#InkRipples: Why I’ve always been drawn to villains

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This week I’m joining the wonderful Mary Waibel, Kai Strand, and Katie L. Carroll for this month’s #InkRipples challenge, and we’re talking about heroes & villains. Those of you who follow me on the social medias (@DiannaLGunn on Twitter or d_l_gunn on Instagram) won’t be surprised that I’ve chosen to focus on the villains. You see, I’ve always been drawn to them. Villains fascinate me, and often I find myself empathizing more with them than with the heroes.

Today we’re going to talk about why.

The complexity we don’t allow our heroes

Originally this was going to be a list post, but as I brainstormed I realized all the items boiled down to one thing: complexity. Villains–and even minor antagonists–are often allowed a level of complexity our heroes simply aren’t.

I suspect this is a side effect of trying to make our heroes someone people want to cheer for. We want people to flock to these heroes, to respect and admire them, to read book after book after book about them. We know they’re supposed to be flawed, but they’re also supposed to be likable.  So we give them a single major flaw and construct an otherwise perfect personality (and body) around it. They’re only allowed to mess up when it’s relevant to the plot in a major way. Any other mistakes are buried in their past and haunt them on a daily basis, giving us the Tortured Hero effect everyone seems to love.

This is particularly prevalent among heroes who happen to be women. To earn their place in our stories, women have to be ten times better than any men around. As male heroes become more varied, women are consistently pushed into the unfeeling “strong” character trope. But these women go beyond near-impossible (or outright impossible if they have powers) physical strength and athleticism. They’re also expected to be brilliant, compassionate people with unfailing morals. Often their main character arc is learning to love again after trauma, and that inability to love is their core flaw. It’s a tired narrative that nobody actually seems to be tired of.

Villains, on the other hand, are allowed to be incredibly complex. They are charismatic in spite of their many flaws. They often won’t compromise on their morals either, but those morals are skewed. Many villains are deeply wounded people struggling with old trauma. Others were raised by terrible people who trained them to be villains. Some simply have no internal sense of compassion or morality. Whatever the reason, they are deeply flawed people. And yet they are also incredibly strong people, strong enough to challenge our near-perfect heroes.

As someone who is deeply flawed, I’ve always found these characters easier to connect with. I’ve used much of my trauma as a catalyst for positive change, but I understand how it can warp a person beyond all recognition. And even though I’m cheering for the hero, I’m still devastated when the villain dies. Unless it’s Joffrey Baratheon, then I cheer. Loudly. But I digress…

Many of the best villains also happen to be women, or queer coded.  In other words, they’re my people. And for a long time, the only strong characters with these identities were villains. So we flocked to them, and we cheer louder for their victories, because we see ourselves in them.

Today antiheroes are becoming enormously popular, and even regular heroes are given more room to be flawed, but it’s often still the villains I find myself rooting for.

<b>Do you usually cheer for the villains or the heroes? Know any great books with deeply flawed heroes that I might like? Let me know in the comments section below!</b>

6 thoughts on “#InkRipples: Why I’ve always been drawn to villains

  1. I have always been drawn to the villain as well. Maybe because my life has been full of bland niceties. Maybe because I have no horror story of my own to tell. I don’t know. I’m thankful for my simple existence – don’t get me wrong – but it sure wouldn’t make for a blockbuster story!

    • Post Author dlgunn

      Seems we might be attracted to villains for different reasons 🙂 I’ve DEFINITELY lived at least one movie.

  2. Such a great post! It is so true that we allow villains to be more complex because we want our heros to be “good” I think every hero needs a touch of villain.

  3. Angelique Stefanelli

    Hi Dianna, fantastic post! I completely agree with you on all those points… seems like heroes are almost held up on a pedestal and their “flaws” are there only to serve the purpose of making them even more perfect. I’ve always been drawn to the villains/antagonists, precisely because, to me at least, they seem far more complex and “realistic” than the Everyman hero/heroine. I can’t relate to them… but give me a good villain and I’m rooting for him/her ’til the end!
    The only book(s) I can really remember reading where I could actually relate to the main character was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon.” Great read all the way around, if you haven’t checked it out already.
    Plus, don’t know how you feel about sword-and-sorcery/D&D novels, but if you like super flawed heroes who are pretty much antagonists themselves, there’s a series that might fit the bill. As a young teen, I fell in love with the original DragonLance series. Not because of its fantastic writing (sarcasm! Lol), but because it was the first ever book I’d read with a complex, completely flawed and tortured antihero among the cast of main characters that I could actually deeply relate to (don’t know what that says about me, but that’s besides the point…). This character actually became my primary muse and still impacts me and my writing to this day.
    I’ve also heard that the novel Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock features a tortured antihero but I haven’t read it myself.
    Sorry for the super lengthy post, I just wanted to share these with you in the hopes that you might find some of them interesting or to your liking. As a fellow lover of villains and antiheroes, I know only too well how difficult it can be to find a novel with relatable characters.
    Happy Reading!

    • Post Author dlgunn

      Thanks for your lengthy & thoughtful comment! I do frequently LIKE main characters, just rarely as much as I like the villains.

      The Tearling Trilogy, which I read recently, had a very compelling MC who was allowed to make mistakes, and it was like a breath of fresh air (that culminated in The Most Disappointing Ending Ever, but that’s another story).

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