The Villain's Niche
It has long been my opinion that the best antagonists in fiction – are those that are ambiguous, that have some vulnerability. It will not often be debated that a character with multiple dimensions – say a dark agenda but a noble underlying purpose – is superior to the one-dimensional character operating on absolutes.
And yet, there remains a soft spot in the public imagination for those characters possessed of absolute good or absolute evil. These are not just the protagonists and the antagonists, but the “heroes” and the “villains”, those with such a singular focus and unfaltering drive that we find ourselves willfully swept up in whatever it is they try to do.
While we exalt or vilify real life figures, we know deep down that people are more complex than what their words or actions tell us, or what great good or great evil we might wish to project upon them. By contrast, heroes and villains also make things easy on us: they are easy to love and support, or easy to hate and blame for all that is wrong with the world.
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson presents us with such a character in Captain John Caul, who the author makes little effort to humanize or elicit any sympathy. From the book’s first pages we know him to be a cold-blooded killer, and through the course of the narrative he proves himself to be both heartless and relentless in his commitment to a sinister agenda, even to the point of murder-sacrificing one of the men under his own command. Even the revelation of Caul’s agenda acquired by story’s end seems disproportionate to his means, to the point of being practically irrelevant, for it is too little too late to redeem his actions.
There was one moment when the audience might have sympathized with Caul, when protagonist Emily Edwards unwittingly forces him to face his suppressed humanity.
“Military sangrimancers use a special magical technique to keep themselves under complete emotional control at all times.” Stanton stared down at Caul. The man was clenched in a twitching ball, sobbing and snarling and clawing at the ground with dirty fingers. “They lock themselves up inside their own minds. Memory, emotion, everything. [p. 179]
Within all the evil that is John Caul, there is or was a human being. In this moment his humanity returns, and he comes face to face with the monster he has become – all the guilt, regret, or any emotions felt over his actions rushing to the fore at once. Yet I, as the reader, did not share in his feelings, and certainly did not have any sympathy for him. On the contrary I reveled in his pain, hoped that it would be enough to completely unravel and destroy him for good.
Perhaps the function of the “villain”, then, is much like the technique that Caul himself employs, allowing us to turn off our humanity and give us a target into which to channel all of our ill will and destructive desires.
Perhaps the villain validates us, gives us moral justification to hate and wish for the death or destruction of another, a sentiment that otherwise is regarded with disdain in the public consciousness. By the most basic logic it would seem that by vilifying the villain, we in turn come into alignment with the “heroes” or the “right side” of things, as if good and evil are ever so black and white.
The fact that the more sympathetic antagonists tend to be the most beloved seems to indicate that our need to channel such darkness is smaller than our need to empathize. The niche of the true villain in fiction – like that of Hobson’s John Caul – may be a small one, but still one with great appeal. Perhaps it is even a necessary one, providing both a mirror and an outlet for the darkness within us all, so we need not unleash it upon the real world.