Dennis O’Neil: Be A Villain
A lovely person with whom I once shared a wedge of life told me that the bad guys in my stories didn’t get really mean until I began having frequent encounters with a colleague who would never have gotten even close to my Christmas card list had I been the kind of guy who sends Christmas cards. And later I shifted part of the writer’s duty, the part that dealt with antagonists, to the editor while I pleasured myself with parts of the continuity that, at the time, I found more interesting.
Shame on me.
You may have heard it: the hero is only as good as the villain. Grant that there may be a taste of oversimplification in there somewhere, and then grant that the statement is true. Put Superman against a pickpocket? Batman against a jaywalker? Spider-Man against a graffiti artist? You’re not squirming in anticipation of those stories, are you? There’s not much conflict or drama – not much entertainment value – in a blatantly uneven contest. The powers and abilities of both halves of the story equation – good guy/bad guy – should be roughly equal and if you’re going to give an edge to one side, give it to the heavy; we do like to cheer for the underdog, don’t we?
Maybe my friend was right about the colleague. If so, I don’t know why. Maybe I needed some sort of emotional jolt, which the colleague generously supplied. Or maybe I was too involved with the plotting, as opposed to the charactering, of the stories. Maybe I wasn’t as involved in my craft as I should have been. Maybe my sun sign was not aligned with my moon sign and when that happens…run for the hills? Or maybe I was getting a preview of how I might feel in, oh, say – forty years later?: that is, now.
I’m not churning out as much fantasy-melodrama as I once did, but if I were, villains might be a problem. Time was that the baddies existed only to give he hero grief and if the baddie discharged that duty, enough said and well done! Some people are just nasty: case closed. But the best popular fiction now gives the evildoers just about the same degree of motivation and personality as is bestowed upon the good guys. And at a certain level, it’s becoming hard for me to really believe in villainy – that is actions that serve only to rain on someone’s parade. A really good writer – Shakespeare, say – can do a bad guy whose core seems to be sheer malevolence – and make the narrative work. But we aren’t all Shakespeare.
My problem is, I no longer believe in villainy. I believe in ignorance and, to borrow an idea from my days as a Catholic, some of it is invincible ignorance and the invincibly ignorant will hold onto their ignorance until ten seconds after they’re breathed their last. But they’re not infected with some spiritual toxin that makes men slimeys. They’re ignorant.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who is as close to a saint as anyone I know of, says that, given different circumstances he would have become a river pirate instead of a monk.
I look back on eight and a half decades and see myself doing plenty of ratty stuff. But I didn’t do it because I was a villain and, in the moment, I either rationalized my acts or simply didn’t deal with their moral implications. I guess what I did might fit some definitions of ignorance.
But “ignorance” doesn’t have the same dramatic heft as “evil,” does it?