What Makes a Villain. . .Villainous?

Why is it we often feel so drawn to the villain? Every story has one; whether it’s an evil witch or a playground bully but no matter how badly they behave someone somewhere will find a justification. All it takes is one sympathetic factor, after all, everyone was young and innocent once.

I have always had this tendency. No matter how terrible the characters deeds I will dig deep into the subtext (and my imagination) until I find that all important redeeming quality. It’s why I’ve developed such a love for the origin stories of fairy tale villains, there’s something addictive about shedding light on traditionally hated characters.

Take Christina Henry’s book Lost Boy for example; the story of Captain Hook, the dread pirate with no motivation other than a hatred for Peter Pan. What if he was once just a young boy, brutally betrayed by the one he thought was his best friend? Does that make his actions understandable? Justified even? Or Heartless by Marissa Meyer, what if the Queen of Hearts was more than just a ruthless tyrant? What if she began as a girl full of love, until her future was taken from her?

I have found that after reading books like these my view of the original stories has vastly changed. They become deeper and more complex when you find yourself sympathising with the one you’re meant to be routing against. Villains are designed not just as catalysts for conflict but as a contrast to the good; they help define your hero, giving them a cause worth fighting for. But evil cannot be the only thing a character is – people aren’t made that way.

It’s easy to see the world in black and white but the vast majority of people fall in the grey – easily becoming either hero or villain. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become attracted to the archetype; there’s something intoxicating about looking deeper into a character that expresses our darker habits. A truly good villain is someone with motivation, a character we can loathe but still in a twisted way find ourselves understanding.

Does it change the story? To know that once upon a time, they were the good guys?

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