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Musing on Villainy

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

capI’m a writer, not a psychotherapist. As an adventure writer, though, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about heroism and villainy. I think that we forget too easily that real heroes exist as well as real villains. We remember the underwear bomber, but how many of us recall the name of the Dutch man who leapt from several rows back to take him down? In the aftermath of the attack on Congresswoman Giffords, we heard courageous tales of people throwing themselves in front of their friends and loved ones to protect them. Many of them died when they did so. As the events unfold after this most recent tragedy, we are certain to learn of people in the cinema who risked or even sacrificed their lives for their friends and loved ones. We know already that policemen risked their lives to advance into who knew what to find and stop the man (or men – they didn’t know) who had committed this horrible crime.

Yet it is the villain whose face we continue to see whenever these tragedies are discussed upon the news.

These days we seem constantly to be facing tales of an angry young man with a gun. Or eight guns, and plans that are inevitably more ambitious than the horror that catapults them into the limelight. Sometimes we hear that they were loners, and were quiet but pleasant enough. Former friends will be found by journalists, and they’ll speak in disbelief and tell us how they would never have thought it would happen… although sometimes we hear of an acquaintance who’d been afraid one day this particular individual would snap, and nobody did anything about it. I don’t know which is more frightening.


These angry young men with guns who attack crowds of innocents are a relatively new phenomenon. If there were accounts of attacks like this 100, or even 50 years ago, they were certainly more rare. How has the modern world been raising its young men that they should grow so angry? Do they have unrealistic expectations about how easily they will find success, a girlfriend, happiness, a good job? Is their access to guns too easy?

firemenWe’re told that we’re all the heroes of our own story. Do such men really believe that they’re the heroes? As they’re brooding and loading up their guns, do they remember when they were children watching the cartoon heroes swing in and protect the innocent? Do they feel like they’re the victims, striking back against a society that doesn’t appreciate or understand them?

It’s questions like these that make me wonder if we storytellers spend too much time emphasizing the chaos and nihilism and focusing on the negative. We show the darkness and celebrate the misunderstood loner. He’s really cool and powerful and dangerous, you see. People will remember him. God knows that they will imitate him. Again. And again. And again.

Maybe we Americans as a whole spend too much time applauding strength and laughing at discourtesy. We laughed at the smart-mouthed kid on the sitcom, now we grin and chortle at sarcasm and snark. Pundits and talk radio personalities delight many of us with “red meat” that excoriates the innocent or the uninvolved, or that twists the truth of someone’s words until they are a straw target ready for destruction. They are the strong, and we feel the strength ourselves when we laugh with them, or when we create similar humor. Sometimes the jesters let us know when the emperor’s naked and when the walls need tumbling down, but sometimes the jester is a bully bringing only destruction.  There is no shame any more about discourtesy and impoliteness. Heroes simply don’t act like that — whether they are the fictional Captain America or Batman, or real-life firemen and rescue workers, we would be shocked to hear them say such things.

It is a long way from laughing at a celebrity’s mis-steps to ordering flak jackets and guns and plotting destruction. It is a long way from the playing of video games or the reading of comic books or fantasy literature to pulling the trigger on the innocent. I don’t claim by any stretch that these and other like events can be explained away by any one thing, but as we as a nation stride once more into the inevitable gun debate and consider again whether our entertainment is too violent, I hope we can remember to wonder, just a little, if we should be thinking more about highlighting heroics and heroic behavior and simple human decency rather than presenting nihilism, anger,  and chaos in such an attractive light.


Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and the Paizo Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and keep up with him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.

14 Comments »

  1. Howard, you raise some very important questions here. Ones with no easy answers.

    Sometimes I look at what we as Americans venerate and love in our entertainment and I start to wonder: Are we so fascinated with crime and evil and violence that we have forgotten something about ourselves? I enjoyed the SOPRANOS as much as the next guy, and BREAKING BAD, and a good mobster movie. But–I sometimes wonder if everybody watching these tales of violent lifestyles are doing so with the right frame of mind: That these criminals are the worst types of human beings–examples of fates to be AVOIDED, not sought or embraced.

    This fascination with sociopathic/pyschopathic behavior can be found in nearly all aspects of our culture, from video games to popular music. Even gangster rap has become old hat, and I like a good Biggie Smalls jam as much as the next guy.

    Are we glorying in the dark shadows of our human nature and ignoring the light, positive side? I don’t know. I think humans have ALWAYS been fascinated with Outlaws, Rebels, and Killers. Maybe it’s simply the law of MORE: With more people on this planet than ever before, we will naturally have more unstable individuals who lash out against a society that they blame for their own unhappiness or delusions of self-persecution.

    Or maybe we reward the wrong things in our society: Success instead of the Journey to Success; Wealth instead of Character; Arrogance instead of Compassion; Spectacle instead of Substance.

    I don’t have the answers, but I wonder sometimes if we are becoming a society that REVELS in the fictional exploration of our dark sides; and if that exploration sometimes consumes the most fragile and susceptible among us.

    Perhaps this rise in massacres can be traced to a lack of role models–I don’t mean in the media but in the HOUSEHOLDS. I can count the number of male friends who grew up with a male role model in their house on one hand. (I didn’t.)

