As threatened, some ponderings on villains and which ones do and don't make me like or even love them. And, not always related: which kind of redemption stories, both in canon and fanfic, work for me and which one's don't. First, a disclaimer: I know some people declare they prefer the villains on general principle and declare the heroes to be bland and dull by comparison. That's not the case for me. If I find I only like the villain in a story and he/she is the only interesting person in it, I say goodbye to the show/film/book in question, the faster the older I get, because a good ensemble is getting more and more important to me.
So: villains. Those I like come in many different flavours. There are the lunatic EvilMcEvils, who need not be boring in their complete evilness and often lunacy if
served with a defined time frame; when this happens in a visual medium and they're played by good and charismatic actors, they can be both scary and immensly entertaining. Examples who come to mind are the Emperor Caligula in I, Claudius
and his sci fi twin, the Emperor Cartagia in Babylon 5
, or Kronos in Highlander
. (Take your bows, John Hurt, Wortham Krimmer and Valentine Pelka.) They're far from the only reasons why I love the episodes they're in, but they definitely contribute. But note: they're actually in only a few episodes, the fact that I find them scary and compelling doesn't change the fact it's their victims and Our Heroes I root for, and when they meet their demise, I'm glad. Any longer stay in the story, and either their scariness or the main characters' competence and/or believability would suffer.
Then there are the Evil Overlords and Overladies who are quite sane (except for the whole ruling-the-'verse ambition part, though some of them are happy with just efficient assasindom) and comfortable in their villaindom. They can, but don't have to be Magnificent Bastards (tm), and again, if we're talking visual medium, a good actor helps. So do competence, intelligence and wit. As opposed to the lunatics, their livespan in the story need not be limited in order for both the story and the villain to work. Temporary alliances with the heroes in order to defeat a third party are possible but won't ever last and are not to be confused with a redemption story; this type of villain, as mentioned, is comfortable in their skin and sees no need to change anything about themselves. Examples I've enjoyed watching or reading about include the Empress Livia (I, Claudius
again), the Mayor of Sunnydale (Buffy the Vampire Slayer
), Milady de Winter (The Three Musketeers
), Servalan (Blake's 7
) or Lilah Morgan and Holland Manners (both from Angel
Next, we get the tragic, layered and/or emotionally torn villains, frequently mixing company with antiheroes and sometimes crossing lines from and back to plain old heroes, and here it gets tricky, and I get more choosy as the years pass. A tragic, sympathetic villain often (but not always) has a traumatic background story: next to unbeatable in this regard is Magneto's Holocaust childhood in any incarnation of the X-Men
. (Of course, it also comes with its own date problem, i.e. the reason why Magneto already had to be de-aged by Plot Device a couple of times in comicverse continuity in order to maintain physical strength - the fixed date of a real life historic event, from which we are further and further away.) Not that a traumatic past, even a Holocaust trauma, automatically creates a sympathetic character. Just look at Ultimate!Magneto, or rather, don't. (Mark Millar does his usual thing, if you must know.) This type of villain usually comes with the conviction that they're really working for the greater good, not just their own (key difference to the Magnificent Bastards), their methods for them are justified by said greater good (this is where they're mixing company wiht the antiheroes and sometimes the heroes), but they can have doubts about this, waver or even change their mind; also, they often have lasting attachments to other people, and more than one. However, all this being said, they, and this makes them villains, however tragic, are responsible for the deaths and/or ruin of a great many people, and in the most interesting stories, we're not simply told about this by a few measly lines but get to know their victims as people, who didn't volunteer to be character X's sacrifice for the greater good/punchbag for personal trauma/whatever and had their own lives before having the bad luck to encounter said villain. Other than movieverse and most times 616 comicverse Magneto, villains of this type who made me love them include Ben Linus from Lost
or Arvin Sloane from Alias
, and Kai Winn on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
And then there are the villains whom I don't love at all and don't like as people, either, but whom I can find interesting as a character and thus end up writing about. When I look at examples, I realise something they share, as different as they otherwise are from each other: a Me ME ME
teenage frame of mind that extends far beyond actual teenage years, which comes with a tendency to blame everyone but themselves for their miseries, utter refusal to acknowledge any responsibility and an ever narrower capacity for attachment, that starts out being genuinenly there but as the character devolves includes fewer and fewer people, until only themselves are left. These type of villains might, in other circumstances, have not become villains - that helps making them interesting to me - but aren't tragic (for me, mileage as always varies) because they pass up chance after chance to change said circumstances because that would involve accepting some responsibility instead of blaming everyone else. Primarly examples: Warren Mears in Buffy
