The Role of Sympathetic Villains

They’ve been around for as long as stories have existed; bad guys who are just sad guys taking their anger out onto the world.

Now while it’s easy to write off villains, especially stock villains as modes of being to be avoided, what I don’t hear often is how their malice and/or ignorance can very well mirror our own. We are so used to trying to identify with the clearly identifiable hero of a story and live vicariously through their experiences in standing up for what they believe in and triumphing over evil.

So I have a suggestion: next time you consume a story, try rooting for the villain as if it’s you. Because let’s face it, no one’s perfect and we all make mistakes. And while it’s really really easy to say “I would never behave like that,” in regards to whatever evil deed a character enacts, I think the true purpose of sympathetic villains is to have us think “I could have been like that.” Or even better. “I could be like that.”

Obviously, not in a way in which you would want to be blowing up buildings or drowning puppies, but just the simple admission that you have some malice in you, whether large and aching to burst out in a fit of rage, or benign like a tiny flicker in a well lit lightbulb–we are susceptible to negative emotions, thus the possibility of thinking some negative thoughts to go along with those emotions. Some of those thoughts can include wanting to harm others or yourself.

There’s a scene in Daredevil where he and The Punisher have an argument over ethics. Daredevil doesn’t kill or wants to kill any criminals because of his moral code. The Punisher on the other hand has no problem killing them and thinks he’s justified since it does seem to end crime in Hell’s Kitchen, if not only temporarily until even bigger stronger villains come on the rise and challenge the established order.

One of my favourite lines of all time comes from The Punisher when he tells Daredevil, “you’re just a bad day away from becoming me.”

And I think that says a lot for all of a us. Please don’t mistake this as me acting like a priest telling you that you are all full of sin and should repent. All I’m saying is that it’s important to recognize your own capacity for malice, whether you’ve acted it out or not, and view villains as the expression of that malice.

You know you can empathize and sympathize with some of their reasons for causing mayhem, so empathize and sympathize with yourself whenever you catch yourself wanting to run those bad drivers off the road that cut you off or honk their blaring horns at you for tiny little mistakes. How you want to shove your boss’s face through the paper shredder because they’ve gotten your case about your work ethic or how your break lasted two or three more minutes longer than you’re allotted.

Silly examples, of course, but you know what I mean.

Within each and every one of us resides good and evil, whether you like it or not. Some things we do to hurt each other can either be due to ignorance or pure malice. Whatever the case is, sympathetic villains serve as a template of not only how not to be, but also how we bad we could be, just as much as heroes serve as templates of how good we could be.

So give it a shot; next time you consume a story see yourself through the villain’s eyes and see what it does for you. How does it make you feel? What steps have you taken, or should start taking, to avoid being vanquised by those who stand for virtue? Not to say that you don’t, but more often than not, there are dark motivations for good deeds. Something we can discuss another time, but for now let me know what you think and how the little experiment goes!

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