by Bob DeFrank
When villain and victim are one in the same
|The tragedy of the sympathetic villain
Spoiler alert for the movie "The Ring."
Flashback to the past. A little girl stands before a well, singing softly. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and peaceful, seeming to suggest new beginnings and fresh starts. A woman - evidently the mother - comes up behind the girl and greets her with comforting words. Times have been difficult, but life is about to get better.
Then the mother smothers the girl's head in a plastic bag. Her face is etched with pain. There are unshed tears in her eyes. "All I ever wanted, was you," the mother whispers before she tosses the girl down the well.
The girl is Samara Morgan and she was born with the ability to project images into the minds of people and animals around her. This power is tied to her subconscious and so the images are consistently nightmarish. What happens immediately afterward and the events leading up to this scene are sufficient to unsettle even the most hardened viewer.
I recommend the movie as a flawless piece of cinematography full of disturbing, dizzying imagery which take on powerful emotional significance upon the final revelation. Its greatest strength, however, lies in the use of that most difficult of conventions, the sympathetic villain. In the third and presumably final article I will examine this particular phenomenon.
Samara Morgan joins the bestiary of such infamous rogues as the monster in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Tolkien's Gollum, the Phantom of the Opera, the unnamed narrator of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Outsider," and certain portrayals of Grendel in versions of "Beowulf." We simultaneously feel the opposing emotions of sympathy and horror for the monster, and neither of these dilutes the other, but rather function to feed each other.
Such stories are, in short, tragedies, and the defining feature of tragedy is inevitability. The characters are destroyed by their own actions, yet given the circumstances the characters simply could not have done otherwise. "Frankenstein" couldn't have ended with the monster settling down with a nice girl to raise a brood of large, rambunctious and odd-looking kids. Gollum couldn't have given up his lust for the Ring and joined the Proudfoots and Tooks at Bilbo's next birthday (and the results for Middle Earth would have been disastrous if he had. Who would fall into Mount Doom with the Ring?).
A defining feature of these stories is that the villains themselves evoke an emotional response from the reader that is more than just fear and loathing (though such things remain present). There may be pity, yes, but also a sense of identification and perhaps some accompanying disquiet at this realization. The idea that the reader could be in this position themselves, or that theirs could be among the hands that carelessly shape such creatures.
There are no hard and fast rules for writing such characters, but there are certain conventions to study. In every case, the role the characters play in the story depends upon their relationship to the world around them. The sympathetic villain is usually the other or the outcast, often made thus by factors beyond their control, making them in a sense, victims as well.
Often they are connected to things the society views as unhealthy or unwholesome. Sometimes to their detriment, in which case the villain is for the most part a victim (Gollum). Or the other-ness may well be the villain's natural state. "The Ring" capitalizes on both of these circumstances. Samara Morgan is born with a different nature than the people around her, leading to certain difficulties, and the damage she suffers leaves her emotionally and, in a way physically, deformed. In the end, she is unable to relate to any other except to inflict pain.
This leads into another aspect of the sympathetic villain: their lack of connection with and value for the world and the people in it. There may be exceptions for certain individuals, but these merely provide motive force for the tragedy and a concluding denouement for the story. The Phantom's obsession with Christine, for example. So much of who Christine is is tied into the sunlit world to which she is a part, an expression and a focus. Attempting to bring her below, like Hades and Persephone, merely underlines how irreconcilable their two worlds are.
Again, in all such cases, there must be an element of the victim to the sympathetic villain and perhaps even a sense of kinship with the people they victimize and the heroes who eventually dispatch them.
Pathos is the key, but the ambitious writer is now confronted by the danger of crossing that hair-thin line between sympathetic and pathetic. While readers and viewers are compelled to empathize and even identify with these characters, they must also feel an equal or greater measure of fear and an awareness of the threat they pose. There are no hard and fast rules, but excessive whining about their plight is a big no-no.
This makes such a story difficult to tell with the sympathetic villain as the main character. "Frankenstein" and "Grendel" both manage it, as does Lovecraft's narrator in "The Outsider," but it calls for a powerful and compelling persona and an interesting approach.
In the prior examples, the villains are honestly misunderstood, but a pure monster is not out of the question either, providing there is always an element of humanity that the reader will identify with. One perfect example is Alex, the sociopathic main character of "A Clockwork Orange," a creature of pure id who is as much an expression of his violent, destructive future society as he is a contributor to its ruin.
By contrast to the villain-as-main-character story, "The Ring" relies on a steadily more unquiet atmosphere and a sense of distance from the villain in question. This conveys a distinct advantage. The format of the story, the main characters' search through past events for clues to the strange situation of the present, keeps the viewer attentive for the details of the mystery. In addition, it is left to the viewers' imaginations to fill in the details about what Samara's life has been.
Another example of this sense of distance occurs in H.P. Lovecraft's story, "The Dunwich Horror," which also illustrates the evil rather than misunderstood aspect in that the villain poses a genuine threat to the conventional world.
In "The Dunwich Horror" we become acquainted with Wilbur Whately, an agent of the extraterrestrial and long-vanished Old Ones. Wilbur is the hybrid spawn of a human and an Old One created with the purpose of facilitating the Old Ones' repossession of Earth. Wilbur's physiology is such that he can pass for human only at a distance or under heavy dress. As Lovecraft described him: "Only generous clothing could have enabled (Wilbur) to walk on Earth unchallenged or uneradicated."
For his part, Wilbur has no feeling of kinship with the humans who surround him. Though he seems to honestly love his grandfather, he has no qualms about risking the life of his human mother in a venture that does indeed prove fatal to her.
Though the story is apparently told from the impersonal point of view of a human narrator who has gathered the reports and eyewitness testimony after the events, Wilbur's presence is felt throughout the book as a creature of mystery, menace, fascination and pity. The balance of sympathy and horror is most poignant in the reader's look into Wilbur's childhood journal. There we get a glimpse inside the mind of a lonely little boy reflecting on how wonderful his life will be once the Old Ones return and 'the Earth is cleared off' (when the whole of the planet's animal and vegetable life, including humanity, is exterminated).
In the end, when Wilbur and his even more monstrous sibling are eradicated, the relief we feel is mixed with a touch of regret that no other option was possible.
Stories that feature the sympathetic villain are powerful and their applications are endless. They are difficult to pull off, but done correctly these are the characters that haunt us well after the final scene.