, Morgana on Merlin
and now Loki in Thor
. There is of course a big difference in how fandom at large responded to Warren on the one hand and Morgana & Loki on the other: Warren wasn't woobified. His own idea of himself was never shared by a majority of fandom. Morgana's and Loki's ideas of themselves, on the other hand, if fanfic and posts are anything to go by, are shared by a great many fans. And all generalisations are broad, I know, and can be unfair, but I rather suspect the reason for this isn't that Warren behaved worse than Morgana or Loki (Loki wins for attempted global genocide in Thor
; his attempted conquest bodycount in Avengers
and Morgana's by the end of season 4 should be about equal, and all three - Warren, Morgana and Loki, that is - are guilty of mindrape), but that the later two are played by very attractive actors and Warren (pace, Adam Busch! I enjoyed your performance and your guest appearance on The Sarah Connor Chronicles
as well!) is not; also, Warren, about whose parents we know next to nothing (other than his mother moved to Sunnydale during Buffy's last two high school years or so), who doesn't have a sibling and who dominates his small group of peers (i.e. Andrew and Jonathan) offers no identification potential for the inner 13 years old temper tantrum throwing tale of "nobody understands me and
Daddy doesn't love me enough!".
Now, if you get attached to a character, you usually want that character to stick around and achieve some modicum of happiness for himself/herself. Which is at the root of a great many redemption stories; not so much the need to bring the character to a state where he or she realises their actions (or at least some of them) were wrong and consequently tries to atone for them. Why do I think that? Because I've read a lot of fanfic in many a fandom, and the most popular pattern for redemption stories is this:
1) Not-much-longer-a-villain X saves the life of hero Y (usually the person the author wants to pair X with.)
2) Y and assorted other heroes are impressed in varying degrees; then they find out, if they don't know already, about the incredibly tragic backstory of X
3) Shame at the magnitude of X's sufferings in the past ensues (often, but not always, one of the hero types is held responsible for at least some of X's trauma and now gets punished accordingly)
4) X is redeemed (or rather justified, because clearly, he/she was more sinned against than sinning anyway!); happy sex with Y ensues.
Note that what's utterly missing is X being confronted by his/her victims other than Y and/or whomever of Y's friends they wronged, and these people usually, upon realising the tragic past, forgive X post haste. Characters who refuse to be impressed by X's turnabout and still hold X' deeds against him/her for some reasons are, if they are allowed in the narrative at all, the new villains of the story.
Which brings me back from fanfic to canon sources. Which don't always equal redemption with universal hugs and joyful sex, for some reason. Or even see redemption as the only way for a sympathetic and/or interesting villain to continue in the story. itsnotmymind
once observed that one of the reasons why Faith's story on BTVS and ATS is probably the best redemption story the shows did is that Faith never was a regular, and thus didn't have to appear in every episode. Which meant it was possible for her to turn herself in and go to prison for several seasons, which wouldn't have been possible for, say, Willow. (Or Spike, leaving the later's vampire nature aside.) That's true, but Ben Linus on Lost
and Arvin Sloane on Alias
were regulars on their respective shows. If Alias
had ended after the fourth season, you could say both got sort-of-redemption stories in the sense that they both started as villains and ended as sort-of-allies and also in a state of atonment (of sorts); since season 5 of Alias
turned Sloane's story around again, he went back to villaindom. Even so, the difference between Ben and Arvin on the one hand and Loki/Morgana/Warren on the other is that pesky self awareness and responsibility thing, along with more-than-one-attachment ability. Not that Mr. Linus and Mr. Sloane don't have their massive self delusions at times as well, but they are aware that the main responsibility for what their life became lies with them. (See also: Sloane, in one of the ever popular taking-place-in-the-mind-of-characters episodes, telling his daughter Nadia in his own head that whatever he was in the past, now "I am a monster, and monsters have no place in this world".) They're also capable of voicing regrets over their actions, and, to a degree, change their behaviour (again: to a degree). Most importantly, though: their narrative doesn't let them off the hook. If the majority of Lost
characters distrusts, loathes and resents Ben through several seasons, it's because of his own actions; ditto for Sloane, and at no point does the show imply the other characters are just mean
and unfair to hold something like murder, manipulation and lots and lots of mind games against a fellow.
