By Sarah Bower
I recently had a conversation with a fellow novelist about heroes and villains in fiction. I remarked that he had created a memorable, and oddly loveable, arch-villain, but that the hero of his books was a curiously blank canvas, an everyman, perhaps, whose distinct and individual characteristics were elusive and hard to grasp. This conversation set me thinking.
Who do we remember? Who do we love? Heathcliff, wild, violent, brutally sadistic? Or kind, decent Edgar Linton? Hector, the honourable family man who goes reluctantly to war, or Achilles, brooding, sulky, riddled with hubris? Shiny, clean-living Sir Galahad, or Lancelot, whose unruly and selfish heart brings about the destruction of Camelot? (Not forgetting, of course, that even before he met Guinevere, he had already abandoned the pregnant Elaine, Galahad’s mother.) Square-jawed Superman, imbued with mom, apple pie and the American way, or Batman, whose role as protector of Gotham is born of darkness in so many ways and who has no means of relating to the rest of humanity other than disguised as a creature of the night? Ivanhoe and Rowena? Or Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca, both of whom played starring roles in my decision to become a writer. From Milton’s Satan to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to Bulgakov’s Master, the bad guys always seem to manage to carry a livelier story than the good. The Devil, as we know, has all the best tunes.
Everyman, of course, was a deliberate literary device of Bunyan’s and, I suspect, of my novelist friend with the good line in bad guys, but the consistency with which literature’s villains arouse our affections, while we treat the heroes as little more than part of the wallpaper, suggests the average reader’s moral compass is at the very least going a little haywire under the influence of bad boy magnetism. And although the theme of this edition is bad guys, I’m a good feminist, so let’s not forget the girls. I’m sorry, Mr. Thackeray, but I would far rather be Becky Sharp than Amelia Sedley. And Scarlett versus Melanie? No contest. Look what Disney recently managed to do with Maleficent. Who’s really interested in The Sleeping Beauty and her good godmothers? As Disney recognised in their 2014 movie, it’s the bad fairy who intrigues, whose story we want to know.
This is because, as consumers of stories, it is the motivation of characters which most fascinates us and offers catharsis, in that, via the bad guys, we can rationalise and explain to ourselves our often irrational and incomprehensible reasons for doing things. Heroic motivations are generally altruistic. Heroes are driven by their concern for the good of others, not themselves, or by noble, abstract concepts such as patriotism, religion or courtly love. Of course, there are dark sides to all these, as we see only too readily in the current tragedy of the Middle East and North Africa, but those drawn to the underbelly of heroism are, pretty much by definition, the villains, at least in the simplistic analysis of popular journalism. And while heroes claim allegiance to the good, the holy, the self-denying and self-sacrificing, villains tend to have concrete, comprehensible and personal reasons for their actions. Heroes may be humane but villains are, perhaps, even if they are Darth Vadar or Hal, more human.
I’m currently addicted to the Channel 4 drama, Humans, which illustrates this conundrum superbly. For those who don’t know it, Humans is set in a parallel present in which very lifelike humanoids undertake most menial jobs on our behalf. They are the domestic workers, the call centre operatives, street cleaners and waitresses, the home carers and sex workers. These humanoids heroically and selflessly (because they obviously have no sense of self) make the world a more comfortable place for humans. Until, that is, the crazed megalomaniac scientist who always lurks in such narratives creates a small group of humanoids which/who do have a sense of self, and emotions, and intellects, and thus confront the human characters in the drama, as well as its watchers, with difficult questions about exactly what a human being is. The crazed scientist is a bad guy, disrupting the status quo. His ‘children’ are also bad guys, outsiders, a threat to society.
