torsdag 29 augusti 2013

Some expressions from a villain-lover's glossary

While waiting for the next villain crush to hit me (and to be perfectly honest, I'm not looking ultra-hard for a new one at the moment), I can while away the time by defining some expressions -  related to the theme of villains and villain-loving - which I will probably use in my blog posts sooner or later (some have already had an airing or two):

Villain in distress: formed on the template of "damsel in distress". Describes a villain at bay, showing a surprising vulnerability which goes to the heart of seasoned villain-lovers like myself. While it's annoying, in a way, that bad guys so often land in deep trouble, it is a win-win situation for them when it comes to impressing the fans. If they fight back until the last, like Uriah Heep, they come across as plucky. If, on the other hand, they break down completely, the supporter reaction is "Aaah, poor baby". Either way, the hero will end up not looking his best if he insists on gloating over his enemy's downfall. The villain in distress particularly might actually gain support from readers/audiences who would not normally root for him, so a canny hero treads carefully. The classic example of a villain in distress is Bulstrode in Middlemarch, and Eliot is wise enough not to pit her hero Lydgate against him but rather to tie their fates together. The novel's other hero Will Ladislaw is foolish enough to make Bulstrode cry at one point (unforgivable!), but he is noticeably absent from town when the banker's world really starts to fall apart.

Leader of the pack appeal: As in the line - full of profound truth - from the hit by the Shangri-Las: "They told me he was ba-ad, but I knew he-e was sa-ad, that's why I fell for - the leader of the pack". This expression is of course similar to the previous one, and a villain in distress always has leader of the pack appeal in droves. But there is a subtle difference: leader of the pack appeal is not dependent on a certain situation, it is a state of mind. There are bad guys, and plenty of them, who are unhappy all the time, even when they're apparently successful. Triumphs are enjoyed so feverishly there is little real happiness in it. The leader of the pack villains carry a secret sadness with them wherever they go. If only we, their trusted admirers, could be there and nurse their wounded souls! Then things would have been quite different - or not. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby are good examples of villains with leader of the pack appeal.

Beagle boy appeal: As in the quote from an Uncle Scrooge adventure by Don Rosa which goes roughly like this (always allowing for that it's been translated into Swedish and then back again into English): "It felt somehow honest to cross swords with those Beagle boys. They looked like villains, were villains and were proud of it." This well sums up the appeal of the unashamed, self-confessed bad guy. In comics, he'd be the one to chuckle "Thanks for the compliment" when someone exlaims "You scoundrel!" In more serious contexts, the brush strokes won't be quite as broad as that, but the idea is the same. A beagle boy villain revels in his villainy and invites us to revel with him. Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop is a beagle boy villain, and perhaps the only one of Dickens's main villainous characters who is practically without any hint of leader-of-the-packiness. I may be mistaken, because I only know them from reputation, but I wager that soap baddies like JR Ewing are beagle boys too.

You'd think that leader of the pack appeal and beagle boy appeal would be each other's opposites, but it's not as simple as that. Each type of villainy carries with it its own problems: leaders of the pack risk getting too soppy and sensitive - lethal for a villain - and beagle boys risk shallowness and vulgarity. And so as often as not, a successful villain blends leader of the pack appeal and beagle boy appeal. It's called having your cake and eating it, and it's something villains are very good at.

Villain surrogate: Surprisingly rare character considering his usefulness: someone who displays the same style and cynicism as a villain, but is eventually revealed to be on the side of common decency after all. See Jaggers in Great Expectations.

High-prestige/Middle-prestige/Low-prestige villains It would be hard to find someone who has never, ever rooted just a little bit for a villain. But there are differences as to how far the great multitude are prepared to go in this regard. I have already mentioned the problem with high-prestige villains on this blog: they are universally popular, and so are just that little bit unsatisfactory for us hard-liners. Without the ordinary, unimaginative punter condemning our dearest love with words like: "Ugh, he's a creep", where exactly would we come in? Anyhow, you know a character is a high-prestige villain when no-one is the least bit surprised at your confessing that he's your favourite character: the reactions will rather be "of course!" and "mine too!". Count Fosco is and remains the prime example.

If you admit to liking a middle-prestige villain, there will be a few raised eyebrows, but you won't be in a minority of one. There are others who think like you, but they are a select group, like a club. Take Uriah Heep: most people may think he's awful, but he did get a rock group named after him. Most villains - and in my view the best - are to be found in the middle-prestige category.

If you admit a weakness for a low-prestige villain, someone is likely to call the nearest lunatic asylum. These are the really hard cases, deficient not only in morals but in style as well. They are not glamorous enough to encourage fan clubs: they're lacking in both leader of the pack and beagle boy appeal, in fact in any sort of appeal. And yet: such a challenge! Monsieur Lheureux in Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a low-prestige villain, a consciously deglamourised version of the Greedy Businessman Scoundrel beloved by writers such as Balzac. All the same - just a hint of the balzacian lynx remains in his make-up. And if we villain-lovers don't take pity on the runt of the litter, who will?