Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sinners We Love (and Whether or Not We Should)

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?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Yayyy!!! You're finally doing this series! I voted for this and I'm looking forward to hearing all your thoughts on the subject. :D
    Loving sinners in books is one of my weak points, because I always want them to come to repentance and turn out well. I don't love them for their sin, it's more of a hoping-they'll-turn-out kind of love. ;) But usually with villains, although they may be rather fascinating, I don't love them.
    So many authors make the heroes rather boring; the heroes are these perfect people who overcome their problems at the end of the book. The reader automatically turns to the villain. Some authors probably put more thought into their villains than their heroes so that they have more character and personality. Do you think you'll go into interesting heroes in this series or save that for a later post? There are many good heroes and it would make an good topic.
    Looking forward to future posts! :D

    1. You DID vote for this, didn't you? :D Well then, I'm so glad that it's finally time to do it, and I hope you really, really enjoy it. I have a few villains/sinners lined up for profiles, but if you have any you would specially like to see written about, be sure to let me know! :)

      Yes, loving sinners...we haven't gotten to that yet, and I certainly don't blame you, as sinners are often quite loveable. That will probably be discussed at the end of this series. And hoping villains will turn out is not at all a bad thing. ;)
      I'm trying to think what my own feelings are on the subject. All in all I don't hate sinners, exactly (that would be rather bad of me, as I can only claim to be one myself) but I never find them to be my favorite, particularly. Nor, on the other hand, do I like perfectly angelic heroes. A nice balance, with a little spice of human nature just to make their growth in character seem more real.

      I probably won't go into interesting heroes in this series--but that is a *fantastic* idea, and will definitely be up on the blog sometime in future, if I have anything to say about it. ;)

      Love and cuddles,

  2. This will be a good series. :D
    I often love "villains" because in the end, they tell a story of redemption, such as Dan (in Little Men), or St. Elmo. That is when they become my favorite character. I don't love their sin, but I love to see how God works through their weaknesses--showing His strength even more powerfully.
    A thought-provoking introduction, Schuyler. Well done. ;) <3

    1. Thank-you Kaleigh. :) <3 St. Elmo reminds me a lot of one of the characters I'll be profiling on Friday, and I had forgotten about Dan, but he too is a good example of redemption (my favorite of all of Jo's Boys.) Seeing the rough gems win through is one of the greatest joys of reading--and as you say, often shows the glory of God, and reminds us of his grace in a very comforting way. :)

  3. Hi Lady Bibliophile!

    What an interesting topic! I confess that I'd never really thought about heroes vs. villians much. I can't say that there are many villians in books that I've liked, but perhaps what makes them attractive to us is the fact that they are often more relatable for us then heroes. Sure, we'd all love to be a hero (or heroine!) and always do the right thing, but as sinners we don't often but by God's grace. In this way (for me at least), I can empathise and relate more easily to the villian whose flaws are made glaringly evident than the hero, who, though he/she may be flawed, these flaws are hidden beneath the surface.

    This looks like it will be a very interesting series and I look forward to your next post.

    God bless!
    From your sister in Christ,

    PS I have been meaning to say it for quite some time, but though I don't often comment, I do read your blog and as a fellow bibliophile I have found your posts really inspiring and challenging. They have helped me to critique what I read from a scriptural point of view and to be more careful in my book choices. Thank you so much for sharing all your reading insights and may the Lord help you to continue to serve Him in your reading! God bless!

    1. Dear Violet,
      what a great pleasure to meet you! :) Thank-you for your encouragement; it's always a joy to hear that this blog is a help and inspiration, and I hope that it will continue to be so to you in future.

      God bless!
      Lady B

  4. Schuyler! What a great topic for a blog series!

    I have to say one of my favourite villains is the wild, the wicked, the surprisingly attractive Rupert of Hentzau from Anthony Hope's PRISONER OF ZENDA and RUPERT OF HENTZAU. He's a complete scoundrel, but has terrific charm and flair. In his wonderful short story, THE SIN OF THE BISHOP OF MODENSTEIN, Hope says:

    Now some of the Hentzaus (of whom history tells us of many) have been good, and some have been bad; and the good fear God, while the bad do not; but neither the good nor the bad fear anything in the world besides. Hence, for good or ill, they do great deeds and risk their lives as another man risks a penny.

    And this is what we all love about Rupert--he doesn't fear anything. If we love villains, it's usually because of something good about them. It's good to be audacious in the face of some things (I could mention a Certain Well-Loved Character as an excellent example!).

    Because villains always, in some way, embody sin, they can be used in several ways.

