Antagonist. The baddie. Archenemy.
Call them what you will, but everyone loves a villain.
Literature thrives on them.
We have Pennywise, a malign entity with an affinity for appearing as a clown and dragging unsuspecting children into sewers. There’s Voldemort as well, the archenemy of Harry Potter. And also, Grendel, the beast with an even beastlier mother.
Not to mention Hannibal Lecter whose given name has now become synonymous with being a cannibalistic psychopath.
And don’t forget the gals. There’s Annie Wilkes, the Number One Fan. The Queen of Hearts, the mad monarch with a penchant for decapitation. And there’s that solitary witch residing in a gingerbread house with a habit for pushing children into ovens.
These are the characters that mark your psyche. They get you checking under the bed and closing that closet door to banish that terrifying sliver of darkness.
The characterisation and motivation of these villains are often detailed in more depth and afforded more scope than that of the protagonists in white hats. Their behaviours are the engine that drives the story and provides the protagonists with the need to act.
The behaviours and motivations behind Hannibal, Annie, Pennywise and friends are as numerous and diverse as there are heads on pikes in many of the books written by George R. R. Martin. Whatever the motives may be, they are the necessary counterpoints to the more socially accepted moral codes of those whom they seek to terrorise.
Why do the culinary predilections of Hannibal Lecter tend towards the cannibalistic?
What would cause a middle-aged woman to arrive at a position where she believes that abduction, along with physical and psychological torture is an acceptable course of action?
How could a magician have in his heart the desire to kill a baby?
Why, what and how drive literature.
If we can delve into the back stories of monsters and madmen with these three powerful, little words in mind and be rewarded with a fulfilling answer, then we have on our hands a memorable villain.
Without them, we have no drama, tension or any sort of reason for the protagonist to act in the way that we expect them to, that is, by driving a pitchfork, in their own respective ways, into the heart of darkness.
Without Annie Wilkes and her sledge-hammer based bedside manner, Paul Sheldon is simply rescued and taken to hospital by a well intentioned citizen.
Without the return of Voldemort to spur him into action, Harry may have chosen to join the Ministry of Magic and live out his career as a mid-level manager.
And without the entity masquerading as Pennywise the Clown, a small group of children growing up in Derry would do no more than spend their summer riding bikes and dodging bullies.
While this would be far less traumatic if you are Mr Sheldon, borderline satisfactory if you are an unambitious Mr Potter and just a part of life if you are a member of The Losers’ Club, for us as consumers of fiction, it’s a trifle uneventful.
With the good, we need the bad. Sweet needs sour, like a delicious meal of Chinese pork. Sweet pork? Sour pork? Neither of those are culinary highlights, but put them together and we have a winner.
We revel in the victories of the antagonists, however short-lived they may be and we revel equally in their inevitable defeat at the hands of the protagonist as we recognise that we need a return to the status quo.
Order needs to be restored.
But that time of interim chaos?
Well, that was pretty sweet too.
Nicholas Stella can often be seen scribbling away on scraps of paper at the oddest of hours and in the most random of locations as inspiration has no respect for time or place. He lives in Sydney with his wife and two little monsters.
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