Saturday, November 21, 2009

Greatest villains: Shylock, Iago, Claggart

Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othe...

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Who doesn't love 'good villains,’ if your pardon the oxymoron? Villains are the antagonists, the bad guys, the 'black hats" in the story, without whom the story would be useless. Tough, wily, intelligent villains can challenge the other characters in your fiction.
Weak villains call for weak heroes.
It’s not the good heart of the hero, nor the beauty of the heroine, nor the noble actions of the good characters that make great fiction—not at all. It’s the caliber of the scoundrels that call for the good deeds and ennobling actions of heroes, super-heroes, and even secondary characters.
Of all the villains in literature I will mention my three favorite ones.

Shylock (Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice).

Note that though Shakespeare didn’t describe Shylock him in great detail, but we can easily picture him as black-bearded, stooped, curly sideburns, and in a long black coat. We can conjure the image of a despised money lender. What we read about is his hatred: If I can catch him once upon the hip [meaning off guard] I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him He hates our sacred nation.

Iago (Othello)

Having poisoned Othello’s mind, Iago further incites Othello to kill Desdemona by asking that she be spared. When Othello asks Iago to kill Cassio, he says:
‘Tis done at your request. Bu let her live.
Othello reacts:
Damn her, lewd minx!
O, damn her! Damn her!
Come, go with me apart,
I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil
Now art thou my lieutenant.

Claggart (Melville’s Billy Budd).

Joseph Claggart, —the master at arms that tortures Billy Budd— was just born bad. But what makes this villain even more menacing to unsuspecting victims is that he hides his depravity behind a normal outward appearance that is rational, temperate, and even innocent. Even his speech was coherent and precise. Recall that Uriah Heep, Dickens’ villain in Oliver Copperfield, also spoke with a mellifluous voice—a voice laden with malice and ill-will.

Furthermore, note that in all three the indispensable trait of depravity is present. Yet, the fact that they exhibit a natural depravity to hurt others for no reason or very little reason, they form part of the human race. And as such, they are human; readers must perceive them as human—not monsters.

Writers must be careful not to de-humanize their villains: just remember that even psychopaths, at one time or another, feel compassion for others or for one another. So, don’t make your villains one hundred percent evil.

In the midst of all their treacheries and wrong doing, find a bit of humanity. Although villains are human, some part of their humanity —physically or spiritually— is missing or is deformed. Attach a few redeeming incidents that might create that bit of sympathy that readers are willing to concede. Nothing major, but some tiny detail that opens a window into the evil character’s soul.

What do we know of Shylock? We know he carries the hatred for the wrongs done to his race. What do we know of Iago? He was wronged by Othello. What do we know of Claggart? We know that in his case there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever, unless we can infer a pent-up homosexual attachment.

Villains don’t just appear fully clothed and ready to inflict pain. Something drives them there; and it is the writer’s job to fill that vacuum. Although it would fulfill the readers’ curiosity to dig into the soul of the villain, master writers will not supply the facts for that. What can be more itching than to look for these facts and not to find them? That lacuna will frustrate readers, will drive them to vexation, and will annoy them. But that is exactly the writer’s job—frustrate! Good writers do not succumb and start providing excuses, reasons, and much less logical explanations. Reason and passion run parallel, like subway tracks; so don’t force them to meet.

However, like all human beings and even heroes —recall Achilles— we all have physical and spiritual weaknesses. The weaknesses must be present throughout the work so that when the villains get their comeuppance, readers will not feel cheated. Let readers guess that the demise of the villain will come through the weak chinks in their armor.

A final recommendation: should you have a created well rounded villains, villains that often readers root for, then you may be justified in keeping them alive. Let them live so that they can reappear in other stories and created havoc all over again.

Although I've mentioned only a few villains, the literary dimension contains a myriad of these scoundrels. The reason we remember only a handful of them, is because their deeds go beyond the pale, beyond the normal canons of acceptance of cruelty and wicked acts.

Senada Selmani, model

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