Better To Reign In Hell: Literature's Unpunished Villains

Aug 22, 2016
Originally published on August 22, 2016 5:17 pm

Snidely Whiplash may have been famous for yelling, "Curses, foiled again!" And those "meddling kids" have spoiled many a villainous plot.

But sometimes, good doesn't win the day. Sometimes the bad guys get away with it.

And if we're going to talk about villains, let's talk about the biggest of the Big Bads, the Grand-daddy of Ghouls, the Imperator of Iniquity — Satan himself. Specifically, the version of Satan set down by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Like a lot of kids, I first encountered Milton's Satan in high school English class. And luckily, my tenth grade English teacher Rhoda Trooboff still lives here in Washington, D.C., and is more than willing to talk Milton.

Satan doesn't just get away with it, she says, "he brings his buddies into it. And together they form a community that sounds as they describe it, really exciting. I think that model of these really well-written villains are so compelling to the reader that they're, I hate to say it, more interesting than the good guys."

Sure, he's been cast out of Heaven, but Satan pretty much has it made in Hell.

Milton's Satan is the ancestor of our modern antiheroes, the kinds of guys who flip the fire of damnation into a blaze of glory. But the more reading I did for this story, the more I noticed another kind of unpunished villain ... people like O'Brien, the terrifyingly calm Inner Party member in George Orwell's 1984.

"If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever," O'Brien says, as he tortures protagonist Winston Smith into betraying his lover Julia.

Like death and taxes, O'Brien is inescapable. And like many successful villains, he truly believes in his cause. "Those are the ones that tend to get away with it, because they don't get distracted," says fantasy author Victoria Schwab. I caught up with her at this year's San Diego Comic Con because she's kind of an expert on villains. A few years back, she set herself this challenge:

"If I wrote an entire book that only had bad people, could I make you root for them as if they were the hero."

Schwab points to villains like the nobly murderous serial killer Dexter, or the X-men's long-running antagonist — and sometimes ally — Magneto. (And yes, I know, Magneto ends up in prison a lot. But he keeps coming back).

"They have their own ethics, they have their own system, they have their own code that they're following. So even if it's not our code, the fact that they do have a code, that they're not anarchic, is something that readers and viewers find really appealing."

And I think that's the real heart of the matter — the blackened, shriveled, eeeevil heart. Because after all, it's the readers who want to see the bad guy get his just desserts, and it's the author who dispenses the punishment.

So if you're a literary villain, here's some free advice — adopt a cause, practice your smoldering glances and your withering quips, because charming the audience is your key to getting away with it. Whatever IT happens to be.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We've talked a lot about good books this summer, but our books editor Petra Mayer has been thinking about the bad, like villains in literature who get away with being bad.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: If we're going to talk about villains, let's talk about the biggest of the big bads, the granddaddy of ghouls, the imperator of iniquity, Satan himself. Specifically, the version of Satan set down by John Milton in "Paradise Lost."

RHODA TROOBOFF: Page 218, book one, line...

MAYER: That's my high school English teacher Rhoda Trooboff. Like a lot of kids, I first encountered Milton's Satan and the idea that the villain could be more interesting than the hero in high school English class. And luckily, Ms. Trooboff still lives near me and was happy to read me some Milton.

TROOBOFF: (Reading) What matter where if I be still the same and what I should be all but less than he whom sunder has made great. Here at last, we shall be free. And then a bit later, (reading) better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

MAYER: So he's kind of the ultimate getting-away-with-it guy.

TROOBOFF: Yes, and not just getting away with it, he brings his buddies into it. And together, they form a community that sounds, as they describe it, really exciting.

MAYER: Sure, he's been cast out of heaven, but Satan pretty much has it made in hell. Milton's Satan is the ancestor of our modern antiheroes, the kinds of guys who flip the fire of damnation into a blaze of glory. But the more reading I did for this story, the more I noticed another kind of unpunished villain, the kind who embodies an unbeatable system.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1984")

RICHARD BURTON: (As O'Brien) If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.

MAYER: That's O'Brien, the terrifyingly calm Inner Party member in George Orwell's "1984." And that's the scene in the movie adaptation where he finally breaks protagonist Winston Smith, torturing him with a cage of rats until Smith betrays his lover Julia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1984")

JOHN HURT: (As Winston Smith) I don't care what you do to her, but do it to her. Tear her face off and do it to Julia, not to me.

MAYER: Like death and taxes, O'Brien is inescapable. And like many successful villains, he truly believes in his cause.

VICTORIA SCHWAB: Those are the ones that tend to get away with it 'cause they don't get distracted.

MAYER: That's fantasy author Victoria Schwab. I caught up with her at this year's San Diego Comic-Con because she's kind of an expert on villains. A few years back, she set herself this challenge.

SCHWAB: If I wrote an entire book that only had bad people, could I make you root for one of them as though they were the hero?

MAYER: Schwab points to villains like the nobly murderous serial killer Dexter or the "X-Men's" long-running antagonist and occasional ally Magneto. And, yes, I know Magneto ends up in prison a lot, but he keeps coming back.

SCHWAB: They have their own ethics. They have their own system. They have their own code that they're following. So even if it's not our code, the fact that they do have a code, that they're not anarchic is something that I think readers and viewers find really appealing.

MAYER: And I think that's the real heart of the matter, the blackened, shriveled, evil heart because after all, it's the readers who want to see the bad guy get his just desserts. And it's the author who dispenses the punishment. So if you're a literary villain, here's some free advice. Adopt a cause, practice your smoldering glances and your withering quips because charming the audience is your key to getting away with it, whatever it happens to be.

Petra Mayer, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.