The Storybook Villain

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So I’m twelve chapters into my sequel and something is bothering me—there is no obvious villain in the story. Or should I say I still haven’t decided who, among the many characters, I want to assign the role to.

Literature is littered with too many cases of cardboard villains who, for reasons unknown, have decided to exist solely for the pleasure of thwarting or doing harm to the protagonist. These days, however, it’s hardly enough to be a baddie, just because. One’s gotta be a good baddie, complete with a credible backstory, unjustifiable yet understandable motivations, a dangerous but persuasive personality, an underlying vulnerability, and so on.

Given the implications, and how I’ve grown to care deeply about every single character, no matter how minor or major a part they play in the story, I’m going back and forth on several possible scenarios. Even the possibility that the baddie is everyone and no one.

Stop overthinking it, just write, I tell myself. But to pull off a convincing showdown between opposing forces, I first have to be convinced—and I’m struggling with the struggle because I’m a toughass critic when it comes to these things.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to have a villain simply for the sake of having a villain, especially the sort that everybody loves to hate. And then I wonder, more generally: in life, do we even need villains in order to overcome obstacles? Granted there are many irritating people in our lives who’ve made difficult situations almost unbearable—but are they the issue itself or just the catalyst that forces us to face a more significant, pre-existing problem?

Pondering on the subject of villains has got me a little introspective, I’ll have to admit. Revisiting my history of run-ins with ‘baddies’—and dredging up memories that are tied to specific times and places—has not been easy. Also, in order for me to reframe these unpleasant individuals within a larger narrative, a fair bit of reconditioning is involved.

That’s been an interesting exercise, to say the least.

As I unpacked my memories (especially ones I’d much rather forget) and reconsidered their place within my mental catalog, I was able to detach them from the emotions that went with the particular encounters. As a result, many horrible people of my past started to look less like the powerful and enigmatic villains I’d made them out to be, and more like, well, people. Yes, they were manipulative, calculating, opportunistic, and mean-spirited, but still just people.

And as I examined the various instances in which various ‘baddies’ made my life hell, I noticed that my fears and insecurities—and how I responded to them—were a common thread.

These same fears and insecurities were the real villains, whose rules everyone played by, me and my tormentors included. The ‘bad guys’ only won because they recognized this fact, and I didn’t. As a result, even if I believed myself to be on the side of ‘good,’ I lost. Every single time.

As someone who grew up reading any book she could get her hands on, and being thoroughly acquainted with every storybook villain imaginable, I always assumed the bad guys came to bad endings. The evil character was always, always vanquished, no matter how seemingly weak the protagonist was. Because that’s how it is in fiction. Good always wins.

But frankly, since I began to write my own books, this whole villain conundrum has made me think twice. Why did I always assume a novel’s main character was ‘good’ just because they narrated the story, and that the antagonist was someone outside themselves?

So what happens if the villain lies both without and within? I guess I’ll have to keep writing to find out.

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