Likeable villains

With mentions of Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

What makes a villain likeable?

Why are some villains remembered, admired, reimagined, kept dear in the heart of readers, sometimes to the point of overshadowing the main character – and why are some forgettable? Of course, up to a point, it comes down to good writing. A poorly drawn character will not stay with the reader. Antagonists are vulnerable to being poorly written, because they have a very simple role to fulfil in the story: be evil. Once they’ve been evil and been defeated, they have very little else to do.

However, we sometimes love villains, not despite their villainy, but because of it. I’d like to clarify that this article is not looking into understandable, humanised villains. This is not about an antagonist, who might have very good reasons for doing what they do. I’d like to focus on villains. But villains that, for some reason, we enjoy. Think Joker or Hannibal, characters which cannot be redeemed or, when they are, fall strangely flat.

Today, I wanted to have a look at Ron Lord from Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.

Frankissstein is a queer rewriting of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, centred around two timelines: Mary Shelley herself, when writing the original novel, and a modern-day plotline focused on questions about Artificial Intelligence. Ron Lord belongs to the present-day plotline. He is a rich entrepreneur in the sexbot business, and his interests revolve entirely around building believable dolls for men who don’t want to actually engage with women, only use them sexually. He is openly misogynist, but he wouldn’t say he hates women. Quite the opposite, he argues, he loves them. Especially their body parts, it feels. He has a lot of trouble even beginning to understand – or try to understand – our main character, a transgender doctor called Ry Shelley.

So, as you can tell, he is the villain.

frankissstein.jpg

But here is the thing: Ron Lord is a hugely enjoyable character. When he appeared, I always felt engaged, wanting to read on. I’m not saying I would like him, or like to spend time with him. But safely on the other side of the page, I was fascinated by him. One reason why, I think, is because he was funny.

Often likeable villains are witty, and witty dialogue is always fun to read. Ron Lord isn’t witty per se, but he has good dialogue. He’s got an exuberant energy, always giving the least politically correct answer to a question. His sheer obnoxiousness is fun, because he gives out a provocative sort of humour. In a way, it’s even more insidious: because he is bumbling, charming, giving out the impression he simply cannot control what comes out of his mouth, we forgive him slights we wouldn’t forgive another character.

We let him get away with saying outrageous, horrible things because we feel he’s too dumb to know better – and we can’t help but being entertained by his outbursts. Remind you of anyone?

One character-trait Ron Lord shares with other likeable villains is that he’s confident. I don’t think confidence is the sole making of a character, as it can be read as being obnoxious (especially in protagonists), but we do tend to like confident people. It’s a component of charisma. Part of the charm of villains can be that they are certain that they’re right – and yet we know they are terribly wrong.

Another element, which is rooted in both confidence and humour, which I think influences how much we like a villain, is how much the villain is enjoying themselves. I don’t know if this is simply due to empathy, but sometimes, if a bad guy is obviously having a good time, we do to. Ron Lord is having the time of his life – he’s rich, he’s successful, he gets a love interest in the course of the novel. He is happy, when our MC is conflicted, and that somehow both makes him fun to be around and enhances his villainy. He’s having a good time at the expense of other people, he’s creating huge social change without caring about who gets crushed by it because he’s too rich to be in trouble. He doesn’t give a damn about consequences. In doing so, he is both easier to hate and, bizarrely, easier to hang around.

I also think good villains allow the main character to shine. (I’m going to abridge “main character” to “MC” from now on for simplicity.) Either their dynamic with the MC is interesting and engaging to read, or their presence reveals a new side of our MC which we only get to see when the villain is around. If the MC shows qualities we are aware they had, but which only come into their own when the villain is around, then we might also enjoy the villain by association. In short, when the bad guys appear, we know we’re in for a treat. One of Ry’s best lines, when questioning ideas of masculinity, is in answer to Ron Lord. When Ron Lord asks about Ry’s genitalia, in an attempt to pin down their gender in a way he can understand, Ry simply answers: “Is manhood dickhood?”

Finally, one quality of good villains is that we can hate them. There is something cathartic in being able to decide someone is unabashedly bad. Humans are nuanced, complicated, beautiful creatures, and sometimes, fiction strives to represent that. But we are also creatures with emotions, and getting them out of our system can be liberating. The idea of catharsis as one of the key roles of fiction has been around since the Ancient Greeks coined the term. One definition I found said that catharsis “releases, and thereby relieves from, strong emotions.” And a good villain allows us to do just that.

So, to summarise, a likeable villain could be witty, or at least fun, confident, enjoying their villainy. They can serve as a good foil for the MC to shine – and be someone we love to hate.

16 July 21.