Some of my favorite characters from both books and movies are the villains. I think it's because they're often more complex than our faithful protagonists. What caused him or her to act the way he or she does? What factors in their life influenced their villainy? Will they learn the errors of their ways? Why? Why? Why?
I'll illustrate this by analyzing one of my favorite villains; a barber by the name of Sweeney Todd. But of course that isn't his real name. He was once called Benjamin Barker, and he had a wife who was very beautiful. Together they had a daughter named Joanna.
Benjamin was a good man. He loved his family. But then...
"There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful... A foolish barber and his wife. She was his reason and his life...and she was beautiful, and she was virtuous. And he was naive. There was another man who saw that she was beautiful... A pious vulture of the law who, with a gesture of his claw removed the barber from his plate! Then there was nothing but to wait! And she would fall! So soft! So young! So lost and oh so beautiful!"
The cruel Judge Turpin wrongfully accuses Benjamin of a crime he did not commit and has him sent to an Australian penal colony so that he can have his way with Benjamin's wife, Lucy. Fifteen years later Benjamin escapes and returns to London using the alias "Sweeney Todd." He finds out that Lucy killed herself and that Judge Turpin has taken in Joanna Barker as his ward, who is basically imprisoned in his home.
Sweeney decides that he must get revenge on the judge. After teaming up with the cheerful but ever-sinister Mrs. Lovett who happens to own a pie shop that sits beneath Sweeney's old barber shop, they decide that Sweeney will practice getting revenge on the judge by slaughtering his barber shop clients and baking them into meat pies in order to hide the bodies.
The plan seems to work flawlessly. Since Sweeney Todd is a musical, throats are gleefully slashed and bodies are sent down a chute to be butchered all while the characters sing pleasant songs that I enjoy listening to again and again.
Yes, it's disturbing. But it's also FUNNY. Because seriously--PIES? You're killing people and having unwitting customers pay to eat them? It's laughable. Good old Sweeney. You may be a creep, but we still love you because you're messed up and we feel sorry for you because of all the crap you've gone through in your life.
Now for the flip side of the Problem of Villainy: the kind of villain who is real.
There is a man named Kermit Gosnell whom some of you may have heard of. He is a real, flesh-and-blood human being. He exists. He is not the product of an author's imagination--which is unfortunate.
Gosnell provided abortions to women from 1972 until January 2011, when he was arrested for eight counts of murder against newborns and a Nepali refugee named Karnamaya Mongar who died as a result of the abortion performed on her. When Gosnell's Philadelphia clinic was raided, it was discovered that he had been reusing medical instruments on women without sterilizing them and that cats had wandered freely in the clinic and left urine and feces everywhere that evidently were not cleaned up.
This may sound bad, but it gets worse. Gosnell hired teenagers to administer anesthesia to patients, and unlicensed medical personnel helped perform the procedures. The remains of 45 fetuses were found stuck in the freezer in milk jugs and orange juice cartons. Investigators also found a row of jars containing only the severed feet of fetuses Gosnell had killed, as if he were a serial killer collecting trophies from his tiny victims.
To top it all off, Gosnell has admitted that as many as three fetuses were born alive each day. Many of these were viable and far past the legal abortion limit of 24 weeks. To solve the problem of having living babies in the clinic, he or a worker would stab the babies in the back of the neck with a pair of scissors in order to sever their spinal cord. If these babies had received medical treatment instead of virtual beheadings, they very likely would still be alive today and in the loving arms of adoptive families.
I have a vivid imagination. I know that the babies would have been crying and flailing and struggling to breathe. Gosnell never gave them a chance. He committed, in essence, infanticide.
It makes me sick. It makes me burn with a righteous rage knowing that he got by with this for years because inspectors never responded to complaints from former patients. I don't care what Gosnell's childhood was like. I don't care why he decided to become an abortionist. I only care about the victims who died at his hand and pray that they will receive justice.
Nobody is laughing at Gosnell, either.
But this gets me thinking. Is it okay to laugh at Sweeney Todd and his murderous actions because he isn't real? Or is it wrong to do so simply because murder itself IS real, and by laughing at its fictional portrayal I am somehow being disrespectful of those who have been purposely killed by another human being? Is there something wrong with me? Do I need to reexamine my conscience? Because I would never, EVER laugh at a real-life murderer. It isn't funny. So why would I laugh at a murderer who never existed?