When I first read Shadow and Bone, I was confused. About a lot of things, but mostly… I had a hard time understanding why so many people loved the Darkling character.
For those who haven’t read Shadow and Bone and aren’t familiar with the Grishaverse, I won’t go into too much detail here as I don’t want to spoil things. The Darkling is a powerful magic-worker in the world and there’s (in my opinion) consistent evidence of his nefarious ways. And it’s constantly tossed aside by the easily-besotted protagonist. And even more casually tossed aside by readers. He never appealed to me at all. The Nerd Daily writes a whole argument about why The Darkling is a superior romantic match and I just … I don’t get it.
A lot of readers do. They really, really love this character.
Without going into the complicated psychology of why some readers enjoy dark relationships (a conversation for which I’m deeply unqualified) I want to talk a little about likable monsters. Characters that do despicable things, and yet, the reader still… roots for them? It’s clever writing at its best, pitting empathy against morality, and what better time to talk about darkness than in October?
And to highlight the likable villain, I want to talk about Victor Vale and Eli Cardale*.
For those of you who haven’t read V. E. Schwab’s Villains series, I highly recommend it. I’ll avoid spoilers here (especially as I’ve still only read Vicious) but I think Victor Vale is a good character study on the objectivity of good and evil and how things are not always so easily one or the other. Victor and Eli’s actions put the reader in the position where you are constantly evaluating motive and personality. Schwab writes her villains (heroes? villains.) in such a way that the reader finds themselves in a difficult spot.
Rooting for the villain.
Or, at least, the one the world sees as the villain.
Because Schwab humanized the characters. She’s given both Eli and Victor elements the reader can sympathize with, making the actions less directly intentional. Making these two superpowers individuals human.
And I think the world as a whole is starting to do this better. To make things messy. Make people work for moralities and beliefs and the true depths of right and wrong rather than following the lines set out for us. That maybe our “heroes” were actually villains, and history has painted them a certain way to move an agenda.
Deadpool is another example. Deadpool does this extraordinarily well. Because who’s watching those movies and not rooting for Wade Wilson? The anti-hero has really come into its own in the last few years, particularly as we’re looking at “superhero” movies. Deadpool and Suicide Squad have reminded viewers that sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes the people who do unforgivable things are not all bad.
And so, we find ourselves opening up to these characters. We may not condone their actions… but we get them. We know where they’re coming from. We maybe want them to catch a break every once and a while. I don’t want to dwell on this long, but I know so many people who felt Serverus Snape got the raw end of the deal. Personally, I thought the Malfoy family went through a lot, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows revealed individuals who were deeply flawed and did bad things… but weren’t all bad.
The Handmaid’s Tale does this with Serena Joy as well. Complicated characters who got a raw deal in life, made poor decisions, and could have been so much more. There are so many opportunities for redemption and yet when the line gets drawn, she ends up on the wrong side. Nurturing to her heart instead of the greater good. Faced at a divide between her conflicting beliefs and needs. Serena Joy is my favorite character in The Handmaid’s Tale because I’m trying so hard to understand her… and I want so much for her to make a better choice.
So I guess, on some level, I understand why we fall for villains. Why folks ship Alina/The Darkling in Shadow and Bone. We fall in love with villains because we believe in them. The writers and creators give us moments where these characters who have caused our protagonists so much pain… are vulnerable. We see inside them and see their pain and we want good for them too. But they walk a different path.
And the reader, the viewer… we are set up for heartbreak every time.
But yet… we hope.
*Holy crap. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that V. E. stands for “Victoria Elizabeth” and the characters here are Victor and Eli and it’s almost like she was writing out the best and the worst of her psyche or something and this is actually brilliant. Like – extra, extra brilliant.
Do ever find yourself rooting for the villains? Would you ever want to see some of your favorite books written from a different POV? Share your thoughts on loving the baddies in the comments! <3