Thursday, July 23, 2009

Putting the Villain into Villanelle

by Ashley Lister

I often find it hard
Trying to find the words
Perhaps I am a ‘tard

I know I’m not a bard
My prose can look like turds
I often find it hard

I sit in my back yard
And idly watch the birds
Perhaps I am a ‘tard…

Because I’m caught off guard:
Ideas come in herds
I often find it hard

To write them down unmarred
I seldom catch two thirds
Perhaps I am a ‘tard

The process leaves me scarred
My words are herds of turds
I often find it hard
Perhaps I am a ‘tard?

There’s nothing particularly villainous about the villanelle. The villanelle is a French form of poetry with two simple end rhymes including a pair of repetitive refrains over the nineteen lines of the poem. The etymology is indistinct although it’s pretty much agreed by the experts that the word ‘villanelle’ harkens back to medieval references for rustic songs.

And, the reason there’s a villanelle at the top of this blog entry is because I can’t see the word ‘villain’ without trying to compose another villanelle. I often find it hard. Perhaps I am a ‘tard?

It’s not a word I associate with fiction because I don’t believe there are any villains in good fiction. When it’s written properly, good fiction mirrors real life and there aren’t many villains there: only people who royally piss us off as their diabolical plans get in the way of our own existence.

In fiction for example, at the start of Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, the eponymous hero begins the story trying to retrieve a golden idol from a Peruvian jungle. Jones is thwarted by a rival archaeologist, Rene Belloq.

Jones is clearly the hero. He’s played by Harrison Ford, his name is in the movie’s title and he’s looking well-cool with a bullwhip and a jaunty hat.

As an audience we’re supposed to believe that Belloq is the villain. Belloq is played by Paul Freeman (the same guy who went on to play Ivan Ooze in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie). Belloq is also in league with the Nazis and, worst of all, Belloq is French (just like a villanelle).

But is Belloq really villainous? Admittedly, he’s trying to steal a golden idol from the Hovitos people. But Indiana Jones is trying to do the same thing too. The only difference between these two thieves is that Jones spends the first fifteen minutes of the movie running from giant boulders whilst Belloq has established a less exhausting method of collecting the idol: stealing it from Jones. To this end, Belloq is actually more resourceful than Jones and employs greater foresight. Heroic attributes for someone who is supposedly a villain.

It’s true that Belloq is acquiring artefacts for the Nazis – but that doesn’t make him evil, does it? In this movie the Nazis are little more than a force of comic-book bad guys: labelled villainous through their association with a skewed political ideology. Their ideals of racial purity and the divine rights of a master race run counter to the contemporary western belief in capitalism, democracy and equality. But, in fiction and in reality, just because someone has different beliefs and values: that doesn’t mean they’re a villain. Personally, I think the Nazi ideals are deplorable. But I also think the same about religions that subjugate women, daytime TV soaps and health foods.

Perhaps this brief excerpt from Robert McKee’s Story (1999) better illustrates what I’m trying to say:

An interviewer once remarked to Lee Marvin that he’d played villains for thirty years and how awful it must be always playing bad people. Marvin smiled. ‘Me? I don’t play bad people. I play people struggling to get through their day, doing the best they can with what life’s given them. Others may think they’re bad, but no, I never play bad people.’

This is not to say that I’m right. I believe that villains (in fiction and reality) are only characters with viewpoints and opinions that are different to mine. Perhaps you have a different opinion?


  1. Okay, I'm going to disagree with you, Ash! Much as I love your villanelle, I don't think that, as you put it, "When it’s written properly, good fiction mirrors real life and there aren’t many villains there". Actually, I believe that I take issue with both parts of that statement.

    Good fiction may give us a better understanding or appreciation of real life, but fiction is necessarily contrived. "Real life" is episodic. It does not have the plot arc of conflict-crisis-resolution that propels most fiction. Fiction writers play fast and loose with reality in order to achieve certain effects.

    I'm also not sure that there are no villains in real life. What about Saddam Hussein? Hitler? The Boston Strangler? You're completely correct that none of these guys thought he was a villain (as Garce has pointed out), but from the perspective of most of humanity, they were.

