What makes a villain a villain? Do they have to throw kittens from a balcony? Does a villain have to be a loner vampire type or command an army of undead? Do they need to stand in the way of two star crossed lovers or simply have opinions that oppose oneself or a predetermined hero? The latest episode of Supernatural has brought me to this question along with some personal experiences. I decided to do some research to get a more accurate answer. I started by simply defining the word ‘villain.’
The most common definition is “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime.” Thank you, dictionary.com. There are other definitions from Oxford Dictionary or Merriam-Webster that determine a villain to be an opposing force to the protagonist or plot in any form of literature. All are true, but I don’t think determining villainy is that simple.
When a writer creates a villain, he/she has to convince the reader that the villain is indeed that, a villain. The background of the reader and their perceptions of the world ultimately determines whether or not a character is a villain. It’s all about perception. Let us look at an example from a favorite video game series of mine, Mass Effect. There may be some spoilers ahead for those of you who have not played this game or read any literature in the series.
For most of the series, and depending on your character alignment and choices, you are lead to believe that the Geth, a species of artificially intelligent machines that gained consciousness, are villains. Ruthlessly, you slaughter these so-called murder machines only to find out later that their history is steeped in the deepest betrayal by their own creators. The Geth were not enemies of any one particular species. They were simply battling for their survival and right to live. There are other crossing story lines that led to the Geth splitting into separate factions, but I don’t want to ruin the entire story for those of you who have not had a chance to enjoy this series.
The writers at Bioware did an excellent job at deceiving the readers/players into thinking that the Geth were villains. How we perceive them in the game plays a big role in that, as well. In the game, you see alien machines coming after you with guns, rifles, and other alien weaponry. Of course your brain is going to think ‘Oh, that’s the bad guy!’ As it turns out, some of those machines were actually villains, but that’s another post entirely within itself.