My poor muse. She got bored tempting me to write a post about fruitcake, and went off to hang out with some of my characters. She came running back, whimpering, diving beneath the throw blanket on the sofa.
I got out of my recliner and walked over. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I thought they were nice villains,” she wailed.
Nice? None of my villains are nice, especially the last one I wrote. “Who did you talk to?”
She peeked out from beneath the blanket. “You know.”
I named several villains.
“Yes.” She covered her head.
“Why on earth would you think they were nice?” I said.
My muse sniffed, and blew her nose.
“I hope what wasn’t on the blanket,” I said.
“Some of your villains became heroes, and these seemed so nice when I talked with them before, but tonight-” she shuddered.
I sighed. “All right: come out from under the blanket. It’s time we had a talk about antagonists and villains.”
She peered out from beneath the blanket with a dubious look. “You?”
“Isn’t there someone else I can talk to? Maybe, someone who knows what they’re doing?”
“Being you’re an imaginary personification of inspiration, no,” I said.
She sighed and crawled out from beneath the blanket, taking a seat on the sofa.
“You know that stories must have some sort of conflict, right?” I said.
“Duh, or it’s not a story.”
“Okay: that means the protagonist must have someone or something in opposition.”
“The antagonist,” she said.
I nodded. “That’s right. The antagonist can be a storm, on an-” I paused.
“What?” she said.
“I was going to say animal, but an animal can also be a villain.”
She gave me a disdainful look. “Any antagonist is the villain.”
“Really? Let’s say there’s an earthquake, and a character has to make it to safety. Is the earthquake a villain?”
She opened her mouth, then paused before she said “No.”
“Now let’s say he’s an agoraphobic, and has to overcome his fear of being in the open. Is his condition a villain?”
“No,” she said.
“But these are examples of antagonists, right?”
“Right,” she said.
“Now, suppose I write a story from the point of view of a serial killer trying to evade a detective.”
She glared at me. “Don’t you dare.”
“Don’t worry. There’s serious ‘ick’ in making an evil person a protagonist, and I’m not skillful enough to pull that off.”
“That’s never stopped you from writing.”
“Be that as it may, if the villain is a protagonist, then the hero is the antagonist.”
She looked at me like her head hurt. “But-”
“No, a villain is not always the antagonist, just as all enemies are not villains.
“If you’re going to say what I think you are, don’t. Someone would invoke a corollary of Godwin’s Law.”
She crossed her arms. “Like anyone’s going to read this.”
“My point is that you can’t automatically assume the antagonist is a villain.”
She unfolded her arms and placed her hands on the sofa. “I get that. Then what makes a villain?”
“A villain willfully commits evil and thinks he’s entirely justified in doing so. He never thinks what he did was wrong.”
“Of course not; he thinks he’s right.”
“But why do you have them do good?” she said.
I raised a finger. “I write them to be capable of doing good.”
“But why? They’re villains.”
“Because the worst monsters in human history were also capable of good.”
She seemed to think on this. “One of them talked about a woman he couldn’t marry because of politics, but he loved her and looked after her. He saw to their son’s well-being until he was of age. Then he talked about the terrible things he’d done in a novel, and smiled. He’s proud of it.”
I nodded. “Every villain is a hero in his own eyes.”
“Another one is always polite, but he insisted what he did was his right. And her, what she did to her own daughter. She said her daughter brought it on herself. The worst is that new villain you wrote.”
“He said he’d done no wrong, didn’t he?”
“They all did. They got into a big argument, each saying it was the others who were villains,” she said.
“Now, what about the ones you said became heroes? Did you talk to them?”
“Oh, I talked with them first. One said he made bad decisions. Another regretted what he’d done, and tried to make amends. Wait: more than one tried to make amends. They-”
She looked at me. “They thought what they did was wrong.”
“That very thing. They changed their minds about what they’d done.”
“What they did was still bad,” she said.
“Yes, and when they did them, they were still villains. That’s why I didn’t make them too bad. I didn’t think readers would accept them as heroes if I did.”
“Then why not make villains completely bad?” she said.
“Well, it’s cartoonish. Making them capable of good provides contrast to their evil, and, I think, makes them more unsettling. None of them had to do what they did, not even the newest one. It’s their choice to do wrong, and their belief that they are correct to do so, that makes them villains.”
The muse didn’t look convinced. “If they think they’re right, how do they know it’s wrong?”
“If they didn’t know it was wrong, why do they try to justify it?”
Her eyes widened. “Oh. I see.” Then she frowned slightly. “But why do people act like they want their villains to be completely evil?”
“I think it’s because we all tend to see ourselves as good. If someone who can do good can also do evil, what does that say about us?”
She looked away and shifted on the sofa. “It’s hard to believe everyone is capable of evil.”
“Really? How else could writers create villains?” I gave her my wickedest villain’s laugh.
She shrieked and ran off to wherever muses go when they aren’t annoying writers.
I sat down and chuckled. She wouldn’t bother me about fruitcake now.