    First, they can be used as a scapegoat for society, an image of what not to be. I once read a hilarious review of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK pointing out that it’s OK to show characters with melting faces and exploding heads as long as they’re Nazis. There are acceptable targets in every society, from the Addison Cheetham of yesteryear to the bigoted patriarch of today’s Hollywood. While some can be obviously cheesy (“And the moral of that is, don’t blow up the planet, kids!”) a lot of modern-day stories get away with attacking elderly churchgoers or ancient nobility, and because it’s in fashion it doesn’t clang so badly for us.

    Second, they can be used to justify evil, usually when you redeem the sin. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the horrid SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, in which a character guilty of incest and attempted child-murder turns out to be really quite lovely once you really get to know him. I once heard one aspiring author in this mould, when asked “What’s the most horrible thing any of your characters has done?” reply with a spiel of nauseating depravity which ended smugly with, “And HE’s one of the GOOD guys!” The problem with pushing the envelope on anti-heroes, trying to make us all feel better about the ways we kill and backbite and commit adultery in our hearts, is that it becomes a race to the gutter to see who gets dirtiest.

    Third, villains can be used to point out the sin in our own hearts. This is difficult to do well, but I think the most effective villains are the ones that make you realise, with loathing, how similar you are to them. I love the idea of writing villains who act and look and smell like good guys, until suddenly one realises that their enlightened and logical choices have led them all the way to hell.

    Finally, I love the way that Tolkien handled villains in the SILMARILLION. For years I assumed that it was a tale of good guys versus bad guys, OK as far as it went but not a perfect image of human experience. And then I realised that Morgoth and the Orcs were not humans but demons, and the Elves and Men fighting them were not all good, but spanned the full gamut of human experience, from the faithful and obedient to the proud and rebellious. Tolkien’s work is a near-perfect mesh of moral clarity (no confusion over good and evil) with moral realism (characters who do not fit neatly into either category).

    1. Why thank-you! The idea came when I couldn't cram everything I wanted into another blog series, and realized that I could save my ideas and use them in this one.

      "and the good fear God, while the bad do not; but neither the good nor the bad fear anything in the world besides."

      What a very EXCELLENT characterization. I LOVE that. And I have bookmarked the story you most kindly linked to for a rainy day or a moment of procrastination. :) Very likely the procrastination will come first...

      "The problem with pushing the envelope on anti-heroes, trying to make us all feel better about the ways we kill and backbite and commit adultery in our hearts, is that it becomes a race to the gutter to see who gets dirtiest."

      Exactly, which puts me in mind of another thought which I would have included had it come to me in time. Sins like adultery, backbiting, disrespect, etc. are very rarely defined as sin in today's culture, even in the church. So when we put them in a book, people don't even blink over them--to make our villains fit the standards of right and wrong in today's society, we often have to mine farther into the realm of evil than the author should be researching or the reader should be reading. Adultery isn't enough--prostitution is better, for example. Murder, even, is hardly something to blink over unless it's especially violent and the purpose of the act violates someone's happiness.

      Basically, villains in our society aren't villains unless we are inconvenienced or made unhappy by them. Otherwise, it's their choice and who are we to judge them?

      "I love the idea of writing villains who act and look and smell like good guys, until suddenly one realises that their enlightened and logical choices have led them all the way to hell."

      Yes indeed. Just as long as it doesn't stop before hell, but leads them all the way to it--unless of course, they repent beforehand. I have no problem with repentant villains. But I do want justice for the unrepentant ones.

      Oh, and I completely agree about Tolkien. Sil is the very best picture of ultimate good and ultimate evil fighting to control a world of very broken and human creatures. :) In fact, I would like to feature a Tolkien character, but I haven't decided on one yet.

  5. Oh Schuyler, I have been waiting for this!!!

    I tend to latch on to people who happen to turn into villains. (And then refuse to let them go regardless of what the author does. Be warned. ; ) However, the villains I am struggling with liking right now are ones I am writing, and I'm not allowed to redeem them. : /

    One of my favorite sorts of characters are redeemed villains. There is something so special about them, maybe the fact that they were bad and realized it and repented and it wasn't too late.

    Anyway, I will have to see about giving you some of my favorite villains...I really, really want to.

    Emi ; )

    1. I thought you and CG might like this post. :) And it's quite time to do it; I had to get through our trip, but I knew as soon as that was over, I wanted to get back into the topics I had put up for the poll.

      Ah, I see I shall have a tough convert. But by the end, you might have a few twinges of remorse and anxiety in regards to certain people. ;) We shall see.

      CG especially likes redeemed villains too. That's why she likes villains in the first place. I, on the other hand, like an honestly wicked person who gets what he deserves in the end...

      Send away! I should love to see your favorite villains. And not all the people I profile will actually be villains. Some of them will be just plain sinful people that the majority of readers happen to like. :)


      P.S. "I'm not allowed to redeem them."--Now THAT'S talking like a writer! They have made their choice, and we poor authors are left to abide by it. :)


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