    You can tell a lot about a society by the type of stories it tells. This is why it bugs me when little kids dress up as Darth Vader–oh, sure, it sounds silly, but shouldn’t they WANT to dress up as the hero, not the villain?

    As I said before, I don’t have the answers to any of this. The questions are too big and too complex. The best advice I can give today comes from the old Hill Street Blues tv show:

    “Let’s be careful out there.”

    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 23, 2012 12:33 am

  2. Very thoughtful piece, Howard. I commend you for addressing the issue. I wrote about this complex problem on my blog yesterday, taking a look at it from another perspective. Thought I’d share it with you.

    http://johnmwhalen.wordpress.com

    Comment by John Whalen - July 23, 2012 1:06 am

  3. I dont think of it as a new phenomena. I mean if you look you can find instances of similar happenings nearly as far back as you want to go.

    It also doesnt seem to be simply an American, or even Western, phenomena, you can find it across cultures.

    It has also happened with guns, explosives, gasoline, swords, knives…

    Comment by TW - July 23, 2012 2:08 am

  4. Heroes fade from our mind quickly for several reasons, I’m sure, but here are two. First, true heroes generally don’t seek attention––they don’t act in order to seize the limelight. Second, fear has a way of imprinting itself in our memory, and we aren’t afraid of heroes, we’re afraid of villains. Their image/name/crime lives on like a mental canker sore. I’ll assume that’s hardwired into our system: our minds make sure we know who and what constitutes a threat. Heroes, perhaps, are harder to identify…except when they hurl themselves between ourselves and an attacker.
    To quote Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil, “May there be an outbreak of peace on the planet.” Today would be a fine day to start.

    Comment by markrigney - July 23, 2012 10:35 am

  5. Is there simply too much moral ambiguity in what’s out there, including what we’re creating ourselves? I’ve often said that fantasy — particularly S&S — is just about the only genre left in which people can still act honourably without irony. And I think that may be rapidly changing. Flawed heroes are one thing, but frankly I’m tired of villains as heroes.

    Comment by Violette Malan - July 23, 2012 3:00 pm

  6. Thank, Mr. Jones for your posting about heroes on your blog and this one as well. Unfortunately, I think this is the one more important to think about these days. Growing up in NYC I’ve met many people enamored of mafia thugs because “they do what they want” and “don’t take stuff from anybody”.
    I think a feeling of powerlessness coupled with the lack of strong male role models as Mr. Fultz points out, goes a long way to explaining things. But not all of it.
    As we become increasingly isolated from the civitas, lurking in on-line forums and not knowing our neighbors people become less real to us. I think we’ve lost a lot of empathy for our fellows and it makes it easy for us to laugh at them and dismiss their fears and concerns.
    I’m going off track here, I think, but we do focus way too much on the dark and villainous. Increasingly we’re told that bleak and cynical is how things really are (I’m point a small finger at a lot of grimdark defenders) and the rest of us need to understand that. I don’t want to understand the world that way.

    Comment by the wasp - July 23, 2012 3:18 pm

  7. Howard, thanks for the thought filled blog. It raises some powerful issues that don’t seem to have any ready answers. At least not at this point in world time. But it is right-on in its analysis of the values that we reflect today.

    John Walen, I read your “The Dark Id Rises”. I’ve seen “Forbidden Planet” many times and your article struck a note. I look around at the amount of hate and fear related news items and remarks that seem to permeate the airwaves and our lives. It’s like that Monster from the Id has been feeding on this and growing stronger and more powerful.

    Is there a way to counter this tendency? Perhaps the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank in Santa Monica California should be examining the nature of violence and asking questions like: does violence always beget violence and is there a third alternative?

    If we’re lucky, they might come up with an answer. Me. I believe in the many acts of kindness and caring that I see done by ordinary, anonymous people. If this keeps up maybe it’ll be enough to counter the Monster from the Id by giving it less fuel to feed on.

    Comment by Barbara Barrett - July 23, 2012 4:00 pm

  8. “Do they have unrealistic expectations about how easily they will find success, a girlfriend, happiness, a good job?”

    Yes. The most ridiculous aspect of this is that a middle-class American lives a more comfortable material life than almost every man who came before in history. But corporate America and advertising tell you that this isn’t enough and you cannot be content with mere comfort and security. You must live in opulence and be adored by all. Hollywood pours the messages of pornography and violence/death on top of the consumerism. These themes, of course, have been present in previous societies but today, because of advertising, the messages are relentless and omnipresent. And with increasing social isolation, lack of good family life, etc., some people will never be offered a counter narrative.

    Who are the real heroes? Ordinary, simple men and women who prefer to live modest lives in peace with their neighbors but are willing to protect themselves and their communities as necessary. Since these people and their lifestyle don’t demand the attention of artists and journalists, they are overlooked. Nixon may have been wrong about most things but he was right about the ‘silent majority’ that keeps America from falling completely into the barbarism that is today so glorified.

