our students most often have not. And a cool thing I like to do — especially when it comes to really engaging reluctant readers — is to celebrate the bad guy. To view the villain through the prism of admiration. Change perspectives and celebrate the devious for their unabashed lust. Good guys, we see them all the time. How about examining a complicated villain?
Lady Macbeth is a gimme for almost all ELA teachers. Inevitably, it’s where all discussions of Macbeth go. And it’s because she’s a great villain, a heck of character with a lot to be admired if ambition and power hungry manipulation is your thing. And as heartless folks go, Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist certainly shows an admirable coldness that deserves some celebration for just how ruthless he can be. Iago is one of my favorite characters in all of literature and come on, Dr. Jeckyll ain’t got nothing if he don’t have Mr. Hyde.
There are all kinds of good ways to get into books with your students. How about a little love for the bad guys? If the Socs aren’t such jerks, the Greasers aren’t so admirable. If Andy “It” Evans, isn’t such a date-raping senior dirtbag preying on susceptible freshman, then Speak doesn’t creep you out nearly as much. If white people weren’t so psychotic, Roots isn’t so gripping.
When it comes to stories, antagonists make the piece. And the badder, the better.
Yet, to be truly bad, you must have some good. Something admirable. Something that doesn’t allow us to put you in a convenient mental box of “it’s all black and white and they are the black”. Seeing the white, that’s what makes us twist. Villains who are black and white are boring. But interesting villains, they’ll keep us up late at nights, turning page after page wondering, what is this person going to do next?
Think about Satan… Jesus doesn’t resonate nearly as much without him.
If your students are going to branch into fiction, the cardinal rule is, “Show some love to the bad guy… they are the reason why heroes are forced to shine.”