I find antagonists far more interesting than protagonists. Often the motivations of the hero are only briefly considered or developed, as these motivations are pretty two-dimensional and obvious. After all, who needs a reason to do something good? I’m more interested in the antagonists, the ones who dedicate their life to something the rest of the population opposes, the ones we love to hate, or hate to love, and are motivated by a complex interactions of thoughts, feelings and history.
One of my favorite kinds of antagonists are the villains that concoct a master plan to make the world a ‘better’ place (bonus points for actually succeeding). These characters delve deeply into what it means to be human, and attempt to cure the world of the “human condition,” i.e., everything we despise about ourselves and the current state of things – greed, war, poverty, hunger, etc.
I recently finished reading the novel, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. The story revolves around one man and his friendship with the incredibly intelligent Crake, a man who brings about the extinction of the human race after debating the merits of humans, technology and progress. It is never revealed the exact reason why Crake decides to kill off the entire human race, which leaves the reader to come up with an explanation. As I considered Crake’s line of reasoning, I realized that these thoughts come up frequently in not just myself, but others. This character archetype is certainly not new. Other examples of such villains include Richmond Valentine from the recent (cinematographically excellent) Kingsman and *SPOILER* Ozymandias from Frank Miller’s Watchmen. And if you include organizations or governments, then Big Brother from 1984 is a prime example. I even wrote my own version of such a villain in my (extremely) short story, As Close As We’re Ever Going To Get. These villains come to the conclusion that as humanity progresses it will inevitably destroy itself and that there is only one of two ways to stop this from happening: 1) eliminate all the “bad” people, or the things that make humans “bad” (i.e. emotions). OR 2) find or create a common enemy (be it real or imagined) for all of humanity to unite against, so that they won’t be fighting amongst themselves.
These villains often have common characteristics: they are likeable and charismatic, but also make seemingly cold-hearted decisions based on an unsettling insight into human behavior. They usually have an unrealistically vast amount of wealth and unmatched intellect in order to justify their incredibly complex and world-spanning plan, and because of it, often succeed. They are intellectuals but also appreciators of the human nature, or at least, acknowledge the power of human nature. And often – they are male.
What is it about these villains that make them so interesting to me? Well, for one, these villains, if you look at their motivations, aren’t that ‘bad’ of people. They want the same things the heroes want – essentially world peace, but they’ve actually spent the effort in planning out a reasonable and logical path to get there. After listening to their reasoning we can’t help but say, “well…you’ve got a point.” The main difference between them and the heroes is that they are willing to commit some pretty unethical actions to go about it. They are very much ends-justify-the-means and kill-one-to-save-many kind of thinkers. That requires some form of sociopathy to be able to detach from the world and view it in a super-objective manner. But at the same time, I believe that it requires an extreme amount of passion and ‘love’ for the human race. After all, who would really be willing to commit such crimes and become such a terrible person, to be hated by everyone, so that the many can live? At surface level, it seems that their utilitarian outlook only applies to sacrificing others, but in a sense, they are sacrificing themselves for the eventual betterment of humanity. In ‘saving’ humanity, they lose their own. This is how they see themselves making a positive difference. Seems kind of twisted and arrogant, doesn’t it? I think it makes for interesting introspection. Because while these kinds of characters are completely unrealistic, there is still something very real and relatable underneath. The world is an incredibly complex place, and we can get understandably frustrated. Who among us hasn’t once thought of blowing up the world, or somehow shipping all the people we despise on a rocket to the sun (okay, I probably just landed myself on some sort of watchlist)? We see a little bit of ourselves in these characters, but amplified, and that’s scary. It’s everything we hoped for, but were scared to do, because we knew we weren’t smart enough, or willing enough to let go of our humanity, or noble enough to let go of absolute power, or resourceful enough to do it well – and yet here is a character that doesn’t have those limitations. These villains actually turn these ridiculous thoughts into equally ridiculous, but understandable, actions. To me, these villains are tragic romantics, characters who strive for some seemingly unattainable, ‘noble’ goal, and yet go for it regardless, and in some cases, even succeed. They try to enact a form of chaotic control on the human race, substituting what they believe to be their superior reasoning over the ‘natural order of things’. They are willing to do the things we would never do, and for that reason, they get results we would never really consider a possibility. They’re so cynical about the human race, they actually produce one of the more optimistic outcomes. And story-wise, it forces the hero to examine his or her own motivations and values.
These characters are only villains depending on the audience’s ethical values – which makes for some interesting characters and intense conversation starters. It prompts us to take a step back and view the bigger picture at both an objective and human level. We start asking the typical existential questions in different light. Thinking about these things for too long can become too heavy, so I tend to dwell on just the characters themselves. If anything, I hope you come out of this with a greater appreciation for antagonists and the role they play in story-telling.