The Problem with Modern Villains

So this is another one of my impassioned rants. And expect another one in the next few days. So, today is my short exclamation of discontent with villains gracing the stories of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I won’t beat around the bush. First, let me list these villains to which I refer. Sauron, Torak, Voldemort, Thanos, The Night King.

As any geek, dork or nerd should know, Sauron is the overarching antagonist of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings world of Middle Earth. Of course few people have dared to criticise the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Neither shall I. Only, his villain is so problematic to the world of fantasy, at least in the legacy it has left behind. In creating Sauron, he created the archetypal ‘Dark Lord’ who has no good in him and who meets a satisfying death – one that is reflective of his power. Rather than dying as any person should, he crumbles.

If I remember correctly, so does Torak, the Dragon God of the Angaraks in David Eddings’ world of the Belgariad and Mallorean (edit: Torak does not crumble. His body remains intact. His death is also human as he realises and laments the fact that he is loved by none. His death is even mourned by the good Gods, his brothers. For all of David Eddings’ appropriation of J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy tropes, this is where he deserves applause). So does Voldemort, at least in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. So does Thanos at the end of Avengers: Endgame. So does The Night King of Game of Thrones’ Season 8.

Here is the problem. These stories have dehumanised their villains, setting the precedent for creating unrealistic stories where the villains have no humanity. This is contrary to the reality of villains, even Hitler himself. Okay, shouldn’t a fictional villain have fictional characteristics? Well of course. No one is calling for their powers to be stripped off them. And yet it remains a firm principle that fantasy worlds are inevitably based on the real world. Looking at every one of the stories above, there are all many uncanny reflections of the real world. Such are stories.

But these villains disappoint the fundamental substance of any story – that it should be relatable to its audience. Villains are made to be great. To be dark. To be powerful. And to meet deaths that are certainly not deaths that their victims would meet.

So on Voldemort, even though the movies made a royal mess of his death (books are better than their film adaptations!!), J.K. Rowling put is astutely when she gave Voldemort a human death in the books and when she said that there are no completely good and completely evil people in this world – we all have light and dark in us.

And yet the majority of stories fail to portray this. Their villains are almost godly in their evil, detached from humanity and thus unrelatable. In my opinion, as villains are mortal, they should be burdened with the same aspects of mortality that burdens protagonists. The best villain is one that the reader or watcher may slightly agree with. Black Panther did this perfectly with Killmonger. So did Avengers: Infinity War. But ultimately, Thanos was the perfect villain – so immortal that his death had to be that cliched disintegration.

So this is my issue. Villains should meet mortal deaths. And, they should at least have some good in them. Otherwise, we slip into the further problematic cliches of the fantasy world that I will speak to in a post next week. This is why, in The Monk’s Curse, I made a compelling past for my villain – one that makes a reader almost pity him even as he commits murder. As the world of fantasy parallels reality, so should its villains.

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