Perhaps this is another way we define bad guys. They are outsiders, they tend to upset the apple cart. Perhaps, also, this is the source of their power over the imagination. Bad guys change things. Let me venture briefly into Christian mythology here. Jesus, I think it’s safe to say, was one of the good guys, but without the bad guys, Judas, Pilate et al, he would probably be a footnote to the history of the Roman Empire rather than the founder of a world religion. The concept of heroism is closely associated with the role of protector – of the poor, the polis, of women and children and others perceived as too weak to look after themselves. Protection infers preservation, keeping things the same. Most of us, however much we protest to the contrary, fear change, find it, at the very least, uncomfortable. This may help to explain both what makes us portray change-makers as villains and draws us to them for the way in which they can enable us to confront our fears safely between the covers of a book or the confines of a screen. Iago allows us to get to grips with the destructive powers of jealousy and prejudice. Through Heathcliff we can safely consider the effects of change on family dynamics. Cocteau’s creepy but exotic enfants terribles draw the sting from incest by titillating and enchanting us. The blood-soaked works of Edgar Allan Poe or the cobwebbed ghost stories of M. R. James allow us to peep into the abyss of hell yet step back safely once the candle is snuffed out and Nanny says it’s bedtime.
By now, you may well be protesting that many of the fictional characters I have mentioned here are not what you would call villains. Lancelot and Batman may have their bad guy moments, but we rarely construe either of them as villains. Batman is generally listed among superheroes, even though he has no superpowers. Heathcliff is customarily included in the great trinity of English literary romantic heroes alongside Messrs. Darcy and Rochester. Yet Rochester is a cantankerous, lying rogue with a rather spiteful sense of humour, and Darcy a self-righteous prig. Satan, as portrayed by Milton and subsequently by Bulgakov and Jagger and Richards, who picked up the ball and ran with it, is surely one of English literature’s most alluring and attractive figures, and has been the inspiration for every debonair bad guy since, from Tom Ripley to Hannibal Lecter to Patrick Bateman. (Although perhaps Bateman doesn’t deserve a mention here, as a mere fantasist, but being one of my personal favourite bad guys, he’s getting one.)
The distinction between hero and villain often seems arbitrary, or at least imposed by a system of morality so simplistic as to have little or no bearing on the human condition as it is lived and written about by poets and storytellers. Which brings me back to the matter of motivation. ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,’ says Hamlet, who had to make an appearance here eventually. All three of my own novels are constructed around men who can easily be adjudged bad boys. The first features Odo of Bayeux, younger brother of William the Conqueror and notorious for his brutality towards the Anglo-Saxons. The second stars Cesare Borgia, whose reputation needs no further elucidation here. The third bad boy, ironically named Arthur, is involved in a particularly heinous crime whose details I won’t go into because it would be a plot spoiler. The book on which I’m currently working features a Palestinian terrorist. One response my work often elicits is that these central characters aren’t likeable, they aren’t heroes. Well, no. Where would be the fun in that? It is the novelist’s job to ask, not just who, how and when but, most crucially of all, why? Why do her characters act as they do? What is their motivation? What makes them tick?
The challenge, for me, in writing convincingly about these men was to find reasons for the character flaws that made them act in wicked ways, to create back stories which would at least explain, if not justify, their actions. And once you start doing that, once you start digging behind the violence, the meanness, the treachery, the vengefulness, the bigotry, whatever it is that attracts the label ‘bad guy’, the mask of villainy is rapidly stripped away to reveal a fallible human being, a dysfunctional childhood, a broken heart, a brutality made, not born, by the vagaries of the lived life. Hamlet drives Ophelia to suicide because of the pressures of grief and guilt he is under. Rochester lies to Jane out of shame. Lancelot and Heathcliff are undone by heartbreak, Maleficent by betrayal. Ripley and Becky Sharp respond to social humiliation, Norman Bates to the loss of his mother. These factors do not necessarily justify their behaviour, but they do explain it and locate it in the realm of the human. Bad guys are real. Whether we like it or not, they’re like us, flawed, compromised, passionate, irrational and, with everything that makes us who we are dependent on fragile electrical circuits protected by nothing but a few millimetres of skin and bone, terrifyingly vulnerable.
I would like to say a big thank you to the bad guys – and girls - and their creators for taking the hit on our behalf and making us feel safer and stronger when we close the book or turn off the TV and drag ourselves back to reality. Life just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Sarah Bower is quite a bad girl, as one or two bad guys could attest.