Cynical side note: the fact that Ron Rifkin and Michael Emerson were among the very best actors of the cast, with only one other actor of the same age group competing for the title, but neither of them young and particularly attractive probably helped with the comparative lack of fandom woobiefication, but the fact it didn't happen probably helped me maintain my Sloane and Benjamin Linus love.
But if accepting responsibility is such an important criterium for my personal affections, what, long time readers of my ramblings may ask, what about Battlestar Galactica
's Gaius Baltar? What indeed, because accepting blame really isn't his strong suit, and as late as season 3, we have it as on screen canon (as voiced by William Adama near the end of the episode where he and Roslin torture Baltar for a confession) that Gaius sees himself as the wronged party here instead of the wrongdoer. So why do I have such issues with Loki and Morgana pulling that stunt but not with Baltar? Well, the fact that fandom didn't woobify and excuse Gaius B. probably helped, but so did his other characteristics, and the way his story played out on the show. Gaius could be petty on occasion, but by and large not malicious, and while he had a big accepting responsibility problem for the longest time, his chosen method of avoidance wasn't
blaming either humans or Cylons for his miseries. In fact, he was one of the very few characters on that show who at no point succumbed to group hate and who as early as early s2 declared the entire cycle of vengeance and counter vengeance between humans and Cylons senseless and stupid (in a conversation with Head!Six on Kobol). Also, the show gave him neither the big dramatic heroic death atoning for his wrongs, nor did it make him into a moustache twirling villain (a la original Baltar in the old BSG) dying in punishment; what happened to him was simultanously the worst and the best thing for him, something he'd run from and tried to escape all his life. I wouldn't call it redemption, but it was by far the most successful personal arc completed in the very shaky way the show wrapped up. And showed you can tell a story of someone responsible for a lot of misery in an interesting way without falling into standard narrative patterns or easy cop-outs, and without ever handwaving the magnitude of what this person did away.
Back to fanfiction once more: one of my earliest Jossverse stories was Five Things Which Never Happened To Warren
(using the "Five Things" format worked great with Warren, who in some makes better and in some as bad or even worse choices than in canon), and by now, Morgana has been prominent in or the central focus of five of my so far fourteen Merlin
stories. As I said: I find these people interesting to write about. But none of these stories falls under the "everyone realises how wrong they were about X" type of story. (The first Morgana-centric story, Discordance
, which was written in the hiatus between s2 and s3, i.e. before
Morgana became a villain on the show, was actually inspired by frustration about fanon!Morgana whom I couldn't see bearing much resemblance to the character on the show even then.) Neither are they demonizations; I hope Morgana and Warren come across as capable of more than one emotion and as complicated individuals in said stories. It's just that the fictional examinations of the characters I wanted to read, and consequently wrote, weren't "X was so wronged by everyone and right all along! Team X all the way!" type of stories, but instead stories that took into account what canon has told us these characters were capable of. And I probably will end up writing about Loki sooner or later, despite yet having to feel any love of the character, because the type of Loki stories I'd be interested in reading just don't seem to get written, either.
Having ended up on an Avengers
note yet again, two meta recs: Lovely, thoughtful meta on the film here