Sympathy for the Devil : A Guest Post by Jesse Teller

A good villain is easy to find. If I took the time, I could name a dozen right here before my coffee gets cold. I could tell you how hideous they are and I could tell you the horrid ends I have wished upon them. Let’s stay out of real life. Let’s stick to fiction.

Draco Malfoy—deviant little rich boy coward, good-looking and connected to all the wrong people who are slowly, very slowly gaining power. The longer he stands, the more powerful he gets. I ask, which one of you reading this did not want to punch that little creature in the face?

Batman’s Joker—brilliant, mastermind, lunatic. A man with a plan laced with chaos and depravity. We love to hate him, we love to watch him, and we adore every moment Batman is beating on him. The Joker is one of my all-time favorite villains. He is charismatic, he is intelligent, he is dynamic. But while we root for him and delight in his tiny victories, we do not understand him. We do not want to know him. He scares us. When I look in his eyes—any incarnation of him—I do not see myself. 

My all-time favorite villain, all-time, every time is Captain Hook. Call him the symbol of all fathers, the symbol of growing up. Call him the powerful and the petty parts of being an adult. I call him a child abuser. I call him cruel. I call him vile. I love to watch him lose. I love to see his fear at the sound of a clock, at the sound of time ticking away from him. I love to see him run like a coward. In my opinion, there is no more horrific villain than Hook. But while I love to watch him, I never root for him. I never want him to win. 

He is a villain. 

He is not an antihero.

My first introduction to this idea was in Dungeons and Dragons. Anyone who knows the game knows there is a character type called a Paladin. This character is the very toast of all things pure, just, and right. When the game was in its infancy, they created this character and piled power upon them, but there was no answer to them. They served a god, always a god of good, and they had their limitations, but a truly powerful Paladin armed with their weapon, bedecked in their armor, was, at the time of its conception, a power beyond any other.

Shortly after the Paladin’s birth there was a backlash. If you have a truly powerful, pure warrior of good, then you have to have his opposite. You need an Antipaladin. At first I didn’t even know the name of the character type. It was hidden in an old magazine that had invented him, a bootleg character type you had to hear whisper of in order to find. We are talking about my Dungeons and Dragons heyday. Middle school. I had the books and the information I could afford. That was not much, but in my ear an older, more experienced player whispered the idea of a warrior with the exact opposite abilities as a Paladin. A nemesis for the purity.

This was my first introduction to the word nemesis, a word I later became obsessed with. For with the rise of every Paladin, there must be an Antipaladin.

I made one. I was not a player. I was the one running the game, but we had a player running a Paladin in it, so I crafted his nemesis, who I simply named Crazy. 

Crazy was not a villain to me. I needed him badly and crafted for him a backstory. I crafted for him a family. I made a living, breathing hero I wanted to watch succeed. But Crazy was not a living, breathing hero. He was my first brush with an antihero. I just didn’t know what to call him.

I was ignorant of what to call the antihero in fiction until I met Mrs. Learmann my senior year of high school, when she introduced me to Heathcliff of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I love this character, adore every word written about him and every act he commits, but I hate him, too. No decent person can idolize a character like Heathcliff. He is deplorable. Yet here he is, and here I am, rereading the chapters with him in them. Watching with rapt attention everything he does and hoping things go his way. 

Crazy, Heathcliff, pure antiheroes are nearly impossible to write well. They are rare, and are often misdiagnosed. Just because you like a villain that does not make them an antihero. Just because a hero is dark, he is not necessarily an antihero. An antihero needs a certain something. An antihero needs sympathy.

We don’t have any sympathy for Draco Malfoy. We don’t have any sympathy for the Joker. We don’t care if the croc gets its jaws around Hook’s other hand, in fact we pray for it. No one wants Pan to kill Hook. They want him to face his worst fear and be undone by it. No boy with a dagger for Hook. We want him in the belly of the croc.

But Crazy, I knew that character. I knew he had problems. I knew he thought he was doing right. I knew he had been met by failure. I knew he had struggles, and while I was running that character, I wanted him to win.

No one watches the HBO show The Sopranos and hopes that Tony Soprano dies in the beginning. The first time we see him, he passes out. He has panic attacks. He is under a great deal of pressure. He loves hard. He lives hard. He has to hold it all together. Oh, and he happens to be a mass murderer with a flaring temper who wants to kill his sister and tries to kill his uncle. Tony is an antihero. We love Tony. We want him to succeed, but while we are rooting for him, we feel a twist in our stomach, because we know what I knew when I created Crazy, what we all experience when we read Heathcliff. We know we should hate this character. 

Often our love of this character confuses us. At the same time we are rooting for them in one scene, we want him defeated in the next. We want to watch the mob boss fall. We want Crazy to be killed by his nemesis. And we misunderstand why. We question ourselves for the scene before, when we were rooting for the mass murderer, the antipaladin, the vicious beast of a man. 

Onslaught of Madness has been criticized by some because of this confusion. Beta readers, reviewers, even my mother-in-law, were rooting for what they perceived as a villain. It made them uncomfortable. It made them question themselves, because the main character of Onslaught of Madness is not a villain, but an antihero. 

We root for him even through the atrocities he is committing because we understand him as a person. We see his failings as our own, we can see ourselves in him, and we want what is best for him. These are all qualities of an antihero. Without them, he is just a villain. 

A perfect antihero is almost impossible to write. It is almost impossible to hate, almost impossible to love. The perfect antihero makes us uncomfortable. 

If you are a reader, do not judge yourself for the way you feel about the character. You are supposed to love him. You are supposed to hate him. He was built for you to understand and feel compassion for.

And if you are a writer who wants this type of character in your work, understand them as the hero of their story. Embrace their struggle and never apologize for the confusion the reader feels when they read them. 

About the Author:

Jesse Teller fell in love with fantasy when he was five years old and played his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game gave him the ability to create stories and characters from a young age. He started consuming fantasy in every form and, by nine, was obsessed with the genre. As a young adult, he knew he wanted to make his life about fantasy. From exploring the relationship between man and woman, to studying the qualities of a leader or a tyrant, Jesse Teller uses his stories and settings to study real-world themes and issues.

He lives with his supportive wife, Rebekah, and his two inspiring children, Rayph and Tobin.

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