I’ve always been more interested in villains than in heroes. A well-written, complex villain is thrilling – I’m drawn to stories in which the villain is sympathetic, or relatable, or has moments where you understand the reasoning behind their villainy, or there’s something about them that draws you in and makes you want to know more about their backstory.
And we’re all villains in someone’s story, or so the saying goes.
Apparently I’m a villain. If you look at these archetypes, I supposed I’d be the Mastermind. Maybe the Equal, but I think, after reading and thinking about the story for a while, that I’ve been cast as some sort of Mastermind.
What does it mean to be a villain?
In literature, villainy is fascinating. A good villain can do a lot of work in your story, help you push past superficial conflicts and really deep dive into flaws, both fatal and redeemable. They can complicate, they can remain fallen, they can be redeemed, they can confuse and excite, they can be the screen onto which we project our morals and outrage. Their downfall or turn can provide a much-needed sense of satisfaction in a world where so much actual villainy is rewarded, not punished. Villains fulfill deep needs in all of us.
What need am I fulfilling?
It’s maddening, in a sort of heartbeat-under-the-floorboards way, to realize that you’re a character in a story that you have no control over, that you can’t fight your way out of, that’s been concluded with no possibility of a redemption arc.
I wonder if at the core of villainy is not evil or anger, but despair. I wonder if the villain is born that way or turns because of a betrayal that they can’t quite move past. If it’s a way to reclaim an identity – if everyone thinks this of me, I might as well embrace it and make it my own.
So let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I was falsely accused with way to defend myself, no clear idea of where the accusation came from or even the details about the situation I was being accused of engineering, and no way to defend myself without crossing boundaries that I refuse to cross.
A long time ago in a land far, far away, I spent years of my life not being listened to, not feeling understood, feeling like expressing what I truly felt or thought might result in being penalized somehow, and thus suppressing it. Then one day, I meet someone who I think sees me, with whom I had a history that transcends any history I’ve had with any other person, and I slowly, slowly realize that I’m not having a relationship. I’m inside of an elaborate roleplay that I never consented to participating in.
And I try and try to break free of it – I try to be seen without shattering her fantasies, because I’m afraid she’ll turn her back on me. Then I distance myself, because it’s the only way I can feel safe and still interact with her. And I try and I try to push out of that narrative I’ve been caught up in, because it’s not something I had any hand in creating. We weren’t building something together – I was having something built around me, like a dome, and I’m like a little plastic creature in a snow globe on someone’s end table. I’m an item that’s been collected, I’m living fanfiction, I am the breathing embodiment of everything she can’t actually point a finger at because it either hurts too much, or it’s something she needs to survive.
Then one day, I wake up to an incredibly bizarre message accusing me of something that I definitely did not do, and that’s not even what bothers me.
When the fury rose, it wasn’t the accusation that fueled it. The accusation is incidental and unimportant.
What burns me is that I was never seen. That all those moments that I thought were authentic, that I thought had broken through the strange narrative this person cast me into, were actually always part of the narrative.
I look back now, and it’s so much clearer – I was always the villain in her story. I was always the person she would suspect of things, and I weathered it because I knew I never did any of the things she accused me of, and usually she came around to the same conclusion.
But as I got older, it bothered me more and more that I kept becoming a suspect. Anything strange that happened, any time she was manipulated, somehow she would write a story in her head that allowed her to link it all back to me – even when it made no sense.
So I pulled away but hung on at the same time – kept a distance but made myself available. Weathered demands and hostility and manipulative games because of those moments when it felt like there was a real connection. Where we synced up. Where our history allowed us to understand one another.
And now that I know that none of it was real, that she was a character in her own mind, flirting with the villain I had been cast as, I feel betrayed. By her. And by myself.
Because she’s accused me of various things since we were very young. And I was never going to be seen – I was never going to be believed. “I” was the edge of the blade she craved, “I” was the Mastermind she was enthrall to.
I’m no blade. I’m a blunt object, usually stationary, unless someone tosses me.
I wonder now about villainy and consent. How many villains never agreed or consented to villainy, but became one to take back their power. Otherwise, they end up like me – full of fury with no place to put it. Being told that you need to accept it and live with it, this betrayal,
I wrote a while ago about how sometimes an accusation is a confession. I turned it into a writing prompt, because that’s how I sublimate – but that hasn’t completely worked this time. I wrote about the awe of betrayal, because it’s a breathtaking thing. It’s light and heavy, it winds its way into you and it recodes some of who you are. It can change how you view the world, how you interact with others.
I’m doing everything right – I’m holding onto boundaries that part of me wants to shatter, I’m getting these feelings out instead of letting the fester, but they don’t seem capable of just curling up inside of me and going to sleep for a while. They tend to growl and stomp around, and I’m tired.
Sometimes an accusation is a confession.
Sometimes villainy is born from powerlessness and a loss of control.
Now, when I read or write or watch any sort of media involving villains, I wonder where the thread snapped. That’s why I’m not interested in the “good vs evil” sorts of stories – too binary, too clean. Give me a villain with a backstory. Give me someone who didn’t need to end up where they are. Give me someone who has been failed, and who reacts to the powerlessness of that failure by becoming an archetype of whatever role they’ve been cast into. By taking what others throw at them, and making it bigger and scarier because the option is this:
You’re sitting alone on your couch on a Sunday afternoon. You’re furious. You write a blog. You click “Publish.”
It doesn’t help.