Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil: Villains with Pathos

I mentioned briefly in my "Is It Okay for a Villain To Just Be Evil?" entry that readers and viewers have come to favor pathos from villains in more recent years. Loki from the Thor and Avengers movies is of course a prime example of that element, along with Gollum from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Captain Barbossa and Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Voldemort from Harry Potter to an extent. Some stories like Wicked have even taken villains from older works of fiction, such as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and presented them in a more sympathetic light. Why is this such a growing trend in storytelling? More importantly, what makes it work?

It's understandable why more antagonists would be written with pathos nowadays. We understand that real people aren't inherently evil and that they normally don't do bad things just for the sake of it. They usually do it out of desperation or ignorance, or for some other reason that they feel is logical and justified. Showing how villains are compelled to carry out their dark deeds can make their motivations deeper and more understandable, and thus more engaging for the audience.

One of the oldest and best cases of this is the devil Lucifer from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. Rather than portraying Lucifer strictly as an evil-doer, the story explains that he fell from grace and became the ruler of Hell because he felt confined living in the service of a higher being in Heaven. This certainly doesn't excuse the devil's actions in either Paradise Lost or the Bible, but it does give us some insight into the way he views the world. We can even see where he's coming from and agree with him to a point, which really reinforces the story's theme of everyone having the potential to be tempted by evil. Lucifer baiting Adam and Eve with the same thing that he fell for, the promise of power, might just be literature's very first instance of the "You and I are not so different," villain cliche.

That's another part of what makes sympathetic villains so interesting: we can see ourselves in them. Because of this, such villains can often win favor with an audience, so much so that we may want to see them repent by the story's end or, in rarer cases, actually succeed in their plans. And sometimes the latter makes a lot of sense. Sure, Loki betrayed his family to take the throne of Asgard, but who's to say really that he'll make a bad king? He seems to care about the realm's well-being, he seems a lot wiser and more mindful than Thor, and he's clearly a better strategist. And sure, Captain Barbossa attacked an innocent town and kidnapped a woman to try and lift his curse in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but what's so horrible about him actually lifting that curse? He just wants to be able to experience the simple pleasures of life again. Heck, he even says that his next order of business after ending the curse is to "eat a whole bushel of apples." That doesn't sound like an awful bad guy! Lots of people would be violent if they couldn't eat anything for an entire decade!

More often than not though, these characters fail just like any other kind of villain, and the audience can be left feeling rather bittersweet about the good guy's victory. If my 13-year-old self had known in Chapter 2 of Fellowship of the Ring that Tolkien was setting me up for a heartache over Gollum's failed redemption and unheroic death at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I might not have let myself grow so fond of that character. But that's what's so unique about villains with pathos -- they challenge us. They show us that things aren't always black and white and that not every decision is easy. Sometimes a protagonist has to choose the lesser of two evils by letting one stubborn person fall in order to protect countless other people. And doesn't that tragedy leave a much deeper impression and stay with us longer than a mere jerk getting his comeuppance?

So that's my view on villains with pathos. We're down to about two more days for Villain Month, but I think I have it in me to write one more entry before January 1st. If you've been following this little marathon of mine, then keep your eyes peeled for my closing thoughts on New Year's Eve!

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