Everybody Loves A Villain
‘And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.’
Richard III was not stupid; villains rarely are. They’re vain, pompous, blind, flawed, egotistical and psychotically ambitious. One of the most fun villains for Londoners has been Boris Johnson, a thought-skimming public school boy with a sense of reality only notable for being entirely absent. His disastrous career of failure was topped with a coruscating New York Times analysis that accused him of lying repeatedly to the British public to further his own ambitions.
It was once unusual for such a damning overview of a politician to take place while said politician is still active, but times are getting tougher and Johnson deserves it. As journalist Jenni Russell says; ‘All of Mr. Johnson’s weaknesses have been exposed: his lazy reluctance to do detail, his preference for bluster over thinking, his contempt for business.’ His weaknesses were laid bare during his tenure as London’s most catastrophic mayor, when hare-brained schemes were showcased because the day-to-day running of a large city was too boring for him.
We find villains in all cities, usually a bit slick, a bit corrupt, a bit too egotistical to think they’ll be caught. They’re out there burying the bad news, manipulating the ignorant and underestimating the poor. We see them in surprising complexity and flat-out stupidity.
History can make it hard for us to see who was an outright villain, even with all the facts at hand. Was Lyndon B Johnson less of a villain than Richard Nixon for failing to stop Vietnam? When Hannah Arendt demoted Eichmann from monster to man at his trial she caused an international outcry, but followed her conscience. In the play ‘Here Lies Love’ Imelda Marcos was given an easy ride in her rise from innocent farm girl to autocratic monster, but we now know that for two decades she was kept in power by America – what bearing does that have on the making of a villain?
Countless ‘charismatic’ (ie. villainous) leaders are imitating Trump, a childlike thinker so vain and ignorant that villainous qualities cleverly work in his favour. It could be that Trump is the only politician to have come up with a way through the clearly unworkable leadership system. Erdogan is taking the same route in Turkey (the country is now over-extended and heading for economic collapse) and Poland is reversing the tide of time to return to Catholic puritanism.
The problem for writers now is that no villain we create can ever be as exciting and newsworthy as Trump (he’s been good for the New York Times’s circulation – see the brilliant four parter ‘The Fourth Estate’) and for the Guardian, a fine paper now in danger of turning a profit. Fictional villains now seem like pallid underperformers.
What I’d love to know is who you think is the best fictional villain? I’m ruling out Moriarty and Fu Manchu on the grounds of over-familiarity, but I’d love to know about anyone else you can come up with – and what makes them good villains.