    Then again, now that I consider it, perhaps the concept of a villain really only applies to fiction. That is, "villain" may be a literary concept only. Because in fiction a villain is more than just the bad guy. He's the bad guy who makes things happen, who stands in the way of the hero's goals. You could have a story that featured Hitler, but if Hitler's actions did not affect the hero, perhaps he wouldn't be considered a villain.

    So maybe you're right after all, at least as far as your second statement.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your poetic endeavors...


  2. You're right. Um, Lisabet is right.

    Dang, I'm all confused.

    You're both right. I've thought more about bad people this week than I care to...LOL

    Great poem and great post, Ash.

  3. Ooh! I've caused controversey! :-)

    I'd agree that real life is episodic in a way that can be counterproductive in fiction. I suppose what I was clumsily trying to say was (for me) fiction works best when it is attempting to represent a version of real life with its interpretation of characters. Like most references in relation to the mechanics of writing, it's a difficult for me concept to put into words. I guess, if I was trying to say it again, I'd have pointed out that in good fiction and reality there are no characters who are wholly good or bad: only a realistic blend of people who do the right thing and the wrong thing.

    I read a story by Linda Schorr (in Mitzi Szereto's Wicked) that had Hitler and Eva Braun as the central characters. Schorr doesn't go so far as to make Hitler a likeable hero in this story but, rather than being the villain, Adolph comes across as pitiable.

    In the same book I've turned the Marquis de Sade into a submissive sap who is ordered to spice up his writing with some 'good sex scenes' by a sexually dominant literary agent.

    Which is my long-winded way of agreeing with Lisabet's comments and saying - the villain is a wholly literary concept.

    And, as others have pointed out this week some of the best villains are those anti-heroes who are either doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons.

    All of which makes the challenge of meeting and writing characters so much more interesting.

    Best wishes,


  4. I spent several years studying archetypes, stereotypes, and communication, and reading your post today brings some of that back. In the 1970s, a lot of research was done on women in the corporate workforce and how they were perceived. Quite frequently, they were assigned "villain" roles by their male co-workers - iron maiden, ball buster, seductress, etc. Not because they earned these tags, but because people use a form of short hand to communicate impressions about what they see to each other. It's called symbolic convergence, where a group of people agree to such identity tags, and involves all sorts of group-speak like inside jokes, nick names, and group rituals.

    I think in real life we do see villains, but that's because we declare them to be villains. We need a short hand form to communicate when we see someone we think is doing something bad or just disruptive to our group. Whether or not that person earns that title, whether or not it's true, is besides the point. It's how we communicate.

    So yes, villains are a literary concept, but only because they are a communications concept too!

    Make sense?

  5. That makes perfect sense to me. I spent the last couple of months studying the representation of the female in children's fiction and, sad to say, women usually get the shitty end of the stick. If they're not assigned to being cleaners, cooks or caregivers, they're evil cows who want to murder their step-daughters etc.

    I wonder if this is where the literary concept of female villainy has its beginnings?



  6. No, I think the literary concept of woman as villain stretches back a little farther to Adam and Eve. We women have been pure evil from the very beginning, it seems.

    And the men of this world had better watch out!


  7. Good point, well made.

    Cheers Helen ;-)


  8. Hey Ashley!

    I've never seen a villanelle before. I would have thought the word mean lady villian or something. Interesting.

    Today has been a rough day for me and I'm in a kind of funk so when I hear that in real life there are no villians I feel an urge to argue, but I think you're probably right, in that real life is more complex. We go to fiction to find a more morally correct world.


  9. I have a saying, "no one's a villain in their own mind." I think that's true in well-written fiction as well as real life and I've stopped appreciating stories that don't get that right.

    That's not to say the character isn't a villain. But as a writer, I try to get into their head. What's the story they tell themselves that makes them a hero? Hitler was making the world better for the German people in his mind. Doesn't reduce the more objective reality, but adds a richness to their portrayal.

    And the flip side is I've stopped appreciating fiction that shows internal dialogue of "villains" that's solely to 'kick the dog' and show their villainy. A good writer can do better.


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