Friday, October 22, 2010

Conventional, Archetypal Characters: The Villain

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

In a series of six blogs that began on September 10, 2010, I offered insight into overall meanings, also known as literary themes. These are truths that develop through the course of a literary work by pitting character against conflict, then resolving that conflict. In the resolution is a theme.

You can list these themes and apply them to literary works, both classic and modern. You can modify and tweak them to fit a particular work, and you can add to your list as you become more and more proficient as a reader and literary analyst.

Another path is open to you, and that is the path I intend to walk for the next several blogs. This path is the one known as literary archetypes.

An archetype is an icon. It is a paradigm or prime example of characters and conflicts universal in literature. By knowing these archetypes, you will identify them easily and quickly to solve problems presented in literature just as algebraic formulas help mathematicians solves problems. This week, we will begin with my personal favorite archetypal character, the villain.

If television’s current slate of new shows is any indicator, villains are in vogue, and the villain du jour is the zombie, a mindless creature driven by some instinct to kill and consume whether by viral, bacterial, or genetic mutation. Zombies lack all finesse and restraint. Their purpose is clear, and their triumph downright disgusting. With a zombie, you know what must be done: flee or prepare to be culled from the herd.

At the heart of the zombie is every villain so don’t dismiss the grunts and groans, the outstretched arms, the clunky gait. Their instinct is the instinct of villains: predisposed to overpower and destroy. They lack boundaries, ignore social norms, and violate personal space. They are the animal, the Id, the beast within, and the heart of darkness. They are the side of humanity that laws and social contracts inhibit--except villains ignore laws and contracts. They boldly go where few men even want to go.

Villains do not understand that no means no. For example, Snidely Whiplash wants Li’l Nell for her beauty, innocence, and property. When she refuses to surrender to the mustachioed monster, he tries to destroy her by tying her to the railroad tracks just before the afternoon steam engine rumbles into town. Of course, Dudley Doright saves Li’l Nell, thereby foiling Snidely’s ambition to cull her from the herd permanently.

Villains are also dangerous because they are predators, hungry for power, hungry to fulfill their carnal desires. Damon, but not Stefan Salvatore (CW’s The Vampire Diaries); Edward, but not James or Victoria (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight); Scar, but not Mufasa (The Lion King); Martin Vanger, but not Henrik (Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo); Voldemort, not Harry (J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series); and Anakin, not Luke, Skywalker (Star Wars chronicles), are all contemporary examples of classic predatory villains.

Damon drinks human blood because he likes the taste of it, and it delivers physical prowess unto him. Edward, like Stephan, eschews human blood because he does not wish to forsake every human trait, foremost among them, the capacity to restrain animal urges and empathize with the suffering of others.

Scar is jealous of his brother. Like John Milton’s Eve (Paradise Lost), Scar resents the glory and acclaim that go to another. For Scar, it is Mufasa; for Eve, it is God and Adam. Scar plots against his brother so that he not only ascends to the throne, but also avenges the petty slights and indignities he believes he has been forced to suffer. Eve conspires to prevent Adam from having another mate and all the brains doled out at Creation.

Martin Vanger pursues bloodlust. From it, he derives sexual gratification, an affirmation of ethnic superiority, and confirmation of his own gifts. Voldemort, like Martin Vanger, wishes to dominate, but his circumstances differ. Martin was born into a privileged, empowered family; Voldemort was not. He, therefore, uses his extraordinary gifts to gain acceptance, then gather minions by exploring and ultimately succumbing to the Force's dark side.

What all these villains have in common with each other and other villains in film and literature is

• an inability to empathize
• a desire that seems insatiable and knows no limits
• an unhealthy case of envy

Reading Challenge:

Read Wuthering Heights. Apply the criteria for villains to both Heathcliff and Catherine, Sr. Who is the villain?

Writing Challenge:

Write an analysis of the villain, defending your choice of Heathcliff or Catherine, with specific references to the text.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

English users seem to have lost the distinction between then and than. My own students seemed to have merged the two, usually writing than as if it were an all-purpose word.

Then rhymes with when, and both words refer to time. For example:

After spreading the peanut butter on a slice of bread, you may then cover the peanut butter with slices of banana. (In other words, banana slices follow the peanut butter in a chronological sequence.)

I saw him across the room with her, and then I knew that he was in love with another woman. (In this case, then refers to a moment in time.)

Remember: Then rhymes with when, and both words refer to time so if your statement has to do with a moment in time, choose then.

Than, on the other hand, signifies a comparison. For example:

Brand X is better than Brand Y.

The weather in Laredo, TX is much warmer than Detroit, MI in December.