The Villian becomes the Hero

I’ve recently branched out to reading more fiction. In particular, thrillers. Which, if you know me, you may not believe the previous sentence. I’m a weeny. I’ve been a weeny since I was 2 years old hiding under the bed of my neighbor’s dad because I was scared of him, for no apparent reason other than he was an adult male. 

Fast forward many years, and I’m finally getting the point where I can handle a bit of a thriller, under my conditions. No science fiction and no paranormal. That unknown shit really messes with me.

My first book: YOU by Caroline Kepnes. 

I’m Audible customer, so 99% of all the books I complete are audiobooks. Yes, I can read, but I can’t sit still long enough to make it through a whole chapter. Sad, but true. 

As I listened to YOU, I found myself identifying with the narrator/main character. He was real, he was honest, he was a cynic. I was annoyed when he was annoyed with certain other characters for being pretentious about books and beers and club soda. I was on his team.

When it occurred to me that this person is a sociopath and I probably shouldn’t be rooting for him, I wondered if there was something to that. 

I’m watching MadMen now too. Same sort of deal. Don Draper isn’t a villain but he’s not exactly the hero type. I find myself rooting for him. It doesn’t hurt that he’s charismatic and good looking. But when his secretary thinks that her one night stand with him was something more than that I think, “She knows him. She knew what she was getting into.”

This seems to be a relatively new story trend. We’re all familiar with hero’s journey: Hero is normal, hero finds flaw/problem, hero struggles with flaw, hero finds sidekick or mentor to help him deal with flaw, hero overcomes flaw. Hero becomes stronger than before. Maybe we’re bored with the hero’s journey, it’s predictable. It’s common. Even my 8 year old notices: “Mommy, the good guy always wins.”

This is the villain’s journey. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel after watching/reading a villain’s journey. Mostly, I feel confused, maybe worried, mad. Definitely not the feelings I get after a hero’s journey, renewed, relieved, resolved.

In a villain’s journey, the villain starts out with all the power and he declines through the story and oftentimes, ends up a pile of mush at the end. We are showed the villain’s back story so we can emphasize, maybe identify, with him, why he’s such a lunatic. (Read: Don Draper’s awful childhood and Maleficent’s stollen wings). Sometimes we think, “he’s doing awful things but for good reasons” (Read: Ray Donovan).

While it sometimes feels wrong, it’s fun to watch the villain story unfold. We want to know what horrible thing made them who they are. It’s less predictable. We’ve seen the hero’s story and we know it by heart. The Villain’s Story is mysterious and new to us. 

That’s all it is. This entire post basically justifies my identification with the sociopath in YOU, with the narcissist in Don Draper, the vigilante in Ray Donovan, and with the vengeful Maleficent.

We’re not evil for empathizing with a seemingly human response to evil. We’re all human. (Except Maleficent is a fairy… but you get the idea.)

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