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Every Fairy Tale Needs a Good Old-Fashioned Villain

September 23, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Written by V. E. Schwab

“Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain.”

—Jim Moriarty, Sherlock (BBC)

Ah, villains.

The word brings to mind maniacal laughter, megalomania, mad scientists, and men in suits (some three-piece and others spandex). Whether after world domination or revenge, or simply looking to cause chaos, we’ve always loved to hate our villains.

But recently, it seems, we’ve changed. Now, we love to love them. We root for them. We relish their on-screen time, their monologues; we savor their darkness, their arrogance, their give-no-&%*#@ attitude. Villains have become our heroes. Or at least our rock stars.

For a while, our appetites were satisfied with the antihero, but our tastes have darkened.

Sure, Hollywood has been recasting classic villains as more nuanced and more sympathetic versions of themselves (see: Magneto in X-Men: Origins) but sometimes, they’re just as bad as they’ve always been. Often, they’re worse. Sicker, more twisted. And more fun.

While Thor’s Loki was cut of a more sympathetic cloth, the Loki we see in The Avengers is all villain and relishing the role. And while his explanations possess his usual poetry, his motives are as classic as they come. World Domination. Power. Revenge.

The meteoric rise of Marvel’s Asgardian outcast — I’ve personally renamed the upcoming Thor sequel, “Loki 2” — is the latest in a new trend: the villain as more than counterpoint. The villain as star.

In the BBC’s Sherlock, Moriarty embraces his villainy, swinging wildly between manic and calculating, supplying us with evil laughs and whispered threats and coy, knowing, one-step-ahead-of-you smiles.

And the fans go wild.

Dr. Horrible may exist in a cheerier vein — or at least a more musical one — but Joss Whedon’s villain origin story perfectly represents the shift from love to hate, from love to love. Neil Patrick Harris’s underdog villain-to-be is undoubtedly the hero, while the “hero” is painted as a hollow, arrogant, ultimately worthless man. Someone to be mocked, not idolized.

Whether the new breed of villain remains firmly ensconced in the antagonist role or steals the protagonist’s spot, they are certainly evolving. Heroes must change, too, stepping farther into the light of good, or, more popularly, into the shadows with the bad.

We have to wonder, looking forward, whether “hero” and “villain” will cease to be synonymous with “good” and “evil”, and simply come to denote which side of a fight you’re on.

That was the seed for Vicious. This revenge tale follows two pre-med students turned super-powered criminals — one erroneously labeled a “hero,” the other a “villain,” since their aims are at odds — and begs the question: when the terms become meaningless, who do you root for?

Vicious may be set in a world without heroes, but there are plenty of villains to go around. They don’t wear capes, or indulge in maniacal laughs — okay, maybe a chuckle or two — but between the ones you’ll love to hate and the ones you might just love, there’s a breed of bad for everyone.


From the Tor/Forge September 23rd newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.


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  1. September 23, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Well-written book, Ms. Schwab. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. Lee
    September 23, 2013 at 11:50 am

    So. Just wow, this introduction is so well done, I must try the book. Excellent essay, well-done!

  3. September 24, 2013 at 12:27 am

    “I am Loki, of third billing, and I am burdened with glorious scene-stealing.” 😀

    As someone who has rooted for the bad guys ever since I read Peter Pan as a child, I approve of this trend. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the book.

  4. September 24, 2013 at 12:48 am

    Oh, yes … Moriarty is one of the best villains ever 🙂 Great post!

  5. September 27, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    This is a GREAT article! I think one of the hardest challenges now for writers is to create a complex villain. I’d be flattered if you took a look at a poem I wrote for the NaPoWriMo challenge of writing from a villains’ P.O.V.: http://jellysideupblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/persona-poem-villains-p-o-v/

  1. September 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm
  2. September 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm
  3. October 10, 2013 at 10:57 pm

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