Bad to the Bone – or Not, as the Case Might Be

I was thinking this morning about bad guys. Maybe because I was listening to Billie Eilish and her brother talk about creating her song Bad Guy, which I love. Maybe because I was reflecting on the antagonists in my new book. Most likely, though, probably just because my mind goes all over the place in the morning, and contemplating how interesting villains can be is just par for the course.

Don’t get me wrong, I love protagonists and rooting for them. It’s heartening to watch someone overcome an obstacle, to find his/her inner strength, to win. I like to find the aspirational qualities in them, compare and weigh against my own self view. I especially like characters we invest in who also have faults. They are just more interesting. I need to see the struggle, know that they have humanity – even if they aren’t human – as is the case in quite a few books I read.

However, a great villain can make a story for me… and just as easily destroy it. Personally, I hate it when there is no motivation for the villain’s “badness.” I find it boring. I also have a hard time with being told unequivocally that character X is just “evil” and that’s just what it is. It’s too easy to point out the black hat and set them against the character. I know, there’s a place for this in some stories, but it asks a lot from me as a reader/audience member to just take for granted that the the character just plain ol’ evil.

What’s more interesting to me are bad guys who aren’t always bad. I don’t mean the trope of the villain redemption (love that in the right context), nor do I mean anti-heroes (that’s a whole different post), or retelling of stories with “villains” as the hero (like Wicked or Maleficent). I’m thinking of the villain who makes what I would deem “good” choices and yet is still very much the villain. I think it can be hard to pull off, but I am always impressed when it happens. I remember seeing Princess Mononoke the first time and realizing that the villain in that is also the woman who took in the lepers and bought out the prostitutes’ contracts. She took care of them and gave them different lives. She also used them for her own ends, of course, but they were so grateful for her care, they wanted to work for her and adored her. Regardless of all that, she is still the baddie.

Things are just not always so black and white. Yes, evil exists in the world – you can turn on the news to see that any day – and there are definitely things that are “either / or” for me. There are lines that once crossed, there is no coming back. But most of life is messy and grey. In stories we get a slice of the picture. I want to see the most interesting version of that. I want to know why the hero is as he or she is, but I also want to see the motivation of the person(s) in opposition. I want to try to figure out why the bad guy is doing what they are doing – why he or she is this way and what drives her or him – whether the act is all bad or has a little good sprinkled in too. It makes me think more. I have to really figure out where the person fits in the story for my own self, not just accepting what I’m given. It’s good practice in real life too.

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