I find that often, when I come across what I consider a good story – but especially when I watch a good movie – the villain will make a much greater impression on me than the protagonist. I can think of several examples off the top of my head:
- The Operative from Serenity. His cold rationalism awed me at the same time as it kind of scared me. (Incidentally, I just finished watching the series Firefly that Serenity was based on.)
The Operative: I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don’t murder children.
The Operative: I do. If I have to.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm. I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.
- Anton Chigurh (the sociopath) from No Country for Old Men. Determinism taken to its logical conclusions.
The coin got here the same way I did.
- The King of Qin from Hero. He represented law, order, and empire; really, the protagonist was just his foil, not the other way around.
In the Kingdom of Qin was a ruthless ruler. He had a vision – To unite the land.
What all of these have in common, you’ll notice, is that they have a philosophy. They’re not purely bad people. Their ideals are, however, the opposite of the ideals of the protagonists of those stories, and so there is conflict.
It’s also interesting how they always seem to have very rational philosophies, while the protagonists have more emotionally based ideas. For example, the Operative pretty clearly thinks the ends justify the means, and he goes from there; Mal Reynolds just doesn’t like being told what to do. He has his own code of honor, but it’s hard to comprehend, and I don’t think even he really understands it. He just goes by what his guts tell him to.
Now, as always, I’m going to tie this in with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.
As many people have noted, the villains in the Lord of the Rings are not particularly… complex. They’re Big Bad Evil and must be stopped for that reason, but they don’t seem to have a philosophy, at least not one that is explored particularly – they’re just evil.
Tolkien did this intentionally. In a way, he agreed with Socrates (in Plato’s Republic) when he said that bad guys should only be talked about, not shown. He didn’t want ‘interesting’ villains. He thought it tempted to reader towards sin. (He didn’t mind conflicted good guys who might turn to bad – see, Frodo, Gollum, Denethor. So people who say the Lord of the Rings isn’t morally complex are, well, foolish.)
Now, this works for what Tolkien wrote. In both the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. The big bad guys there are not human. One is a fallen maiar, the other a fallen valar – in other words, fallen angels. Demons. They cannot repent, they’re simply evil. They define evil, really. They do have philosophies – the philosophy of Satan, pure and simple. As such, there’s nothing to be gained (Tolkien thought) from exploring their characters. If you do, you end up with something like Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, great literature as it may be, I kind of don’t like the concept of. Satan should not be presented as a man.
But with the movies Serenity, No Country for Old Men, and Hero (and I could list more), I think having interesting villains is necessary – because the villain is not a demon, but a human. He can change. And since he’s human, not demon, what he believes isn’t necessarily, unquestionably wrong. We have to confront the philosophies of our enemies, not just destroy them because they’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys.
So I’m going to say that having interesting villains like the Operative, Anton Chigurh, and the King of Qin is a good, not an evil. It doesn’t make for bad literature. Amazing, yes, I am actually… disagreeing with Tolkien! Actually, I don’t think I am. I think his claims about not having sympathetic villains really only apply to the ultimate bad guy – Satan. After all, every other kind of villain is, really, more like a tragic hero, just with the story told from a different perspective.