is anyone so villainous they can’t be made attractive?

I just watched the penultimate episode of Glee season one, and there was that very odd moment when Sue and Will almost kiss. Almost.

It got me to thinking about how quickly we fall for a villain when given just the slightest reason to do so. It’s a classic plot device of soap operas, right? New kid on the block causes all sorts of trouble for everyone else…until we find out about the pain behind their every action; the secret honour; the passionate, unrequited love, etc.

Why are we so quick to fall? Is is because we long for them to be redeemed, so that given the smallest chance we back them 200%? Because we don’t believe anyone’s that one-dimensional, and it’s basic human nature to want an answer to the question How did they get so bad? Because it seems like an impossible journey from irredeemably bad to empathetically good, and we want to watch the impossible unfold?

According to my tutor – and I think she’s right – what makes a character interesting to read is their vulnerability.

Vulnerability = humanness = intrigue = empathy = unpredictability.

When Will seduces Sue we see her in a moment of confusion and vulnerability.

She’s scared and lonely, but most of all in that moment we see how fragile she is, and how easy it’s going to be for Will to hurt her.

And right then every single awful thing we’ve hated her for doesn’t matter. Right then we see her and we want Will to not break her, though he can. (Erm, that’s what I saw, at least!)

But even though that final almost kiss had enough intrigue that I wanted them to go through with it, there was still part of me that thought – eeeep! Don’t do it, Will, that’s Sue!!

So can any villain be made attractive with the easy trick of vulnerability, or are there some who are just too, too gruesome?


About anna cowan

I look around, and here I am - housewife and aspiring romance novelist. This seems unexpected.
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One Response to is anyone so villainous they can’t be made attractive?

  1. Mini-Mike says:

    Interesting question, I think it comes down to narrative believability and the individual beliefs of the reader.

    Narrative believability depends on a few things. Obviously, if the creation of vulnerability is poorly paced, dragged out suddenly as a kind of deus ex machina, then the sympathies of the audience/readership are less likely to be won.

    Also, there is the overall ethical framework in which the work of fiction is set. If the author has been setting up a particular stance on certain issues, and this character has uniformly failed to meet the author’s own (apparent) standards, then, again, this redemption is dubious.

    Of course, if the author’s voice has been (deliberately or unintentionally) heavy handed, moralising or otherwise incompatible with the beliefs of his readership; a certain spite, a recognition of that villain within, can inspire more sympathy, even desire, in the reader. After all, what is more attractive than the perceived rebellion against an all-powerful author(ity?)

    Certainly, when a villain is made vulnerable by circumstances or events, we can sympathise with them but, if they have shown nothing but lack of empathy and general disregard for other creatures, then it becomes more difficult.

    I’ve observed that some friends of mine, especially those who have had strong negative experiences with other human beings, have a cut-off point where they don’t allow for redemption of certain characters in fiction and in real life. Sometimes this is a Utilitarian appraisal (remorse and context cannot out-weigh the harm a villain has done, in their view,) and sometimes more personal. If that villain’s actions have particular resonance, positive or negative, for the individual, then they
    are more or less likely to find the character identifiable and attractive.

    Hmm, I’m rambling again but I think my point is that it is not only down to how gruesome or terrible a character is but also to the framework of background and events, seen through the lens of the individual reader. This determines what degree of ambiguity is experienced regarding emotional involvement with the nominal villain.

    If you are sensitive to your readership and if you ease them into the possibility that an antagonist can be more than just a villain, then you have a greater chance of playing with their emotions regarding them.

    Actually, if you’ve not watched the series ‘Breaking Bad,’ I highly recommend it. Very believable characters throughout and the trick you mention is used to great effect with all the characters, especially Jesse.

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