Continuing my series of thinking out loud about the panels I’ll be on at AnomalyCon at the end of March, next up is “The Care and Feeding of Literary Villains.” Those folks we love to hate. Those folks without whom we might not have a story.
I like a good villain. When I was little, every cartoon had one–Snidely Whiplash, Wile E. Coyote, Sylvester the cat (am I dating myself?). Their goal was either to eat Our Hero or to confound and destroy him in some way and take the hero’s resources for himself. But as one grows up, one appreciates a little more complexity in one’s villains. After all, the Roadrunner didn’t have much trouble outwitting the poor coyote, since mostly the latter’s troubles were brought on by hubris and poor planning.
Enter a villain like Darth Vader, who I’m sure believes the Star Wars movies are all about him. At first glance, all this villain seems to want is power, which is just a bigger plate of “confound, destroy, and take the hero’s resources.” George Lucas tried to give him a backstory and lots of motivation, and hm, I wonder why people disliked the prequels so much? Sure, the antihero is popular now, and everybody likes a bad boy (I confess to quite liking the new show Lucifer myself), but my word, they’re difficult to live with.
I like to keep things simple. I like to identify with a protagonist and cheer her on when she’s up against it. Even when she’s trading on the shady side in order to survive, I want to like her for being plucky. And what better means of bringing her up to scratch character-wise than to give her an antagonist who will force her to grow and change?
You may have noticed that Lady Claire has had her share of villains to deal with. But the Magnificent Devices series isn’t all about the bad guy and wham! boom! smash! he’s vanquished until the next book. No, her antagonists have crept to her side with civility and charm, and it’s only when she begins to take their measure that she discovers the things about them that don’t measure up–and in fact are a danger to her and those she loves.
Lady Julia Wellesley
In every young lady’s life I suspect there are other young ladies who wish to make her miserable–because they can, and because it helps to make them feel better about themselves in some way. Lady Julia is the stone on which Lady Claire learns to whet her ability to manage a villain. It’s difficult to vanquish the Lady Julias of the world sometimes. They are nothing if not ubiquitous, to say nothing of persistent. The noble-minded among us can befriend them and attempt to reform them. But those of us with average minds may instead choose to create a life that does not include them, as far as that is possible. But learning to deal with the Lady Julias of the world is certainly good practice for larger impediments to one’s dreams later on.
Lord James Selwyn
Lady Claire disliked him on sight because he was a sexual being, he presumed too much, and he made an inexperienced, overlooked girl uncomfortable. But then he became useful to her. After all, what better way to hide one’s nocturnal activities than by playing the fiancee of a lord during the day? The problem with Lord James was that he was a match for Claire, and he wasn’t there just to be mean. He was attracted to her because she represented what he wanted out of life: a woman of good family, who was intelligent, with good information, and a mothering instinct for future children and heirs. Each of them misread the other badly, and unhappiness and disaster ensued.
Gloria Meriwether-Astor’s father was like a gathering storm throughout the first eight books in the series. I didn’t do it on purpose–or at least, not consciously–but as disastrous events transpired, they could mysteriously be traced back to one source. To my astonishment, this character had been working behind the scenes for years before I (and the characters) caught on to him. He is the spanner in the works. The Napoleon of arms dealers. The megalomaniac who sees empire-building as a sensible and profitable business. I suspect he and Lord Cutler Beckett would have a great deal to discuss over a civilized cup of tea.
But he is also the antagonist for whom Lady Claire and the flock have been honing their abilities over a number of years. If not for the events that he set in motion, would they have been able to prove their mettle and earn the reward of satisfying victory? Isn’t that what the best villains do–they force a man or woman to reach deep into themselves and discover the spine and spirit that will allow them to win. They force the stakes to rise, to make the battle matter. And this is why they interest us–because they impact the people we have grown to love and make them better even than they thought they could be.
Which of literature’s villains are the ones you love to hate? And how do they contribute to the development of your favorite character?