D. J. Adamson published this article from me in her newsletter, which you can find at http://www.djadamson.com/blog/
Sometimes the bad guy is just more—well—interesting. Think of Hannibal Lecter. During our viewing of the first hobbit film, the audience oohed in delight when Gollum took the stage. We’re way past the “good ole days” when the hero was squeaky clean, like Clark Kent with his starched white shirt, his black framed glasses, and his mild manners. We don’t expect the hero to always speak politely, do good and pick the car up for his grandparents. Oops. See there? Even Superman has a dark secret.
We want some bad in our heroes. We want them to be struggling humans just like we are. Kent Clark is the consummate outsider, copying the ways of his guest planet desperately so he can fit in and get the girl. He’s the nerd’s hero. “See, you picked the captain of the football team and look what a gem you missed in me.” Then there’s Aragorn, the dark and dangerous Strider who turns out to be the hidden king of all the lands—once he finds his courage to face the ultimate temptation of the ring of power.
We want some good in our villains, too. There needs to be some spark of light in them that we can cheer on. We adore Lecter’s good manners, while we roll our eyes at Kent Clark’s. What a delicious combination—a man with impeccable manners and gourmet tastes who eats people who we secretly think deserve it.
Which reminds me of Dexter. He’s another sympathetic mass murderer. Then there’s Gollum, who has struggled with a power much greater than himself and become a ruin. But we can sympathize. Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed by the world at times? Who doesn’t want to believe that even the worst can rise up and ironically save the day?
I was surprised when my favorite villain took over the second book in my series, Beneath the Hallowed Hill. The best of the dark magicians who serves the Illuminati in their quest to keep control of the world’s power and wealth, Cagliostro is suddenly overcome with longing. For what? For the truth of who he is and his lost love, a beautiful red head whose bell-clear laugh haunts him. He goes in search of these things and in so doing destroys Atlantis, but saves modern-day Glastonbury.
“Stories are equipment for living,” theorist Kenneth Burke declared. We read and watch stories to know about the world and ourselves. The polar opposites of children’s literature just don’t do the job.