I admit that I have a thing for the bad guys.
When I watched The Witches, I was drawn to the Grand High Witch. Sesshoumaru is my favorite character in Inuyasha. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Azula was my girl. I fell in love with Rue in Princess Tutu. When it comes to the X-Men film franchise, Magneto is my dude. When I watched the 2009 series V, it was Anna, the alien queen, who most intrigued me. And I was all about Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven. And Regina Mills in Once Upon A Time is sacrosanct.
So I definitely have an attraction and emotional attachment to characters who are capable of doing terrible things and feeling absolutely no remorse about it.
And because I’m a romantic, I like to imagine what love is like for them. Who they would fall in love with, why, and what it would take to make a relationship with them work.
Yet all too often, attempts to combine romance with the “bad guy” fall flat. Now I’m going to try to figure out why that’s so. I won’t promise any kind of coherency to any of this, but this is where my thoughts are now.
The main thing that most of these stories get wrong is that they see these characters as villains first and people second.
So this creates a situation where you have a few basic scenarios consistently cropping up. One of the main ones is a “bad” character who, through their relationship with a “good” character, is fixed or redeemed.
Don’t get me wrong. If the “bad” character admires a “good” character and that inspires them to change their ways, that’s one thing. Hello, can we say Xena? It’s another thing to use a “good” character’s love as a carrot or stick to make a “bad” character behave or to have a “good” character exist to do nothing more than remind us that the “bad” character is capable of human emotions and attachments.
What this pattern reflects is the cognitive dissonance between our moral principles and how desire and intimacy actually work. We have a lot of trouble reconciling a person who is capable of terrible things with our ability to care for them, even love them. We want to be able to express our attraction to these characters while at the same time assuring ourselves of our own capacity for moral reasoning.
As a result, what tends to result is something very artificial and contrived, not an authentic relationship rooted in something real and human.
For every relationship, no matter who it is, I’m looking for answers to questions like:
- Why do they respect one another?
- How do they build the trust that leads to intimacy?
- Where does the passion come from?
- When do they begin to care for one another?
- What makes them choose to commit?
It doesn’t have to be spelled out for me, but if you have to spell it out for me in order for me to see it, it probably needs work.
If we leave aside the need to constantly reassure ourselves of our own capacity for moral reasoning, we find that villains often have many substantial and attractive qualities that would make them suitable romantic partners for the right person. These characters tend to:
- be strong-willed and determined
- have strong convictions
- be bold and unconventional
- put their money where their mouth is
- be passionate and driven
- have many layers and depths
There’s a lot to like, and even love, about that.
YESSSSSSSSSSS ESHU YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS
This is the thing, the thing that I was seeing the other day, in my self and in others, that’s been prompting me to talk about this (with Loki) more.
You don’t actually have to explain yourself over finding a “villainous” character compelling. You don’t have to build the narrative of your romantic fanfic around “fixing” them so you can feel morally justified.Not all the time, anyway. You are perfectly capable of moral reasoning. No one is going to think you’re okay with killing people or world domination.
It easily does your romance a disservice, in fact. The relationship should be based on the characters themselves and not on the “fixing”.
Especially because this turns very easily into the “hero” emotionally (and sometimes physically!) abusing the “villain” in order to prove to the audience that they are still moral and still in the right, and that they’ve sufficiently beaten the villain into emotional submission before deeming to love them. People are always concerned that the “villain” might be abusive towards the “hero”, but they never seem to recognize when the “hero’s” behavior actually crosses the line between voicing justified anger and being actually really abusive.
Bringing this whole thing back because I feel it all in my soul and I want to talk more about it but I don’t know where to start up again. So just in case someone else has something to say/hasn’t seen it yet, here it is again!
Things I’m wondering:
How do race and sexuality impact this?
What are the implications when the “good” character and/or “bad” character is of color and/or LGBTQ?
This whole discussion is very interesting and I’m really excited to be following it.
Here’s a thing that occurred to me that I haven’t really fleshed out so if doesn’t make sense just ignore me, but:
I want to say something about moral reasoning and how, considering how often the ‘villain’ is only coded as a villain because of being of color and/or LGBTQ (so like if a white character did the same shit it’d be ‘good’ but since it’s Regina - ahem I mean a character of color, those same traits make them villainous), and also considering how many studies show that white people are actually pretty much INcapable of moral reasoning when it comes to people of color (doing horrendous shit or watching it be done and justifying it with variants of ‘poc aren’t people anyway’)….
I guess maybe it seems like.. moral reasoning is actually a tool of white supremacy. And white fans getting our panties in a knot is actually not only a way to demonstrate how GOOD we are as people (because you know we love to reassure ourselves of that) while continually reinforcing how bad bad bad POC are. Like we cast POC into these roles so that we can wring our hands over these characters’ ‘badness’.
Not sure yet quite how one would extend this to those characters and shipping.
It goes back to my original point about writing villains as villains first and people second.
To expand on what I meant by that, writing villains as villains first and people second means that you run into things like:
- Making good and evil into a personality traits
- Contorting the “evil” character’s personality so that redemption on the “good” character’s terms would appeal to them
- Defining character growth as the “bad” character submitting to the authority and/or moral code of the “good” character
You may find that none of these have to do with good and evil per se. The rightness or wrongness of a person’s actions, or general ethical principles, are not what any of those three things are about. Each of these is ultimately about power. Namely, the power to define what (or rather, who) is good and what (or who) is evil and to enforce one’s own vision of goodness and rightness onto others.
In that scheme of things, in order for one person to be good and right and pure and “normal,” someone else has to be evil and wrong and corrupt and “abnormal.”
If these dynamics are not examined, of course they’re going to reflect white supremacist, misogynist, and heteronormative patterns despite conscious beliefs about equality and justice. Not because a person deliberately chooses to espouse them (again, these things are against their conscious values), but because everywhere you go, all that is good and proper is tied to white, male, and cis/straight while all that is bad and improper is tied to color, female, and trans/queer.
So what results is actually a story of subjugation and conquest disguised as romance, if that makes sense.
Bringing it back because I love this topic and want to examine it more.