Where is the villain made? They don’t emerge from an ether, fully formed, ready to work against you, they don’t appear in the first act of your day to establish motive and reappear in the third act to climactically challenge you, and they certainly don’t go home to their cork board of photos of you with red string drawn about, planning how best to contest your wants and goals. We know they exist, if only from the sheer amount of people you’ve come into conflict with, but they weren’t cast into that role, nor were they written to do so. So, where is the villain?
In so many depictions of villainy in literature or media, we see humanisations of evil people or character; we see their motivations and opinions, and in many cases, we even begin to understand them and empathise with them. However, when a villain comes along that is considered “pure evil” or simply “born bad”, we often view them as flat, and perhaps uninteresting, characters. Think of how many stories you’ve consumed over the years where the villain was just randomly evil, how forgettable their arc, if they even had one, was. While there are some exceptions to the one-dimensional villain, i.e. those whom are charismatic or have a level of sarcasm and self-awareness of their one-dimensionality, generally these characters are perceived as boring, or worse, unrealistic. If that’s the case, why do we pretend that the villains we paint in our own lives are these flat characters?
As I’ve seen it, there are two reasons. Firstly, whether you’re aware of it or not, you (speaking generally) give events a narrative as you recall or reanalyse them. Every happening a story, every day a chapter. In most people this is inherent, and I’m aware of my own guilt in this. It makes topics flow in conversation and gives events a certain flavour that makes them easier to recall and understand. In doing this, we unwittingly write roles in our little stories; the speaker usually being the main character, if not narrator, and an assortment of others, often including an unwitting villain. Very rarely in these dramatised retellings do we hear the side of this character or their perspective, and when we do, it’s usually depicted in a derogatory or condemning light.
This feeds in well to my other perceived reason: self-confirmation. In our created narratives, of course we’re cast as the hero or above reproach narrator, why wouldn’t we be? Have you ever cast yourself as the villain in your own story? Probably not. The reason is our own self-justifying instinct, which you can observe pretty clearly in bickering children who refuse to admit they might have gotten something wrong and can also easily observe in alleged adults doing the same thing. To be clear, I’m not implying that everyone perceives themselves as infallible, quite the opposite. However, I also believe that humans have a habit of assuming what they’re doing to be right, or at the very least beneficial in a direct or roundabout way, for why else would they do it?
More to the point, when we bicker with others, have run ins with those we don’t like, or have a close call and shouting match with another driver, a great many of us don’t sit afterwards and ponder the motivations and human side of those we see as the day to day villains of our life, in our mind’s eye they’re relegated to simplified caricatures of our experience with them. While I’ll admit there are those who probably deserve this relegation, I can’t help but think this instinctive type casting of the simplified versions of real, human, and endlessly complex people exists in a strange paradox with many people’s despise of the existence of the archetype of the very same of flat, motiveless villains. If you’ve recognised a habit of yours in this rambling of mine, I ask that you reconsider this instinctive casting of the villains in your neighbourhood, and perhaps hold the narrative within your mind to the same standard you would any other story you read. Simple answers are tempting, and on occasion, correct, but reality often defies Occam’s Razor.
[Jack Murphy – he/him – @jackhatesyourfilter]
[Photo credits: Sebastian Voortman]