Why we need villains

Painting by Archimboldo
Painting by Archimboldo

My son arrives home from school. Immediately, I see in his face that something’s wrong. The moment he sees the concern in mine, his reserve gives way; tears well up, and he breathlessly pours out a story: the schoolyard bully just happened to pick him to ‘noogie’. All day. And my son didn’t fight back. I console him the best I can. Eventually our chat turns from the specific events at school to a more general discussion of right and wrong. “You know,” I say, “We make a choice each day as to whether we will be the hero or the villain in the stories of our lives.” “Yeah,” he brightens, “You can either be the good guy or the bad guy. And R— was definitely the bad guy in the story today.”

The big problem with schoolyard bullies is that they eventually grow up. Without intervention, the habit of bullying becomes even more ingrained in the adult, and the arena is no longer a schoolyard but homes, workplaces, pubs and other spaces, both public and private.

But is it really as simple as choosing to be the hero instead of the villain? I think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. As the school uniforms grow ragged and tattered, so do the boys’ concern for one another. And don’t forget King Lear railing at the stormy sky about the unaccommodated man. Both these examples emphasise that without the veneer of ‘civilisation’, without clothes and shoes and the idea of what is polite, without laws and codes to govern behaviour, men are but animals. Golding suggests that good, honourable behaviour is not so much a choice as a social requirement. Take away the society, drop the laws, and there is no reason to look out for one another. Self-interest is an automatic impulse.

One of the reasons my son was consoled with my words about heroism and villainy is that it’s something we all relate to on quite deep levels. From the fairy tales we are read in our earliest days, we identify with the ‘good’ prince and princess who are set upon by an assortment of powerful witches, ogres, trolls, and wolves. The hero (or heroine) undertakes a journey—sometimes literal, other times spiritual—against these evil forces and, because it’s a fairy tale, eventually triumphs. In the process, he undergoes a major transformation. This could not take place if the antagonist was weak or foolish or bungling. The transformation occurs (and is so satisfying to experience) precisely because the antagonist is evil and cunning and powerful.

So-called villains like those in RoboCop and Die Hard just don’t qualify. Who can even remember them? They are filler characters, thrown in by lazy screenplay writers to keep the plot zipping along with the requisite number of chase scenes. I’m speaking rather of psychologically motivated villains, like Shakespeare’s Iago, Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, and Speilberg’s Amon Goeth (from Schindler’s List).


There is public villainy, which tends to be political and involve social groups, cultures, even nations; and there is private villainy, which we meet up with a dozen times a day. This is villainy with an intimate face. Hitchcock understood the power of ordinary people battling ordinary-seeming antagonists. His work is disturbing because his villains are drawn from real life. This kind of villainy offers a way for us to define ourselves and gives us a way to navigate through the world. When we see a villain acting out what we have been able to refrain from, we can feel proud, virtuous, heroic: “I haven’t slept with that woman’s husband”; “I didn’t steal when I had the chance”; “I told the truth when it would have been easier to lie”. We see in villains where we might have gone had we chosen differently.

We also need cultural representations of villainy—from the evil Queen of fairy tales to the anti-hero of the Robert Altman film The Player—because they help us deal with injustices that laws can’t or don’t accommodate. Criminal law deals with felony, not villainy. In fact, criminal law is woefully inadequate, unsupportive even, around such issues as infidelity, emotional cruelty, selfishness, ruthlessness, greed, callousness and hypocrisy. Yet this kind of villainy is commonplace. We are liable to meet it in the people we come in contact with everyday, often within our homes and workplaces. And unfortunately, much of it goes unpunished.

On the contrary, one of the very sad realities and something we must face on top of the victimisation by these everyday villains, is that the world tends to reward them. The ruthless businessman often succeeds; the unfaithful husband leaves his loyal family and begins a new life with a younger woman; a greedy colleague may be especially motivated to exploit the ‘system’ where you have resisted it.

Wealth equals power. And with power comes the temptation to take more. Villainy is sometimes hard to resist. Martha Stewart, who has plenty of money already, takes advantage of a bit of inside information. A powerful conductor in the music world, heady with acclaim, can’t resist a flirtation with a married friend, not caring what effect it might have on the friend’s marriage. A successful businessman, who skipped a tertiary education in favour of making millions, can’t resist courting those in a university who might arrange an honorary degree for him (thereby acquiring a title, a doctorate, and the impression of an education in one fell swoop—not bad for an afternoon’s work). Never mind those among us who have to make money, keep relationships going, and earn academic degrees the hard way.

A friend comments, “It’s not necessarily true that the meek shall inherit the earth, but the meek must certainly feel better about themselves as human beings.” I wonder about this. Psychologists note that no one openly admits  he’s wantonly destructive, self-motivated, greedy, hypocritical, or careless of the lives of others. Inevitably, if only for the sake of sanity or co-existing with an acceptable self-image, the villain will justify and rationalise every mundane act. He blames forces outside of himself: like alcohol (“I shouldn’t have had that third drink”), or overwork (“I deserve a little fun”), his partner in crime (“She came on to me”), the rule of law (“It’s perfectly legal”), and the world at large (“Everyone else is doing it”), even his victims (“They should have known better”).

