What Makes A Villain A Master

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Villains seem to have every advantage over a hero. They’ve got the gadgets, the lairs, the political power, the intellectual edge. Often, they’re even more popular than the heroes themselves. But villains have yet another advantage over their do-gooding rivals: villains have already completed the journey that the heroes have to struggle with for an entire book.

 

The terms I will use to describe this idea derive from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which is a name that should get you Star Wars fans salivating. For those unaware, Campbell’s book outlines and breaks down popular stories, told once in myth and now told in movies and dreams, into reoccurring elements. If someone described a scene to you as a character stuck “in The Belly of The Whale” or made mention of a protagonist’s “Atonement With The Father,” then they’re quoting this book. Not all these elements are required for a story (and Campbell often cites an entire myth when discussing just one category), but the majority of the “epics” will loosely follow Campbell’s structure even if they don’t follow Campbell’s order of progression.

In simplified terms, Campbell’s “monomyth” charts out the hero leaving his world (can be as small as a village or as big as Tatooine), overcoming physical and emotional trials in the next realm, then returning to his world as a fully realized man. At the “Master of Two Worlds” part of the myth, said hero can pass through both the world where he was born and the realm where he proved himself with no effort. He has become the Cosmic Man, aware of the universe’s infinite possibilities by the self-annihilation of his former self. Often, the “Two Worlds” at play at this point in a story are the external world and the internal world of a hero. Campbell cites the transfiguration of Jesus when discussing this stage, but you’d get a similar idea out of Neo stopping the bullets or the hobbits defeating Sharkey.

That’s all well for the heroes at the end of their journey. What I’m arguing is that some of literature’s most memorable villains start out as Masters of Two Worlds.

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Not him.

This idea came to me while I was reading The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter, stuck in his cage during both Silence and Red Dragon, is an ace in two departments. He’s an expert when analyzing the minds of psychotic killers (and he would probably tell me that I used “psychotic” in the wrong context there). Indeed, the heroes seek his magnificent advice when it comes to the serial murderers still at large. But Lecter’s not only better than the heroes at playing cops and robbers. While Will Graham and Clarice Starling both wrestle with insincere reporters and negative public opinion, Lecter has the entertainment and news worlds under his bloodstained thumb. He receives fan letters, he creates a stir whenever he publishes a paper… he even convinced someone to let him co-author a cookbook. I’m sure that whatever publishing company allowed that to happen only let it slide because their entire P.R. Department had been stabbed to death the week before. The point is, the heroes in these Thomas Harris novels struggle to understand killers and only have the edge against their targets because they have society on their side. Lecter knows everything happening in the inner worlds of the murderers, and he doesn’t have to give up any love from the real world to do so (granted, the people who jailed Lecter don’t have much love for him, but you can’t fool all the people all the time).

Many other literary villains can claim the title “Master of Two Worlds.” Alex (A Clockwork Orange) terrorizes the streets every night when the novel begins, yet his otherwise-upstanding-citizens-for-parents continue to give him the benefit of the doubt. Moriarty is smart enough to work in a university, and he’s deranged enough to dedicate his best efforts towards crime. Patrick Bateman smiles while on Wall Street, but grins with an axe in his hand. Count Dracula: a common wealthy aristocrat in the world of the living, an unstoppable terror in the world of the dead. And the Joker, for someone on that level of insanity, seems to function better and plan smarter than most of D.C.’s “sane” villains. Hell, just saying “Jekyll and Hyde” to you proves my point better than anything. These characters are all masters at the terrible crimes they commit in the external world. As for the internal world of these characters… well, I’ll ask you, have you ever seen these characters second-guess themselves or regret their actions?

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He made his lambs stop screaming.

The above catalogue isn’t an exhaustive list of every villain ever. Even when brainstorming this topic, I argued with myself on whether to include Iago (Othello), O’Brien (1984), or Satan (Paradise Lost) in the previous paragraph. And the example villains I’ve chosen, while few would deny them their prestige and place in popular culture, are all a specific type. They put on a successful, charming, even enviable persona while in public, while spending their time in the shadows preying on the innocent in progressively bloodier ways. There are more villains than that kind in the world… but this kind of villain sure is popular. And the “Master of Two Worlds” element explains why.

“Master of Two Worlds” isn’t as clear-cut as “she fits well in one environment and she can also fit in well in a different environment.” When a hero reaches the “Master” stage of a journey, then they’re supposed to have transcended their personal limitations and have seen an open universe of possibilities. Concerning some of the villains I’ve listed, it’s unclear whether they were bad right from the beginning of their lives. The hero’s beginning matters; it’s why character growth is an important part of storytelling nowadays, since it shows that the hero has given up their past selves. Villains, by contrast, aren’t limited by their past selves. When it comes to personality, these villains aren’t limited by anything. Usually, by the “Master of Two Worlds” section in a story, the hero has overcome a personal flaw like, say, anxiety, or loneliness, or a shitty sword arm. Villains have not only overcome limitations that keep them succeeding in society, but they’ve also prevailed against pesky barriers like society’s law against robbery, or their personal discomfort in sawing a man’s leg off using the man’s other leg and some of the man’s teeth.

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The Hero’s Journey describes a man leaving his society, gaining wisdom from the outside world, and returning home as a superior man. Villains only pretend to return home as a superior human: they come back as far less human, but far, far superior. These villains are exactly what every hero wants to be, just taken to a logical and frightening extreme. Yes, this observation doesn’t apply to every villain. At the same time, Hyde and Dracula are common popular shorthand for horror, while Grendel’s mother and Ambrosio from The Monk are known mostly by literary students. Voldemort and The White Witch amass huge amounts of power in their respective books, but they’ll never be able to scare people the same way a simple duplicitous serial killer can scare millions (no matter how many awkward hugs and Turkish delights they give out). Much like HAL9000, these master villains are exemplars of human achievement that our heroes must both strive to become like and strike down as soon as they can.

At the end of their stories, the heroes will achieve the ultimate goal of a character. They stop being human. And now it’s easier for them to become monsters.

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Happy Halloween.

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