Building a Likable Monster: How Villains Keep Stealing Our Hearts

Posted October 23, 2020 by Amber in Bookish Things / 6 Comments

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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.

BUT.

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.

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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

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6 responses to “Building a Likable Monster: How Villains Keep Stealing Our Hearts

  1. Oh man, that thing about her initials is wild!

    The reason I ended up on a VE Schwab deep dive was because of Vicious. It was one of those books I literally could not stop reading. I was aware they were all pretty terrible and doing bad things, but it was just WRITTEN so well. And I was fascinated by Victor. (Kinda shipped them at first, until Eli pulled that crap he did.)

    “… have reminded viewers that sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes the people who do unforgivable things are not all bad..” *cough* Wreck It Ralph *cough* 😉

    Have you seen the articles and things about how traditional “villains” are coded as identities who have historically been treated as outsiders? And with the world the way it is right now…I mean, I always just wanted to “find my tribe” and BELONG somewhere. Eeyore was my favorite Disney character because it seemed like no one loved him, so I decided I would. And I think people are starting to do that even more when the characters they see themselves in aren’t the “heroes.”

    • Amber

      I love Wreck-It Ralph so much. 😀

      That’s a really interesting discussion about “different” equalling “villain”… and of course you’re right. There’s always been a lot of ostracization of non-conformists, including vilifying them. I’m going to have to dig in and find some of those articles!

      Eeyore is also the best Winnie the Pooh character and I love him the most! <3 You have excellent taste!

  2. I think you’re spot on with this. To me, if a villain doesn’t have something human about them, then I struggle to care or really enjoy the story. I recently read Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb and one of the bad guys in that really has nothing redeemable about him, we don’t even know why he is the way he is, and that just made me not want to read about him. Because there’s nothing interesting there. :/

    • Amber

      I’m trying to remember who you are talking about in Ship of Magic, because I read that last year. I remember there being SO MANY POVs in that one. Is it Kyle you’re thinking of? … I just double checked my review and I said lots of unkind things about him so I’m guessing he was the flat villain for me, too. 😛

  3. I personally love The Darkling, but I’ve never seen him as a more “suitable” romantic interest because of how great a villain he is. To me, his relationship with Alina has nothing to do with love or even sexual things but is entirely about power imbalances and how he wants to be in complete control. That’s what makes him such a great villain to me.

    Although, I will say that I do like my fair share of villains who don’t have anything to humanise them at all. Sometimes I want a villain who is just evil through and through, kind of like the Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise. Sometimes someone who is irredeemable is just scarier to me.

    Louise @ Monstrumology recently posted: My Absolute Most Favouritest Monsters
    • Amber

      Love your objective view! We can definitely appreciate villains who are morally-devoid because they are fun and impressive to read, and they drive the story. I think of AIDEN in Illuminae for this point, or classic villains like Dracula. There are villains that are good to root for, and villains that are good to root against. I typically prefer rooting against them myself, but I’m game to be tricked into sympathizing with a good villain from time to time as well. 🙂