How Bad is Bad?
I’m in the middle of reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. I’m not precisely loving it; I don’t dislike it, either, but I was expecting to be more wow-ed by it, given how much love it’s received from fans and critics and such. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks trying to put my finger on why I’m not really jazzed by it. I have a theory: I’m not impressed with the villains.
I don’t know about you, but villains are often my favorite parts of any given book/movie/show/play or whatever. I like Othello over Hamlet because I find Iago so damned fascinating and Claudius rather dull. I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Hook, thought Cobra had all the coolest vehicles, and would rather command a Star Destroyer than own the Millennium Falcon. Bad guys – really cool bad guys – make or break a book for me.
So here’s the thing with the Mistborn Trilogy: It is a world where the Dark Lord actually won and, a thousand years later, everybody been’s living under his thumb. When I saw that on the book jacket, I was pretty damned excited. “Oooo!” I thought, “This book oughta have some pretty fantastic bad guys.” Turns out, not really. I mean, the Steel Inquisitors are pretty cool, but they never do anything to get my blood going. They torture some folks with hooks, they execute a bunch of innocent people (by beheading, which seems a bit passe), which is okay, but they never hit me in the guts hard enough to make me either want them dead or think they’re awesome. As for the Lord Ruler himself? Well, turns out he’s mostly just grumpy and tired of people’s crap. His Obligators? They’re fascist bureaucrats, yeah, but they seem to spend most of their time observing marriages and enforcing laws. Unjust laws, yes, but, I don’t know, not evil enough, right? This is a world under a thousand years of darkness, right? Where are my mountains of skulls? Where are my cauldrons of blood on every street corner? Why aren’t I scared of these guys? As for The Well of Ascension, the worst folks get is Straff Venture, and he’s mostly just a callous jerk and cruel father. He’s no Darth Vader.
For me, villains run in two varieties. They either make you hate them so much you need them to get justice or you won’t be able to live in the world anymore or they make you so excited with terror that they’re the most awesome guys in the book. Let me list off some of my favorite villains that fall into either category:
Villains I Love to Hate: The Seanchan (The Wheel of Time), Cersei Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Freys (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Others (from Lost…early seasons), The Bondsmagi (Lies of Locke Lamora), Gollum, Wormtongue and Saruman, Arthur Donovan (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and so on.
Villains I Just Love: Darth Vader, The Forsaken (Wheel of Time), The Nazgul, The Druchii (Warhammer), Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Blofeld (of James Bond fame), Benjamin Linus (from Lost), JR Ewing (Dallas), Dr. