If you recall, back in the end of April/early May, my readers were so kind as to take a poll regarding which series they wanted to see next on My Lady Bibliophile. Winning by a surprising 50% was "When Bibliophiles Play" and play we did for a couple of weeks. Garnering nearly half of the remaining votes was "The Sinners We Love". It is my pleasure to present to you today, the first post in this brand new series. I expect it to be great fun, and it will run for at least a couple of weeks. Plans are still up in the air as to whether I shall do it on Tuesdays, or continue it straight through until I am done, but doubtless I shall be able to decide by the time Friday's post comes around. :)
Today, we're going to look at the ethics behind loving the bad boys and girls in our favorite novels. (Let's face it, sometimes those villains are a great deal more fun than the heroes.) The purpose of sinners in literature, how far to take our admiration, and why we love them so much. In future posts we'll be taking specific sinners both male and female and putting them under the microscope as to their motives, and whether or not Christian bibliophiles should really harbor admiration for them. Some will be wicked. Some will be weak. Some will merely be misguided. All can be classified specifically as "Sinners"--the moral outcasts of the books we read. (Note that sinners and villains are two different things; and doubtless we'll be covering both.)
If you would like to submit a sinner or villain that you harbor a secret admiration for, I would love to feature a post on them, providing, of course, that I've read about them. :)
Today I'm going to discuss the negative aspects of loving villains. But please don't think that loving the bad guys is all wrong; that will be covered in an end-cap post to finish this series: today we focus more on the 'villain' end of things, as I'm purposely saving the idea of loving 'sinners' until later.
The Purpose of Moral Outcasts
In the age of Edward Cullen, when vampires are in vogue as the world's next best hero, villains have somewhat displaced the great and shining Mr. Darcys from our public attention. Those of us who have read myriads of novels find ourselves slipping into an unhealthy fascination with the underworld, because authors are increasingly spending more and more time giving their bad guys empathetic characteristics. We want to know: what makes them choose a path of wrongdoing, when obviously the path of right is so much happier?
In fact, when we really take a close look at the prevailing opinions of our modern culture, bad guys aren't really bad any more. They always have an excuse. A redeemable motive. A plausible escape route that allows them to flee the consequences of their bad behavior. And lest we chalk it all down to modern authors, it's not always the writing that's changing, but a good deal of it lies in our perception of the books we read. All moral judgments in a book are not only affected by the time the author wrote it in, but also the time the reader read it in.
Today, we're taught that morals are relative, and standards of truth adapt according to the situation we find ourselves in. It's no wonder, then, that we're confused as to the real meaning of the terms villain and hero. Now, 'villain' means any sickeningly virtuous fellow who has the audacity to resist the temptation to do wrong. 'Hero' means anyone who bucks the trend, can't help their wickedness just like the next man, and shouldn't be punished too harshly for the nature that they were created with.
Every book that has moral outcasts (i.e. sinners and villains) puts them in for one of two motives: either they're showing a clear picture of God's judgment on sin, or they're redeeming sin itself.
Well-written stories containing sinners must have either repentance or judgement. And I don't wish to come across harshly when saying this, but there are no other options that Christian bibliophiles can biblically approve of. The soul that sins shall die. The man or woman that does not come to repentance in Jesus Christ shall be eternally separated from the Father in Hell. No matter how sinned against; no matter what the provocation, if they break God's law, then they are separated from Him.
And in the end, we're all sinners, aren't we? That's why it's not necessary to have only judgment, always. Sometimes the sinner doesn't get the consequences they deserve, and that's perfectly right and acceptable, because they have the mercy of redemption given to them, and they are given a new chance to start afresh.
Either we judge the sinner, or we redeem the sinner. That's the purpose of putting sinners in literature in the first place: because they all must lead to a picture of God's law and His grace, so that in our reading we are pointed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the end, the sins committed are just as ugly and inexcusable as they were in the beginning of the book. We never redeem the sin. We redeem the sinner. But more on that in a later post.
Why We Love Villains
Any writer who takes plotting and characterization will have it drilled into them that villains should not be completely evil. This point is up for debate, and perhaps we'll return to it later; suffice it to say for now that the next generation of writers is almost making the villain a parallel hero, instead of an antagonist. We have in our stories the hero of good and the hero of evil. Take your pick, and say your pleasure as to which you prefer. No longer are the days of such books as A Lost Pearle, where Addison Cheetham could be completely rotten and demoralized. Oh, no. Now we're treading the delicate minefield of reader sympathies and plausibility, where we can't dare paint our pictures too black and white, for fear of being accused of insensitivity.
In this age of moral ambiguity, we would give an escape route and redeemable motive for the Fall of Satan himself.
We play free with villains; we're not obligated to have them make the right response, so we pour our energies into making them witty intellectuals or tortured victims, and give them all the personality that we feel wouldn't be quite right in our heroes. Heroes are all they're supposed to be; villains are all we want them to be.
I always applaud a good villain, who does their job well and smartly too. Sometimes that loves gets a little convoluted, though. One villain I loved in spite of his sin, and still do on my off-days, is James Steerforth, from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. He's a regular Mr. Wickham in his morals and his manners. Smooth, good-natured, sympathetic and seemingly selfless, by the end of the book he had broken the hearts of numerous characters, mistreated two women, and betrayed the friend who thought so much of him. Only thing was when he *SPOILER* perished in the prime of life *END OF SPOILER* I didn't think of it as a just reparation for a life of wicked choices; I thought it was a mighty heartless action on the part of Dickens to give such a fate to my favorite character. I loved James Steerforth from beginning to end of that book, and no matter what he did I could have excused him for it and welcomed him back. Which is a scary thought, because if I had been a character, I very likely would have been little Emily, who sacrificed her virtue for a gentleman's smile and a few kind words.
In the end it comes down to this: do we love villains because of who they could be, or because of who they are? Villains can have beautiful personalities, delightful quirks, and wicked good senses of humor. It's not wrong to love the right: a lot of evil characters do have some laudable qualities. Nor should standards of right ever sacrifice quality. Heroes need to be interesting. It's really not fair to put a living villain next to a plastic hero and expect the reader to like right over wrong in that instance.
But when we harbor love for the bad people, do we look at them and say "See how beautiful this quality could be used for good?" Or do we harbor a secret hope that they will always stay as they are in their sin? Do we blame their wickedness on their own actions, and their own depraved choices, or is it hinted, however softly and briefly, that God made them that way, so they shouldn't be held responsible for it?
Many more points to come. A lot more information to cover. Certainly not all villains should be redeemed, and we haven't even touched on the sinners yet. But today's point to take away: do our favorite villains have a law system they are held accountable to? It's essential that they should, if the author is trying to build a biblical portrayal of right and wrong.
Why do you love villains? And whom are some of your favorites?