A villain is just a victim whos story hasn’t been told.”
I seem to have a knack for finding (and liking) what winds up being fairly controversial quotes in the writing world. I must admit, I didn’t expect some of the vehemence I have come across when touting a few of my favorite lines- these are words that I have plastered all over my writing desk to give myself inspiration. I should have known better- writers are generally passionate people (how could they be anything else, you don’t do this work for the glamor it provides), so why was I surprised that their passion extended as far as inspirational writing quotes about the craft itself?
Viewing a villain as a possible victim: there are people out there who get so enraged with writers who follow this piece of advice that they feel the sudden urge to catapult their book at the nearest wall. It seems like a strong reaction, I know- but that was exactly what I was told the last time I tried to post it to a writing website I used to frequent. In fact, the person in question was really unhappy with anything I could have said on the subject, and was rather angry that I brought it up at all (I obviously ruined her otherwise perfect day). Her stance was that real villains exist in the world and that no amount of coddling will change that, and ‘acting in a vile manner’ was a choice. She was a firm believer that evil is evil, and that claiming victimhood was merely an excuse. She despised writers who attempted to make their villains as anything but what the stereotype suggests- evil for evil’s sake.
Now, I have a very different interpretation of the quote- I guess that is the beauty of the written word- you can have a million people read the same words, and they will walk away with a million different viewpoints on it. In a literary sense, I view the ‘villain as a victim’ quote in a less literal way. My intent with my writing is never to coddle them or turn them into the ‘good guys’ in some fashion. For me, this quote was always a reminder that my characters- especially my villains- are three dimension creations. I like to remind myself that my characters need a motivation, a purpose- even the ‘evil’ ones still need a story to explain their actions. I want all of my characters to have a purpose, a reason for acting the way that they do- not just out running amok doing random evil deeds just so they can twiddle their mustache and laugh maniacally about it later. I don’t want to insinuate that they are necessarily innocent in any way, but I do believe that adding an edge of gray to a standard cookie-cutter character would add a new prism to view your writing in.
Let’s take a famous piece of literature for example- one I hope most people would know is Harry Potter. The villain- Lord Voldemort- there is no question that he is a truly evil villain. But, at the same time, he doesn’t do his evil deeds for the sake of evil- he does them because his belief system (as faulty as it is) tells him that the magical world is being tainted by impure blood, and he wants a superior race of pure bloods to be in charge. He goes about this personal mission in a variety of very dark and, yes, evil, ways. Now, they don’t delve too deeply into why his views go this direction- most likely it was his muggle father whom he hates, or the orphanage where he grew up- but no one reads that and says ‘aw poor little Vordey, we forgive you for all you’ve done’. It’s simply a fact- a piece of his backstory that motivates his later evil deeds. I don’t think villains should be coddled, but perhaps a bit of understanding is in order to make a truly realistic character. No one will look at the actions of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and forgive them because of his past- they simply provide the motivation for why he is doing the heinous things that he does.
It is all about perspective, after all. I love the concept that most villains don’t view themselves as villains. I like to add shades of gray to my stories, I have never been a fan of straight black and white. I want to invoke deeper feelings and thoughts about my characters apart from plain love and hate. I want my readers to feel something, to be forced to think and really look at characters I have created. And yes, I want my villains to be victims who haven’t told their stories- because that means they still have a story to tell, another dimension to color them. That is what makes a realistic piece of work- the colors that shade it.