Power of presence: how an active villain can create emotional attachment
November 8, 2017
Villains are fascinating.
A badly-done villain tends to be an extremely underwhelming experience in a movie or book. The protagonists’ victory feels hollow, and the viewer/reader is left to wander away from the experience feeling distinctly unfulfilled.
Galbatorix from the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini comes to mind. For the entirety of the book series, this man exists, for the most part, as merely a name. There is, of course, exposition laying out the destruction and tyranny that he brought to the land of Alagaesia. Every war and conflict in the book is technically his fault since he is the supreme overlord in charge of the evil lackeys, and his defeat is supposed to be the culmination of the entire four-book series.
Unfortunately, the grand finale falls very flat (spoilers). The protagonist, Eragon, reaches the castle of Galbatorix, and managed to defeat this supreme overlord by means of a spell that essentially makes the tyrant king feel bad. To death.
This is an interesting concept, and one that could potentially could have been used to better effect. The idea of confronting a villain with his/her sins to the point where it destroys him/her is one that is used a lot, and it’s a way to drive home the idea that being a bad human being leads to equally bad consequences.
The problem with Galbatorix, however, is that we don’t know him well enough for it to have any sort of impact. Before the confrontation, we never once see him. Never once hear him speak. We know some of his history through various passages of exposition, but he is never around to show us how he reacts to the protagonists or treats his underlings. The idea behind this is no doubt to turn him into a villain that is big, mysterious and dangerous, but the strategy robs readers of what could have been a truly despicable, hateful, and emotionally fulfilling villain.
By contrast, I will present my favorite villain of all time: the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, from Susanna Clark’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.”
The gentleman is the exact opposite of Galbatorix. For starters, he never does actually have a name. Clark goes out of her way to ensure that he doesn’t. He is instead described by his most notable attribute – the shock of fine white hair that marks him as one of the dangerous faery folk that used to exist alongside mankind.
The gentleman is everything that Galbatorix was supposed to be. He is senselessly cruel, with a tendency to steal away people to participate in his faery dances and violently punish the people he leaves behind. Unlike Galbatorix, however, we know why he’s senselessly cruel: he’s bored and thinks it’s fun, or he wants to exact revenge on the loved ones of the people he steals away.
He is a constant presence throughout the book who is forever floating in and out of characters’ lives, and because of this we get to know him very well. His offhand, careless tendency to steal people reveals that he regards humans as lesser beings worthy only of being his toys. His dialogue suggests that he thinks his victims should thank him for the honor, and the flashes of anger and vengeful power that he exhibits when he is thwarted reveal how wildly dangerous he is and just how powerless his victims are.
He’s an incredibly hateful villain that stirs up emotions in the reader of disgust and fear, and that is what makes him such a wonderful character.
When the gentleman is defeated (I won’t reveal exactly how, because I think you should read it or watch the miniseries), it’s fantastically satisfying. Not only do we have an emotional attachment to him that causes us to actively root for his demise, but we also get the catharsis of seeing him undone by his own sins. Because we know him well, it feels far more genuine than the undoing of Galbatorix. The final confrontation with the gentleman is devoid of exposition explaining the horrible things he did and how those things have come back to haunt him. Why? Because we got to see it firsthand.
Many stories make the mistake of elevating their villains above the plot through mystery and distance, but what they ultimately do is remove the character from the story. The villain is a character, just like the protagonist, and the best way to tell the story of a character is to show what he/she does.
Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.