    Comment by Tyr - July 23, 2012 6:13 pm

  9. What is the duty of the storyteller to the community? I hesitate to say there should be a norm of any kind, because then there would be somebody who’d want to enforce it, and there would be amazing exceptions nobody anticipated, and times would change and people would need something they’d never needed before. What a writer can ask, I hope without eliciting attack, is something like: What is my duty as a storyteller? And then the same murky, idiosyncratic process that makes the stories can make that writer’s unique answer.

    Your post called to mind two very different declarations on the subject–Holly Lisle’s funny and true (and long) How to Write Suckitudinous Fiction, and Woody Guthrie’s “I hate a song,” which is short enough I can probably quote it in full without stepping on anybody’s toes:

    I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim, too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops. No matter what color, what size you are, how you are built. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your song books are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - July 23, 2012 9:46 pm

  10. Good posts, Howard, both here and at your blog. You raise more issues than I can intelligently address in the time I’ve got. The comments contain a lot of what I would say.

    I would like to say one thing. While I don’t have much use for the perfectly flawless hero, mainly because I have trouble accepting the existence of such a person, like Violette I’m getting tired of the villain as hero. I have no problem with villains changing and becoming heroes. I’m interested in heroes who overcome their flaws and imperfections to do the right thing, regardless of their station in life. Heroes are people who do what needs to e done, the hard thing sometimes, regardless of what it costs them. That’s what I want to see more of in my fiction.

    Comment by westkeith - July 24, 2012 9:52 am

  11. As to whether or not such attacks happen at other times, I’m sure they have, but I don’t recall them happening with such frequency, and in non-war zones, even in my youth. When I was a child some 34 years ago the murders promulgated by the man in the campus bell-tower were still uncommon enough that I would occasionally see references to it in the news years later. Today for parallels we don’t have to go back nearly as far, because we’re bound to have witnessed one a lot more recently.

    John, I like a lot of what you said, and I especially resonated with this: “Or maybe we reward the wrong things in our society: Success instead of the Journey to Success; Wealth instead of Character; Arrogance instead of Compassion; Spectacle instead of Substance.”

    I’m sure you don’t mean these statements as absolute any more than I did with my speculations. I do think that we have some tendencies to think this way in the modern west, or at least in America as presented in the media.

    We’re fascinated with evil for a number of reasons. As rational creatures, we want to understand what happened and why. As predators ourselves, at an instinctive level we’re drawn to tales of other predators, even if we don’t want to be. As descendants of creatures who were *hunted* by predators, we need to know the enemy, as it were, so we’re drawn to tales that might scare us so we know about *that* kind of thing that hunts us — how to outrun it and how to defeat it.

    As part of our own growth as a society we have been striving to understand “the other;” people from other cultures and people with other outlooks. That enables us to see those whom we might once have automatically assumed were villains in a different light. But it has also means we sometimes are a little ambiguous about what we really admire and what we really want to celebrate. I might understand why that poor dog went mad, and sympathize with it, but if it’s coming after my kids, I’m going to shoot it.

    There are so many excellent comments here that I could spend the morning responding. I guess I’ll just close up by saying that I don’t advocate that all storytellers craft a story a certain way. And we don’t need only square-jawed heroes with no moral qualms. We need to relate to our characters. But it would be nice if we could be unironic about heroes.

    Wasp wrote: “Increasingly we’re told that bleak and cynical is how things really are (I’m point a small finger at a lot of grimdark defenders) and the rest of us need to understand that. I don’t want to understand the world that way.”

    The world isn’t that way entirely. In some places it is, and some people act that way. But not all people do. And we need to remember that. I at least intend to offer up characters who stand up and do the right thing even when no one is looking. Such people have existed, such people do exist, and if we want to increase the numbers to come after them, we need to offer role-models in our fiction who not only know the difference between wrong and right, but who strive to right the wrongs.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 24, 2012 10:44 am

  12. …I do want to reiterate that one of the issues is that we are less ashamed of acting badly than we used to be. We’re more flagrant about being rude, or powerful, and protecting the weak or guarding our words to protect the feelings of others actually seems laughable to some.

    The simple courtesy of answering “yes, sir,” or “yes, ma’am” gets me odd looks — although usually appreciative — many places I go. It’s so ingrained in me that I don’t notice it, but when I travel to other parts of the country people inevitably comment upon it.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 24, 2012 10:51 am

  13. I’ve been asking these questions for a very long time now, as the level and frequency of graphic violence increases in our mass entertainments seemingly every year. What wasn’t acceptable in public venue as out-and-out pornography, for instance, is now in your face as the person seated next to you on the plane or in the library views it.

    However, in history I don’t see these kinds of events that we’ve been experiencing here, outside of war.

    There is plenty of violence, of a personal nature, but it is domestic: a man (and sometimes a woman, either alone or in company with her spouse or another relative) committing atrocities against the family and / or servants and / or slaves. It was a lot slower. You need firearms to do this in a public place among crowds, to create that much damage to so many people. You particularly need automatic loaders. Everything the Batman shooter had, he obtained easily, quickly and legally.

    Love, C.

    Comment by C - Foxessa - July 24, 2012 2:03 pm

  14. […] Musing-on-villainy […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 30 Black Gate Posts in July - August 31, 2012 1:52 am


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