The other day I came across a tweet on Tom Hiddleston’s Twitter page that said “Tom Hiddleston Fans Attempt To Get A Loki Solo Film With Petition“. It stood out to me because just last weekend, I was discussing the idea of “herofying” the villain of a story, in other words make him the protagonist and tell a story from the bad guy’s point (1st person).
It sounded pretty intriguing, especially because the story we were talking about was a stalking event that my friend wanted to write about. She toyed with the idea to tell the story from the victim’s as well as the police officer’s perspective. Enthusiastically, I suggested that she could also write from the stalker’s perspective. Well, I kind of opened a can of worms when I said that, because soon after we sat by a lake, discussing the implications of making the bad guy the protagonist of a story. We also got sunburned. Go figure.
Villains, at least in good books and movies (although that is subjective, too, of course), tend to be interesting, well-developed characters. Just because of the tweet mentioned above, let’s take Loki, for example (Thor/The Avengers). In general, he is evil, vengeful, insincere and only has his own agenda in mind. At the same, he is also a deeply troubled character that is apparently searching for a purpose, and for an answer to the question “Why am I here?” (Ha, don’t we all!) So that would make for a pretty good story, told from the perspective of the bad guy, right?
When I was thinking about this a few days later, I recalled a few times when I actually developed sort of a crush on the villain of a movie or book. I have never really thought about that, mainly because I assumed that it was just the actor looking cute. But while that may be true, after my lake-conversation, I think there’s more to that.
Villains are designed to evoke a few different feelings in us:
First, they exist to give the viewer/reader a sense of right and wrong. That’s a no-brainer.
Second, they allow us to we can safely experience actions that would have serious consequences in real life. We are there when the villain plots and plans, acts and semi-succeeds (until he is defeated, of course). Everyone of us has a bad side, it’s what makes us human. But through the villain, we can dive into that dark side without having to fear any consequences.
Third, a villain personifies characteristics that attract the observer. We can safely dream of the (misguided) power, strength and determination that they exhibit. That does not mean that in real life we are attracted to these kinds of people; I don’t think I would ever want to associate with real villains aka criminals.
No matter how much we love the villain, if the character is developed properly, on some level we will always hate to love the villain.
So, what if we made the villain the protagonist? How hard would it be to tell the story from their perspective and keep them from becoming too likable, which would jeopardize their villain status?
It is easy to identify myself with my hero when I write. I assign qualities that are in line with my values. I aim to give the character depth and explain his/her actions so that the reader fully understands the motives that drives the protagonist. Developing a villain is harder: I give the character traits that are undesirable and that I despise. But because I can’t identify myself with these traits, I can’t fully explain the actions of my bad guys. I just can’t get my brain to think that way. How am I supposed to know what goes on in a stalker’s mind, or in the mind of a super-villain that wants to take over the earth? I can’t.
But when the villain becomes the protagonist, can his or her actions still be a mystery to the reader? We experience them but we don’t understand the motives if the creator/writer can’t explain them. Once a villain becomes so transparent that the reader starts to fully understand, is he/she still a villain, or would that make the character the hero? Would the story then still be told from the villain’s point of view, or would we have created a new hero that we accompany on this/her journey?