Great Villains, and Why Parents Should Resist the Sentiment that It Is Good to Be Bad
I am not in favor of two-dimensional villains in fiction, whether the fiction is for adults or children. Villains who are portrayed as being bad without anything to relate to regarding why they are bad, or at least how their villainy integrates into the society around them, do not teach us anything in and of themselves; they might teach us something indirectly when the hero—the protagonist—interacts with or defeats them, but without something relatable the villain becomes an evil that has no influence at all upon us, and therefore we have nothing to guard against or avoid.
Elements of a Great Villain
I am no expert by any means, but I have found that the best villains are likable in some way. Whether they are funny, suave, have awesome superpowers, or are just former good guys who we have seen turn into a bad guy, often great villains are ones about whom you see the definite need to fight against, but who you do not necessarily want to die. As Michelle Griep said in her blog:
Make your bully as icky as you want but give him a teddy bear…or some other quirk that shows he’s got a chink in his bad boy armor. This creates sympathy in the heart of a reader. – Michelle Griep http://writerofftheleash.blogspot.com/2013/10/3-elements-of-villain.html
Or, though I am not a fan of X-Men as a general rule, take the character Magneto. Here is what IGN has to say about him:
He is the hero of his own story. Told from his perspective you would nearly be convinced that he is a man trying to save his race. He’d be like Wolverine – pushing the limits of what is acceptable to save the day. When written properly (unlike Doom, Magneto is frequently abused and misused), Magneto is a noble visionary who happens to be incredibly powerful and therefore abuses his power. Magneto has seen horrors and does not realize that his methods and mentality approach the same levels as those he hates. – IGN http://www.ign.com/articles/2005/11/18/the-brain-trust-good-villains?page=1
So we understand the need to stop him, but on some level we wonder whether we would join his cause under certain circumstances. This teaches us to question our own motives and to guard against our inherent ability to be evil.
A two-dimensional, stereotypical villain does not always teach us this.
However, when villainy is elevated at all then we have crossed the line. A rebel without a cause is not “cool”. Rebellion and stubbornness is not something that should be nurtured or put on a pedestal. Yes, there are reasons to disobey or break the rules, but generally a good man will not do this.
When the good guy is seen as boring and the villain is seen as interesting then I believe it is dangerous ground for parents who want to influence their children to be the good guys. A teenager who puts the pedal to the metal whenever he drives might be seen as cool to his friends, but this sort of behavior endangers lives. A boy who starts smoking in order to impress a girl is making a big decision based upon a fundamentally flawed judgment about what is valuable (if the girl were worth impressing then she would not expect him to do this; at the very least he should wait for her to mature).
A skewed perspective in the villain/hero contrast can lead to a skewed perspective in the values of the individual. A child should be taught to resist powerful and complex issues such as peer pressure, not to revel in a bad boy persona.
But, as Geoff Botkin said in his blog (a very insightful and highly recommended read):
Moral heroism fell out of favor with popular culture two generations ago. In the movies, moral consistency and moral certainty is now a vice. Immoral consistency is a virtue. Not only are villains in control of themselves, they often drive the plot. Purposeful villains are far more interesting characters than the moralistic imbeciles who portray “heroes” in today’s cinema and television. – Geoff Botkin http://westernconservatory.com/articles/art-villainy
Merriam-Webster defines “antihero” this way:
noun | a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities
I will not say without a doubt that there is no place for an antihero. Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is an excellent example. He is someone who, while not having many good qualities, does have self-honesty, and he had it in him to sacrifice himself for his friends.
Wolverine, on the other hand, is a more complex issue. He has little regard for rules, and this is part of what makes him interesting and appealing to thousands of people—children included. Yes, he is willing to put himself in danger for those he loves, but his attitude toward authority and aversion to purity is the stereotype of the modern antihero, the cool bad boy. Is this really what we want our children to be influenced by?