The Devil, You Know?

If there is one element that defines modern fantasy, whether it be young adult, high fantasy, dramatic novel series, or television, it’s the use of villains to personify certain types of injustice. Popular examples are Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, and the head cheerleader in every teen drama. These characters are rarely ever the main antagonist. Often times they find themselves to accidentally become protagonists. Their purpose is to summarize an injustice that the writer wants to express and thereby suggest that readers never want to behave like that person.

It’s a powerful literary device. It helps to express an injustice that falls short when explained with mere words. But in order to truly make this device potent the injustice has to be both insurmountable and perform what Tv Tropes likes to call kicking the dog. Our hero becomes under the thumb of this person, almost as if this villain is an invincible force of ruin. Heroic plans will be foiled at the last minute, and the mayor will give the insurmountable villain a medal of bravery. Empathy for the hero requires frustration, and even blind hate, for this villain because of how totally dominated the hero has to become.

I find this literary device strange because writers always put a little bit of themselves into their work. As a writer you have to become this villain in a small way in order to truly invent him. Which begets an interesting question. Isn’t this villain really just the puppet of the writer? Am I to react to the villain without reacting to the writer like a ventriloquist cursing in front of small children and blaming the doll?

I’ve mentioned how powerful this literary device is at impressing injustice, but I have trouble sympathizing because of it. In a world where the hero is utterly dominated, I’m not going to hate the dominating force. I’m going to hate the story that brought it to me. Draco Malfoy is not real, he’s an invention of the writer. So how can I not blame the writer?

I think that the reliance on such characters has ripped at the fabric of what stories are supposed to be. In their simplest form, they are a collection of gives and takes between the protagonists and the antagonists. In a more artful interpretation, stories are a series of inspired experiences along a meaningful journey. Yet when stories rely on nothing but the insurmountable villain, nothing is ever given and everything is taken. With the utter dominance of the hero, desperation strikes out inspiration and the only meaning left to fight for is anything else.

…So give me anything else.

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