(BTW, in case you’re wondering, I’m convinced the other 1% of Tweets consists of cat videos. That’s right… small, nimble, furry, truly disdainful animals with too much sense of their own self-importance, doing silly things to amuse the weak-minded. Oh, the humanity. Future generations will judge us harshly. And deservedly so.)
(And if you’re wondering why I’m on Twitter at all if that’s my curmudgeonly attitude… well, there are days I wonder, too --- although perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so harsh, seeing as how it does occasionally provide grist for posts like this. Besides, any platform that, however belatedly, bans the 45th president of the U.S., is at least doing one thing right. But the answer to your question is actually contained in the items below. See if you can guess which. Bonus points if you provide an appropriately snarky answer in the comments.)
Anyway, ladies and gents, without further ado, the Chair recognizes the Honourable Member for the constituency of Twitter East Humbug with his question, to wit: why are we so fascinated by literary villains and their backstories?
I came up with three possibilities, and that’s after only a few minutes’ consideration; there are undoubtedly more. Choose one, or mix ‘n match --- at your peril/pleasure, of course.
First, some writers make their protagonists/heroes just a little too plain vanilla: with apologies to Mary Poppins, there’s few things more boring than a saccharine-sweet, practically-perfect-in-every-way protagonist. (Although, personally, I like vanilla ice cream… it goes well with Bailey’s, or Amaretto, or Gran Marnier, or…) Many actors say playing villains is far more interesting than playing heroes, and many writers say villains are much more interesting to write. I don’t think this necessarily must be true --- I used to teach the ‘tragic hero’ concept to my high school English classes, a term which should stir hoary old memories for many of you (sorry). The tragic hero possesses a fatal flaw --- the Greeks used to refer to it as ‘hamartia’ --- and if you make sure your protagonist has at least one, their story becomes interesting very quickly.
Second, many of us --- probably that 99% of Tweeters I mentioned --- have this weirdly morbid, obsessive curiosity about awful things: we slow down for a good gawk when passing car accidents; we like to watch train wrecks in slow motion; and we love watching YouTube videos of Darwin Award nominees. It’s a guilty pleasure. We know we shouldn’t indulge, but just can’t help ourselves. And it’s the same kind of thing with literary villains. They’re freed from our moral constraints; they can do all the things we know we mustn’t; and they enjoy themselves while so engaged. After all, as Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So from our ringside seats, we get to whisper in horrified but mesmerized tones, “how can they do that?” Put differently, what twisty, slimy, nasty personality quirks make Ramsay Bolton, or Lord Voldemort, or Sauron the Dark Lord, do the appalling things they do? And just as importantly, why? Human beings have a real obsession with that little three-letter word. We always, always, always want to understand the why… never mind that sometimes there really isn’t a good answer, at least not one any rational mind could be satisfied with, much less comprehend. (A good example is Milton’s Paradise Lost, where he has Lucifer saying it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. I mean, who in their right mind would look at that statement and nod sagely, saying, “Yup, I agree?”) But that’s where the origin question, and our fascination with it, comes in: how did the Grinch become the Grinch? Was he neglected as a kid? Did he suffer some kind of unspeakable trauma or betrayal? Or was he just by nature a demon-child from day one? (The nature vs. nurture debate, which never grows old.) In other words, what is there in his past to possibly account for his current bad behaviour? ‘Cause we really wanna know.
Finally, and related to our desire to understand the why… we want to ascertain whether the villain is totally irredeemable, or not; do they gloat in their badness, completely unrepentant and steadfast in their assertion that Evil, Inc. is the only way to go? (Interestingly, C.S. Lewis’ brilliant The Screwtape Letters, which chronicles the letters of a senior devil to a junior one, takes the position that even gloating, seemingly unrepentant evil knows, in its heart of hearts, that it has bet on the wrong pony, and harbours secret remorse.) Or did the villain fall into the whole mess of their stinking, steaming pile o’ poop by… well, by accident, mischance, poor judgement, whatever… and now regrets the way things have turned out? (Tolkien’s Saruman the Wizard is a great example of this… though waaay more in the books than the films, because Jackson, unfortunately, reduces Saruman to a standard, cardboard cut-out villain, not the way Tolkien wrote him at all.) That is to say, is there an element of ‘there but for the grace of God go I?’ Because, you know, that’s a terrifying possibility and injects a very personal anxiety… that we the reader/viewer could wind up the same way as the villain after just a few Really Poor Choices.
It’s a strange old world, you know. All this interest/obsession with villains makes you wonder whether we’re all just bad at heart, or not… doesn’t it?
But that’s undoubtedly a Twitter question for another day.