Let’s play a game.
Who would you rather be?
Sherlock Holmes or Dr. John Watson?
Iago or Othello?
Long John Silver or Jim Hawkins?
Dracula or anyone else in that novel?
Gretchen Lowell or Archie Sheridan?
Tom Ripley or Dickie Greenleaf?
I’m willing to bet that in every one of those situations, you chose the villain.
Oh, look at your confused face. You’re adorable. Yes, Sherlock Holmes (and his television doppelgänger, Gregory House) is a villain, just like his counterparts. Don’t believe me? Consider this definition, courtesy of writer Chuck Klosterman: The villain is the character who knows the most, but cares the least.
The interesting thing about the above list isn’t that I’ve catalogued Holmes as a villain, though. The interesting bit is that you’re still fighting it. How could he be the villain? You think. I love him.
That’s kind of the point.
Villains are intriguing and fun where heroes are boring and predictable. You can count on a hero to do the Right Thing, even if it takes them an entire film or novel to get there. A hero is trapped within the box of him or herself, and can only maneuver within the confines of Good. (Note: We’re not talking antiheroes, here. Those are another back of tricks all together).
A villain, however, has nothing to lose and everything to gain, which puts them in a unique position. They can become anyone, do anything, cross anyone, for the sake of their cause, which is the sole purpose of their existence.
Gretchen Lowell from Chelsea Cain’s Archie Sheridan series is a gorgeous murderer. So beautiful, in fact, she’s dubbed the Beauty Killer. Most serial killers are nicknamed with ties to their victims—the strangler, etc.—but Gretchen is so captivating, so intriguing, she’s named for her looks. She’s intelligent and calculating as most fiction serial killers are, but Gretchen is different because her motivations are simple. Elegant. She’s detached and pleasure-seeking in an extreme you and I can only imagine. The perfect antithesis to Archie’s Vicodin-brained, do-gooder mindset. And we love Gretchen in ways we could never love Archie because, while we’d admit differently in mixed company, in the darkest part of our twisted little hearts, we all want to be Gretchen.
Does that mean we want to kill people? Since this is in print and plausible deniability is defeated, I won’t answer that. Like Gretchen Lowell and Tom Ripley and Iago, we want to be good-looking and charming and a little bit manipulating. Narcissism is perceived as toxic, but it doesn’t really work that way—especially if the narcissist in question has a sense of humor. You’d be hard pressed to find a hero who can turn a phrase like Gretchen Lowell or twist reality like Iago or simply exist with the half the panache Tom Ripley does.
In the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Gregory house, it’s the intelligence we envy. When there’s a problem with no answer, it’s Holmes who has to step in and show how obvious it all was. House cures illnesses that haven’t been discovered yet because he sees the patients as bodies that need fixing, not people who need help. They know the most, but care the least.
Characters like Dracula, a vampire, and Long John Silver who is a pirate with his own chain of moderately delicious seafood restaurants have the awesome built in.
The most attractive thing about a villain, in my opinion, is this: They have nothing to prove. By definition, the villain is villainous, and in constant conflict with the hero who, also by definition, must earn their status as the hero. The hero may work harder, but the villain is purer in his role. Fully formed and beautiful before the story has even begun. He wins you over before the hero has her pants on. (And if the villain is any good, those pants will stay off, one way or another.)
Before you panic, let me assure you: it’s natural to like the villain. They’re written that way. The villain’s task is to lure the hero (and you) to the dark side where, I hear, they have cookies.
Don the black hat and curled mustache. Tie a damsel to the train tracks. Laugh ridiculously. Pout when the hero foils your plan, then chuckle maniacally when you form yet another brilliant plan to make his life harder.
The villain may lose time and again, but the villain has more fun.
Katrina Monroe and the Dark Side of Fiction
Katrina Monroe is an author, mother, and professional haterologist. Her favorite things to hate include socks that fall down, grape-flavored anything, and the color 'salmon.' Grab her books here.