Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #13: Jennifer Lott

Ethics in SF continues with an installment on rooting for villains.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Jennifer LottJennifer Lott has appeared in print in Neo-Opsis Magazine (“A Day in the Life”; Issue 18; December 17, 2009) and the Opus 5 Okal Rel anthology (“Pet Peeves”, Absolute XPress, 2011). Her first public foray into writing is her popular fan fiction Alternative Ending to the Animorphs, which was well received by readers disappointed by the dark turn taken by this young adult series in its final installments. An early childhood educator, Jennifer writes mostly for children and young adults. You can find out more about her works at

Villains Seducing Readers

Ever heard someone say “the bad guy is so much more interesting”? I have. Personally, if the good guys don’t capture my attention, I won’t read a book to follow the bad guys’ story. But as there now seem to be stories written precisely for that preference, I guess it’s not a given.

So what is it that puts the spotlight on evil-doers? Being let in on the villain’s thoughts and back story might be part of it. From his perspective he is right, and maybe looking through his eyes gives the reader the same idea. Or maybe the reader expects more surprises from the villain, as not all stories give heroes a lot of scope for change.

In black and white, the bad guys attack and destroy; the good guys defend and imprison. Okal Rel’s Gelacks go layers beyond this tidy division. Heroes and Villains alike believe in sustaining the environments in which life thrives. They settle their differences in one-on-one – and often lethal – combat, so that even good guys could be called ‘murderers’ according to another culture. You won’t see even the nastiest Gelacks building death rays, but they still stand out a mile: most of them because they do unforgivable things to the nicest Gelack, Amel.

H’Reth is a homosexual in a very homophobic society who sexually abuses Amel in secret. Di Mon is a homosexual in a very homophobic society who waits until he can have a consenting boyfriend in secret. And so the line is drawn.

Can I see why H’Reth feels sorry for himself? Yes. Do I agree with his justifications for abusing Amel? No. Am I glad we’re rid of H’Reth in the end? Yes.

I could probably answer the same three questions the exact same way for any one of Amel’s abusers. I know people who answer ‘no’ to the last for Ev’Rel. However fascinating her character, I fail to understand what dragging out her reign would have done for the series. The villains have their time, and the heroes need to move forward.

Forward means change. And even I admit good guys are more interesting when they have to bend their rules. These are adjustments that most writers of Sci-Fi and Fantasy have to face sooner or later.

For one thing, to draw a line as simple as “good guys don’t kill”, a writer needs the means to get them out of trouble accordingly. In Star Trek, there is the very convenient “stun” setting on most weapons. I myself arm the hero of my latest novel with a bullet-proof vest and a tranquillizer gun. There are always short-term alternatives to killing, but then what? To keep your hero clean, the villain either lives to strike again or is ended by something completely outside the hero’s control – because the whitest hat out there will risk his own life to save his enemy.

I’d say Harry Potter is just such a white hat, and much as I approve of him, his decision to rescue Malfoy & cronies from their own cursed fire attack on Harry & friends wouldn’t have felt right to me without Ron’s admonishing “If we die for them, I’ll kill you, Harry!”

There will always be situations when the hero not killing is just infuriating, and there are more and more fictional heroes now who elicit cheers (and perhaps shock) because they do not hesitate. Malcolm Reynolds of Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe is a hero off the beaten track. Returning to his ship to see River held at gun point by the law man who has been threatening his crew, he does not wait to be threatened again. He shoots; River’s captor falls dead beside her; problem solved. Malcolm moves right along, not dwelling afterwards – as many heroes do – over the moral ambiguities.

Heroes like Malcolm still have admirable ethical codes, and are certainly easier to relate to than superman. Who can honestly say they would have no murderous impulses toward someone who had ruthlessly killed their loved ones? Who wouldn’t stand by and watch as the tyrant responsible for a city of suffering falls from a precipice?

I bring it up, because I am wondering if it is one of the things that attract readers to villains. Villains give themselves permission to act on instinct and desire; they don’t let morals tie their hands. I can understand the appeal in this, but carried too far it becomes nothing more than seduction for the dark side. Deeply invested as I am in the messages conveyed by fiction, I find this phenomenon disturbing.

Is it a mistake to make villains relatable? Well, as a reader, I hate a villain who is just there and just wants to destroy just because. They definitely need motivation to fit into the story and with that comes some unveiling of a personality. I am so far building the villain in my novel for the sake of tension and obstacles and don’t care too much why he’s doing what he’s doing. This makes it difficult for me to deliver on bringing his character to life. But when I do manage to make him real enough in my own head, I don’t want to let him loose in my story in such a way that would gain him supporters. Curious as to how he got the way he is? Fine. Want to explore a few reactions like fear, anger, pity, even amusement if he has a good sense of humor? Absolutely fine. But get to the point that you wish the heroes would suffer or die just so the villain could finally get what he wants, and I’m sorry, but get out of my novel and have your own nightmares.

A wise librarian and story-lover (who also happens to be my godmother) will check the endings of books before she commits to them. She, like me, is not in it for shock value (villain wins? wow, didn’t see that coming!) She wants to know the ending won’t let her down. She can fall in love with the characters who deserve it; watch their struggles and set-backs with the underlying assurance that their efforts won’t be cheapened by ultimate failure.

My endings will always be for my heroes’ perseverance, because my heroes are my message.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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