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Bad Guys: Does a Villain Have to Be Evil?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

And the winner of the drawing is . . . DEBORAH! She’ll be receiving a signed copy of Stand-In Groom.

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Yesterday we determined that villains are always antagonists, but antagonists aren’t always villains; and the difference is motivation/intent. An antagonist can be in opposition to the hero without meaning to; the villain sets out to be in opposition to the hero. A villain willfully chooses to try to stop the protagonist from achieving his/her goals.

I gave these examples yesterday in the comments, but wanted to share them again, because I think they fully illustrate this concept without having to delve into the realm of murderers and chainsaw users just yet.

Let’s look at the movies The Wedding Planner and My Best Friend’s Wedding not from the point of view through which the movies are told, but through the point of view of the fiancées.

The Wedding Planner My Best Friend’s Wedding
Protagonist: Fran (Bridgette Wilson) Protagonist: Kimberly (Cameron Diaz)
Fiancé: Steve (Matthew McConaughey) Fiancé: Michael (Dermott Mulroney)
Antagonist: Mary (Jennifer Lopez) Antagonist: Julianne (Julia Roberts)


These two movies are set up to make the viewer believe that Fran and Kimberly are the antagonists, but that’s not actually true. Let’s look at these stories from Fran’s and Kimberly’s perspectives. Fran and Kimberly were going about their lives and fell in love: Fran with Steve, Kimberly with Michael. They get engaged. Fran decides to hire a wedding planner; Kimberly agrees to Michael’s request to have his best friend serve as his best man in their wedding. Enter the antagonists: Mary, the wedding planner, and Julianne, the “best friend.”

Even with as much as I didn’t like the way The Wedding Planner ended (thus the whole reason for writing Stand-In Groom), I have to hand it to Mary . . . she did not become a villain in this story. Mary, our unsuspecting, unlucky-in-love wedding planner, is rescued by a handsome doctor who seems to her like he might be “the one.” Until she lands the biggest wedding contract of her career . . . and discovers he’s the groom. Even though she’s still attracted to him, she fights against it—she does not want to break up this engaged couple. Fran, who’s blissfully unaware that there’s anything going on between Steve and Mary, even asks Mary for advice on her wedding day, wanting reassurance that she’s not making a mistake. Our antagonist comforts Fran and paints a beautiful picture of what Fran and Steve’s life together will be like. Fran, then, gets to make the decision as to whether or not to marry Steve—without the antagonist having tried to influence her to make the decision to give Steve up. Mary, in this case, is an antagonist without being a villain, because it is not her intention to thwart our heroine (Fran) in her goal to marry Steve. Just the opposite, it is her intention to help Fran get what she wants. However, Mary is unwittingly the antagonist simply because it’s Steve’s falling in love with Mary (and she with him) that ends up thwarting Fran’s goal.

On the other hand, when Julianne gets a phone call from her best friend—the one with whom she has the “age guarantee” marriage plans (“If we’re both not married by X age, let’s tie the knot”)—and finds out he’s getting married, her first thought is that she has to go there . . . not to wish him well and privately mourn the loss of this guarantee and the necessary change in their relationship but to break up the engagement and get Michael for herself. And it’s not really because she’s in love with Michael. MBFWIt’s because she feels possessive and jealous—and rejected because he’s given his romantic affections to someone she feels isn’t worthy of him (without knowing Kimberly at all at this point). Once she arrives in Chicago, she does everything she can to make Michael draw negative comparisons about Kimberly against herself. She also tries to make Kimberly focus on all the negative things about Michael. Then she gets even more devious by trying to sabotage Michael’s job with Kimberly’s father. Kimberly welcomed Julianne into her home, treated her like family—maybe even better than family—and made an effort to try to get to know Julianne without any hangups of jealousy over Julianne’s longstanding relationship with Michael. And how does Julianne repay her? By embarrassing Kimberly at the karaoke bar. By trying to make Michael turn against her. By trying to ruin her feelings for Michael. Julianne is a villain in almost every sense of the word. Her actions are calculated and malicious—even though the movie portrays them in a humorous manner. She is motivated by jealousy and greed (she wants to possess Michael very much the same way Gollum wants to possess the One Ring). And she doesn’t repent of these actions until Michael discovers what she’s been up to and she is threatened with never having any kind of relationship with him ever again. Of course the betrayer is going to repent when she faces losing what it is she really wants, even if it means she has to retrench and settle for less than what she’d hoped for.

