Good villains do not believe that they are villainous, rather they have profound rationalizations as to why they commit evil acts. Oftentimes, those rationalizations can be relatable, as ordinary people, even the heroes themselves, might have the same problems. The major difference is that the heroes have no need to rationalize their actions, since they are already given a purpose by the plot itself and the readers are already on their side, whether if it is for the common good or justice. The villain, however, must make their case if they are to move the audience even slightly. I came to that epiphany after reading the end of Stav Sherez’s noir novel A Dark Redemption. It made me think about all the other instances throughout popular culture where there are villains who have a reason for being. While there are one-dimensional villains who have shallow motivations, there are most definitely villains who have a sense of humanity about them, which plenty of the most famous works of literature and film have taken advantage of.
In this way, seductive evil can operate within the plot as a means of raising the stakes of the story when it comes to the protagonists. Even they would raise the possibility of becoming a turncloak. This was a recurring theme in the Star Wars film series in the Skywalker saga. It was used by Palpatine when tempting Anakin to join the Dark Side in order to save his wife from dying in childbirth, and tempting Luke to kill his father and take his place as the Emperor’s new head commander. In those instances, the powers of evil are often used to monopolize the solutions that protagonists are looking for to rectify their problems. So, power can be used to leverage how the characters make their choices, which does make them gravitate towards evil, especially when the conflicts within their own stories involve not having any power or control over any circumstance.
As for how gender is the main conflict in the old films noir, the women, who would be known as the femme fatales, would be sensually dominant when trying to lure men into committing their crimes. The most relevant way this was shown was in the film Double Indemnity where Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwick, convinces an insurance salesman, played by Fred MacMurray, a man no one would suspect of murder, to kill her husband and collect his insurance money.
Evil can show physical strength but also psychological strength. The latter provides an incredibly seismic move in the characterization, since it allows the interpersonal connection between the protagonists and the antagonists. Though it can be a cliché, like in the “You and I are not so different” cliché, which originated in the films Headhunter and the 2002 remake Red Dragon, it has plenty of potential when writing a good story. The protagonists do need intricate characterizations but so do the villains.
In The Last Jedi, there is Kylo Ren’s temptation of Rey which is more rooted in intimacy. Indeed, there can be moments when the protagonist may not only have a connection with the antagonist, but in a more personal level. In William Shakespeare’s lesser known play Coriolanus, a general of the Roman Republic devotes his life to preserving the safety of Rome which conflicts with his undying hatred of Tullus Aufidius, the warlord of the Volsces, because he withholds the grain from the population in order to feed his army in their relentless conquest. Since both Martius and Aufidius share similarities, such as being military men with a passionate hatred toward the other, this results in the dramatic shift that Martius has in the climax of the play when he leaves Rome and chooses to serve under his former nemesis.
Although Martius was among the most powerful patricians in the play, Shakespeare was particularly known for creating believable villains who were already outsiders in the first place, either because of ethnicity or disability. In William Shakespeare’s controversial play Merchant of Venice, Antonio agreed to wager his pound of flesh to the Jewish money-lender Shylock if his argosies do not arrive with his money. Shylock pondered whether he should lend Antonio money when he kicks and spits at him, insults him, and undermines his business by lending out money for free which causes the Venetians to go to Antonio rather than Shylock. Amidst this animosity, Shylock remarks “Why look how you storm!” when hearing that Antonio would agree to this wager, even when he said that he would gladly abuse him again. In this way, Shylock respects his nemesis’ boldness and in some way sees himself in Antonio because Shylock also proves to be ruthless in the play. So a way that a villain can be alluring to the protagonist is not only when that villain has something that the protagonist wants, but also when they share similarities, such as personalities.
When villains resort to these types of temptations, they make the protagonists more vulnerable than any physical harm they could do. These temptations might also include the protagonists’ desires. Psychological power especially plays a role in the Lord of the Rings series, since Sauron and Saruman are effective in being able to manipulate the characters in this way. In Sauron’s case, the Ring of Power and the Palantir stone have enough power to drive characters mad, whether they include a lowly miser like Gollum or a king. Even the protagonists are easily seduced by Sauron and it is for that reason why Gandalf stated that Sauron is the Lord of the Rings, hence the title of the series. Saruman is unique in that he is manipulative by his words. It is definitely impossible to imagine Christopher Lee talking in a grandfatherly voice from the Tower of Orthanc.
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, what made Mr. Kurtz so prominent among the African tribesmen, even as he places decapitated heads on pikes, is his rhetoric. When Marlowe and his crew come upon the Russian, he talks in detail about Mr. Kurtz, as he both admires and fears him. Marlowe explained that even he was moved by the “august benevolence” in Mr. Kurtz’s letter since he motivated people into believing that by embarking on the ivory trade and expanding the British Empire, they are bringing civilization of the natives. Of course, Mr. Kurtz’s real goal was to rule tyrannically over the Congolese tribes. He also utilizes persuasive rhetoric in his letters where he makes a post-script declaring that brutes should be killed. Indeed, the idea of an “august benevolence” would be easily taken advantage of by the other characters when they are hypnotized by the villain.
This idea of seductive evil also plays an incredibly huge role in the Abrahamic religions, since Satan can only lure worshippers away from God by tempting them into sin. The Jews believe in that this phenomenon is called yetzer hara, which means “evil inclination.” When referring to how Satan allures people in the Islamic interpretation, the word waswas is used which means “suggestion.” The idea that committing is something that can be inclined towards or suggested is a powerful way of encapsulating the idea of sin that is willingly participated in by individuals with free agency, since it is not just evil in its substance but is also alluring enough to cause worshippers to backslide. In the Temptation of Jesus Christ, Satan approaches him and tempts him to join him by offering him the kingdoms of the world.
Whether it is rooted in religion or in media, the concept of an alluring villain can truly raise the stakes of the story. Even Disney was not immune from making villains with varying degrees of justifications for their actions. They would not do so if they did not make the stories more interesting. In order to keep the reader’s attention, it would be best to give the villains a sense of relatability.
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