Monday, June 21, 2021

Villains are overrated

Hey everyone! A very jet-lagged Mary here, just back in Jersey from the West Coast after my first trip outside the Northeast in a year and a quarter. Damn, I'd forgotten how much jet lag sucks.

Anyway, recently I filled out a blog-interview questionnaire, and one of the questions got me thinking. It asked about recurring themes / ideas across works, and while I could name a few, one of the first thing that popped into my mind was villains. Or rather, lack thereof.

It's not that my books don't have tangible villains - I've written my fair share of scary monstersevil corporations, killer robots, and dark lords. But something I've noticed in common across all these things is that they tend to be abstract, shadowy, or hidden threats... more like forces of nature than individual characters. It's something I've wrestled with a bit in my writing, especially since a lot of cultural commentary makes much ado about compelling (and sexy) villains.

I get it. People want their bad guys to be interesting. And as a consumer of media, I guess I do too. Honestly, I don't believe I think as much about it as is fashionable these days, and I've started wondering why (I didn't even notice the "Marvel villain problem" so many commentators have complained about until I read said complaints, basically saying that Marvel movie villains are largely boring). 

And then it hit me: I'm not too interested in villains, either as a consumer of media or a writer of stories, because I want to focus on the heroes. For me, it's not so much what they're up against that matters, but how they handle it. Who cares about the tragic backstory of the latest superweapon-wielding megalomaniac? I'm more interested in how the scrappy underdog is going to handle all those goons. So what if the hot dark lord of the day sees something of himself in the heroine he's trying to defeat/seduce? I care more about how she got herself into that situation and what she's going to do to get herself out. How did the evil leader of the dystopian government attain that position? I really don't give a damn; just show me how the teen rebels take them down.

I guess it's natural to be fascinated by those who do evil. It's why endless documentaries about serial killers, cult leaders, and con artists continue to flood streaming services. Yet all this focus (and glorification) tends to overshadow those who suffered and those who did the work to keep others from getting hurt. Perhaps that's why I prefer to keep my villains vague or hidden. Delve too deep, and you inevitably begin making excuses for the cruelty they inflict.

Meanwhile, in the real world, a lot of villainous forces are things without a face - forces of society, consequences of history, systematic issues that sometimes get projected onto a handful of people but ultimately are too big for any one person to contain.

Some of the most interesting stories out there are those without a villain at all, precisely because they level the spotlight on the hero and allow for the space to explore said hero in depth.

Anyway, again I'm well aware that my opinions are distinctly unfashionable these days. But in my opinion, villains are overrated, and I'm perfectly okay with stories that leave them in the dark.

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