Understanding the Villain

March 8, 2016
Who sees her as the bad guy?

They’re two of the first terms you learn in the study of literature: protagonist and antagonist.  The protagonist is the hero, the schnook at the center of the story, the innocent in the middle of a hurricane.  It’s easy to sympathize with heroes.  Everything seems to happen to them and they’re created to be someone you like.  So it should be easy to guess who the antagonist is.  That’s the “udder guy”, the heavy, the louse who antagonizes the hero. Actually, an antagonist is simply whatever force that opposes the hero but some opponents go out of their way to make the good guy’s life miserable.  At any rate, it’s easy to see the tale from the hero’s point of view but when I was struggling with a story years ago I got some good advice from my husband.   “Never forget” he said, looking over the rims of his glasses, “No one sees themselves as the villain.”

Bertha Mason before she went to England..
Doesn’t look crazy, does she?
“No one sees themselves as the villain.”  That observation holds incredible insight and it’s the mechanism that unlocked a horde of parallel novels based on already-famous stories.  Either Dorothy Gale is the tornado-blown innocent, wearing the slippers Glinda placed on her feet OR she’s the person who killed the last member of the Western Witch’s family and then ran away in the shoes of her victim.  The Wicked Witch has an arguable grievance against the girl that Gregory Maguire turned into a series of stories.  Jean Rhys did the same thing in Wide Sargasso Sea, a story constructed from the novel Jane Eyre.  Jean couldn’t turn Jane into a villain but she could give a rational explanation for the actions of Bertha Mason, the lunatic wife of Rochester who laughs too much and sets the house on fire.  Instead of a pyromaniac, we see a Caribbean heiress whose displacement and unhappy marriage undermine her reason.  The ending is the same but the malevolent spectre is replaced with a character we can understand and pity.  She becomes “human”.

Snidely Whiplash: a cartoon baddie
Snape: Antagonist or
Tragic Anti-Hero?

Because they are human, these dimensional villains are far more interesting than the cardboard cutouts of melodrama.  Yes, there’s a certain grandeur to Snidely Whiplash twirling his whip-thin mustache but he’s more of a mechanism than a man.  Compare Snidely to Severus Snape, the anti-hero and secondary antagonist for much of the Harry Potter series.  Raised to be a racist, Snape loses the love of his life while he’s still very young and lives the rest of his life with the results of his mistakes.  He’s a difficult, demanding teacher but a talented one as well and most of the advice he gives the hero comes from the lessons he didn’t learn in time.  The remarks are delivered with sneers and insults but the basic suggestions are good.  “Don’t become a show-off.” “Rules are there to keep you safe.” “Learn to defend yourself.” Snape’s real error here is that he gives the advice he should have heeded, not what the hero needs.  Isolation and insecurity make him a deeply flawed man but ultimately a person the reader can recognize and pity, something Harry starts to do when he first sees Snape’s worst memory in The Order of the Phoenix.  Snape is humiliated and bullied by the men Harry viewed as role models and the rest of Snape’s life begins to take on the inevitability of a tragedy.  The best characters become not “all good” or “all bad” but believably real and headed for

So remember no one sees themselves as a villain when you are watching an actor at work or a conflict play out in real life.  However ridiculous or contrived someone’s behavior may seem, to them it’s a reasonable response to an overwhelming situation.  We’re all trying to get from one place to another over an unpaved road.  If we can see where the other guy’s coming from, perhaps we can avoid a collision. 

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