What causes a villain in a piece of fiction to be indelibly stamped upon the memory of a reader? Who are the notorious villains who worm their way into the psyche? What makes them reappear in daydreams, wandering thoughts, and nightmares?
In the movie Unbreakable, the character of Elijah Price who is otherwise known as “Mr. Glass” explains that in the comic book universe there is always a polemically paired hero and villain. The area of the hero’s strength is the weakness of the villain and vice versa. Because one exists the other exists. In the movie, it is easy to feel sympathy for Elijah who is exceptionally fragile because of a rare bone disease that makes it easy for his bones to break. You feel for him when he is shown to be taunted by the other children, when he does not want to leave the apartment for fear of breaking, and when he does venture forth because his mother rewards him with comic books. I have always had incredibly conflicted feelings for the character of Elijah Price. In the comic book universe he never chose to be afflicted with his bone disorder or to be a villain. He never chose to be the opposite of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn character who is unbreakable and the hero. Elijah Price has made more of his life with the deficit of his disorder and lived far more heroically than David Dunn who shies away from the gift of his abilities and is in a dysfunctional marriage. Elijah Price is the one who searches for and creates meaning. He is proactive and a heroic agent who shares his enlightenment. And defines himself as a villain and derails trains in the process of looking for his destined other half.
Villains can be mustache twirling, black hatted bad guys who tie limp damsels to railway tracks for no other reason than the sheer fun of it, but really they are there to provide the conflict, create the story, and illuminate the hero in his glory. Judas Iscariot was essential to the resurrection story. Harry Potter was in many ways created by Voldemort. Dudley DoRight would have been nothing without his arch nemesis Snidely Whiplash.
Shakespeare was a master at creating memorable villains. Would Othello’s weaknesses have come forth without Iago’s plotting? Was MacBeth a hero or a villain? He conquered a weak king and brought his strength to the throne but then was undone by his love of power. What of Shylock? Was he a simple villain demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh or a rich and proud man of the Jewish faith who could no longer bear the discrimination heaped upon him? Was Tybalt a villain for killing Mercutio? Was Romeo a villain for killing Tybalt?
Villains are the heroes of their own stories. They have their own motivations and histories. They cause stories and they move stories forward. They define heroes. They are the mirrored image of the heroes and one cannot exist without the other. The point where the hero and the villain divide into two identifiable personalities is the point where the conflict and the story begins. Just as heroes can be inspirational, villains can make one stop and reflect. Villains offer the chance to meditate on one’s own beliefs and morality. Can you identify with them and, if so, does this make you uncomfortable? If it gave your life meaning to help you rise above your affliction would you become a villain? Could you sacrifice your reputation and your love for a friend by betraying them? For what gold? What if it helped them to achieve a greater destiny? If the only way to attain prominence and rise above a powerless social status was to become a criminal, would you? Could you handle the power of absolute rule? Would you be able to set aside anger and a sense of injustice and accept losing after years of being downtrodden?
I believe that what gives villains life is when they are created fully and sympathetically and we can relate to them and their circumstances. I believe they are memorable and haunt us quite often because of the tragedy of the choices they make and because often if we lived in their skin we might make the same choice. The knowledge or denial of this gives them life in our minds.