But is Julianne evil? While Kimberly might think so when she discovers what Julianne’s done, we, as more objective viewers, can see that while Julianne is misguided and driven by jealousy, she’s not truly an evil person. She’s driven more by fear than anything—fear of change, fear of loss. So while, yes, the dictionary definition of the word villain includes the terms cruel and evil, connotatively in fiction, a villain can be a villain without being an evil or cruel person. It all comes down to the choices they make, and in this case, a villain is a person who consciously chooses to work against the protagonist. It’s our job to determine what their motivation is to figure out if they’re truly evil or not.

For Discussion:
From how I’ve illustrated the differences between these two characters, can you think of some “villain” characters who aren’t necessarily “evil”?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sylvia permalink
    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 2:36 pm

    I have read a very few books where the antagonist is someone very likable that even the heroine actually likes. It actually makes sense. Think about it. Why would you want to date/marry someone that has made a bad choice in a fiancee before you or is currently dating someone catty, mean, stuck-up, etc.? What does that say about the hero?

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  2. Wednesday, August 26, 2009 8:46 pm

    I’m going to use the first person that came to my mind and that’s Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice. She’s not evil, I’d say she’s just looking out for her own interests by marrying a wealthy man who just happens to be Darcy. So in looking out for her best interests she tries to grab Darcy’s attention away from Lizzie whenever she can. She does consciously make the decision to work against really not just Lizzie and her family, but the entire countryside by putting them all down whenever she can. I never liked her but I thought she was sooo pretty in the 2005 movie version and I was envious of her red gown ( I HAD to add that as I have an obsession with period clothing)!! She may just be one of my favorite villains!

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  3. Wednesday, August 26, 2009 10:34 pm

    I have to agree with Renee that one of my favorite villains is Caroline Bingley (of course, most of my favorite characters come from that book – lol). You could argue for Lady Catherine as well. She went out of her way to try and thwart the plans of others in order to put her own into place – and pretty much ignored anyone’s feelings but her own. In a twist of irony, it was her actions that led to the hope that Darcy still had a chance.

    In another book I recently read they used another “dark” character to lead us to believe he was a villain. Rocderick Marlow from Julie Klassen’s The Apothocary’s Daughter, seems to try and belittle, frighten and put down our leading lady time and time again – only to later rescue her when she is later out in society. This confuses her and makes him a more interesting character. What does he really want and who is he really?

    I only hope to one day write those kinds of complex characters that interest people and keep them guessing.

    Thank you for these great articles, Kaye.

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  4. Wednesday, August 26, 2009 10:49 pm

    Hmm. What about Jud from Oklahoma? He’s not necessarily a “bad” guy…kinda not-so-nice and definately caveman type, but hey, it’s ten at night and my brain’s dead 😉 …in the end, yes, he tries to kill Curly and Laurie, but he starts out as just a lovesick swain. I don’t know, though, the more I think about it…

    Um…I’m reading through the new series by Karen Kingsbury. Just finished Take Two. The two guys who are pulling Bailey’s heart two ways seem to be this way. Likes one…then the other comes in. Then the other…then the other…both are awesome guys, but they’re creating conflict.

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  5. Hope Nobel permalink
    Thursday, August 27, 2009 2:24 pm

    mmmm…this may be an unpopular choice, but I’m going to say Ashley in Gone With the Wind. The guy makes me insane with his “gentlemanly” forbearance which amounts to a lie. Scarlett has convinced herself that he has feelings for her, and chases him at every turn; he doesn’t have feelings for her, but what does Ashley do? The sensible thing, tell her that he’s married to her friend and loves his wife, thereby setting her free? Oh no, he lets her dribble on after him for most of the movie…
    That being said, Scarlett always makes me wonder if it’s possible to be both the protagonist and the antagonist, because she’s definitely her own worst enemy.

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    • Thursday, August 27, 2009 2:34 pm

      I’m wondering the same thing. He (Ashley) is the one who causes all the tension in the plot. I’d say he was the antagonist. But that’s just my PO.

      And I’m wondering the same thing about Scarlett as well.

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