A good story has a protagonist, goals, and opposition. Opposition includes obstacles and forces of nature, but typically opposition also takes the form of a character. Sometimes the opposition is another protagonist, leaving the audience to choose who they want to root for, but many stories include at least one villain, a character that is definitively “wrong”. Villains can be narrative or mechanical.
Narrative & Mechanical Villains
Narrative villains are as complex as the protagonist, and can function as a dark mirror or foil for the protagonist. They have goals and motives, and often believe what they are doing is right or “for the greater good”. Narrative villains explore the dark ideas that people secretly think, but refuse to practice. For example, sacrificing a few for the sake of many, in contrast with those who choose to make a sacrifice themselves.
Mechanical villains are simple and easily understood, without complex motives or reasons. It’s simply their nature. They create a sense of urgency and danger. They motivate the character to act, or justify their actions. Often times the narrative villain has numerous mechanical villains around as “support staff”.
Human villains are understandable and carry the hope of redemption. They believe what they are doing is “for the greater good”. They may show kindness and benevolence towards certain people in their lives. They can demonstrate manners, civility, and a code of ethics that the audience does not support, but can understand. However, none of this can ever excuse their crimes. The audience may feel sympathy for a villain, but they are still a villain.
Monsters represent the other, something which cannot be accepted into the community. Monsters often represent an exaggerated version of some dark aspect of the human condition; greed, selfishness, ambition, apathy, or excess appetites or sexuality; i.e. vampires.
During the Communist era many Americans feared infiltration by spies, manifesting in many stories about aliens and shape changers with the ability to mimic “us”. In the wake of the atomic bomb Japanese stories began exploring science gone awry; weapons and monsters created by science advancing too quickly, before humanity was ready to properly wield such power.
Some monsters are truly and completely alien, but many monsters frighten and disturb because they remind us of ourselves. They either blend in, tricking us into trusting them, or because we can see ourselves in them. We look at vampires and zombies and see friends, family, or ourselves. “We could become one of them.”
People like to think in “us” vs “them” mentalities. Monsters represent the classic “out group”, those who are “not one of us” and “not on our side”. They are a threat, and because they are monsters it’s easier to dehumanize and fight them, but once “they” start to resemble “us”, it becomes harder to blindly dismiss and fight them. The idea that “we” could become “one of the monsters” is one of the oldest fears.
Lamentable Flaws 102-08
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