Before I get into this, know that I’m not necessarily talking about disney-type villains who seem to be ambitious and evil for the sake of power. I’m talking about villains who don’t see themselves as the villain, who truly believe that what they’re doing is for the greater good. There’s a fine line between an anti-hero and a villain, and this post is going to focus on the “bad guys”. No worries, though, because I want to give that its own analysis and dive into the world of anti-heroes in an upcoming article.
Let’s start off like we’re high school students writing an essay and begin with a dictionary definition. Dictionary.com defines a villain as “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel. a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot” (dictionary.com). This is most likely the definition that most of us probably grew up with. However, diving a little deeper, if you were to look at Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, a villain is “Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes” (Oed.com). Both definitions use socially accepted morals as justification for the villain label.
As mentioned at the beginning of the video, there are antagonists in media and pop culture who are evil to simply be evil. These characters are often flat, static, characters who only exist so the hero of the story has someone to defeat. Mostly demonstrated as cartoonish representations, they don’t offer much in the way of nuance which is why this video essay will focus on other villains. The villains who wouldn’t even classify themselves as villains. These types of antagonists have been around forever, but recently, it appears that as consumers of pop culture, we’ve been drawn to characters who have both good and evil in them, who struggle but hold fervent to their beliefs because they believe that what they’re doing is for the betterment of the society in which they live.
In Leigh Bardugo’s Young Adult trilogy, Shadow and Bone, the story is set in the Grishaverse, a fantastical world with an eastern european style. Readers immediately learn that their land had been ripped apart due to the fold, a “swath of darkness that suddenly appeared one day. It is a section of nearly impenetrable darkness that grows every year and contains volcra among other unnamed horrors” (fandom.com). Told from the perspective of Alina Starkov, she learns that she has an ability seemingly greater than those of other grisha. Because of her newfound power, she meets The Darkling, a leader among the grisha, ( and yes, obvious bad-guy alert aside, that’s what the other characters call him).
While Bardugo could’ve easily have written him into a typical “bad-boy”, The Darkling’s character is slowly revealed throughout the first book as the story’s main antagonist. Alina learns The Darkling is the reason for the fold’s existence, wanting to originally use it as a weapon against those who enslaved the grisha for their powers. From The Darkling’s perspective, he does not necessarily see himself as evil. Manipulative and ambitious? Sure, but he doesn’t see those traits as bad. Instead, they are desired traits that he thinks he has found in Alina, another grisha who could be his equal. This is seen throughout the trilogy, but it is in no way more apparent than in what has arguably become his most famous line in the books, “Fine, make me your villain”. Understanding his meaning behind this phrase, it’s easy to see why fans of the books have adorned their laptops, mugs, and t-shirts with this quote. In this scene between Alina and The Darkling, he is seemingly resigning himself to a villian-type role even though he would not place himself in it. He understands that there is almost no way he could convince Alina to join his side even after giving his own reasons, which he believes to be rational.
It’s also worth noting that Bardugo’s series (and its duology companion, Six of Crows) have been adapted into a Netflix Original. Just some info for those who are anticipating hearing that infamous line spoken aloud onscreen.
The discrepancy that exists between The Darkling’s view of himself and how Alina views him is what should make the reader finally see him as the story’s villain. Up until that point, he’s almost depicted as a possible love interest for Alina and someone who would fight alongside her against the monsters of the fold. With the plot twist of his villainous reveal, we’re supposed to root against The Darkling. However, this didn’t exactly happen. (There are still Darkling stans that exist on book twitter!) While I’ve pretty much spoiled the first book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, I won’t be doing so with the other two books, so I won’t reveal what happens to Alina or The Darkling. Instead, I’m going to explore what this fandom phenomenon might mean for the rest of pop culture.
I’d argue that people don’t want to see clear cut heroes and villains in every single piece of media. Morally grey characters are popping up more and more, and it’s because we find them relatable. Yes, it’s easy to watch Snow White and root against the Evil Queen, but the in-between characters provide so much more nuance. It’s why we’ve seen books like The Cruel Prince and shows like Game of Thrones succeed. Characters who struggle with what’s good and what’s evil are intriguing because it presents a moral social argument. When these types of stories are presented to us, we’re forced to examine every side and figure out where we fall instead of that choice already having been made for us. Villains who don’t fall into the clear category of cartoonish villainy provide for a deeper story arc. And for that, we should be grateful for their evil-doing.