Artistic representations of villainy and narratives that illustrate acceptable social responses to it serve as a compass for our own behaviour. Without such stories to guide us, we’re adrift in turbulent seas—seas filled with sharks, giant squids, and crocodiles. But what is really important here is the catharsis we experience when the villain of a novel or film finally meets her fate—because it helps us to deal a little better with the ‘everyday villains’ who have hurt us and yet go unpunished.

Villainy has another side. An outward, public face. Because of the wave of postmodernism relativism, the currents of which we are swimming through still, anything and everything goes. We don’t have the certainty of being told in absolute terms what is right and wrong; it’s left for each of us to figure out alone. And when we figure it out for ourselves, we refrain from imposing it on anyone else.

“Yeah,” we agree, “it’s not a good thing for X and Y to have an affair, and it’s sort of wrong for us not to say anything about it. But it’s none of our business really.” In order to keep good relations with those around us, we make moral pacts like this every day. We look the other way. We laugh at a joke when we should have said, “Hey that’s just not on.” We collude with friends’ behaviour by succumbing to their rationalisations. All for the sake of keeping the fabric of society smooth. The strain of this shouldn’t be underestimated. It leads to a sub-conscious desire for absolutes, which in turn makes us vulnerable to political leaders who would exploit it.

Think about it. In the post Cold War world, there has been a reconfiguration of the traditional villain. Contemporary public villains are extreme figures, more likely to be paedophiles or terrorists than thieves and adulterers. Because they are extreme, fighting such villains requires methods that are equally extreme. Every day we hear reports about the “war on terrorism”. The Taliban demonises America, and America demonises the Taliban. In doing so, each claims the political justification and the authority to maraud, plunder, invade and terrorise. The danger with this (outside of the long casualty list) is that by rendering the enemy stereotypically villainous, all power eventually seeps from the image. If Osama bin Laden is not seen as a complex man with complicated motivations, but only as a really bad guy, then we stop believing in the complexity of his bad behaviours too. He becomes a villain like the one in RoboCop or The Terminator—bad, evil even, but essentially one dimensional, a creation in this case, not of scriptwriters, but of political advisors.

After so many B-grade films, we are experienced consumers of these images, and most of us won’t be fooled for long. So governments and the political leadership must continually raise the stakes, further demonising the enemy and the threats they pose. In turn, these demonised antagonists require equally potent actions to make us feel safe. So governments pass anti-terror laws and spread hysteria, stripping the nation of civil rights. It’s a vicious, spiralling, no-win cycle. Either we see through it and are consumed with cynicism, or we believe it and are lulled into a false sense of security.

A note to writers: keep on with those depictions of villainy. It’s what we need—narratives with complex, psychologically motivated, clearly defined antagonists. Because when we see it in film and in literature, we know where we stand and what we stand for. The really hard work for artists is not to succumb to the creation of unworthy villains—that’s too easy—but to create worthy antagonists who actually wrestle thought from an audience. Who demand feeling. Who provoke an active response. Who insist on being remembered.


From a window, I watch my son jump on his trampoline. He flips forward, lands on his knees, goes airborne, flips backward. His day is behind him. He jumps and flips, leaps and twists. He’s happy.

All my thoughts about villainy come back to this: Choice. We’re going to meet up with villainy over and over in our lives. Sometimes in the actions of our governments, sometimes in those of our friends and colleagues. And there’s a good chance that now and then, our own impulses will get the best of our judgment and good intentions. Occasionally, we’ll find we too have chosen to behave in a way that is less than heroic. But the really good news is that, unlike in a film or a novel, where the action is fixed, we also have the choice of changing the way the story ends. An altered heart, self-reflection, some compunction, an attack of conscience, and the anti-hero turns hero. It’s because we have thought about right and wrong; and because we have distinguished those actions and motivations that are good from those that aren’t, that this can happen. And it’s because of the clearly defined villain over there that we know it has.


First published in Arts Hub in 2006.


  1. Thank you for this beautifully written piece on Villains and Bullies. I’m glad your son had the resilience to go on.
    But so many victims remain powerless and don’t know how to be heroes.

  2. I’m really enjoying your writing, Adair. And very pleased to have met you the other day ‘on the battlefield’.

  3. Great essay. There’s such a tendency to homogenise stories these days, especially for children. Or go the other way and create excessively dark pieces that are didactic or oppressive. I guess what we need is meaningful villains, or entertaining ones that shine with mischief and play. I am also thinking of Tove Janson’s stories and the profound sadness in them, the dealing with melancholy and suffering they transcend with their beauty. Am tending to emphasis early encounters with villainy in children’s literature here but the same holds true of adult writing.

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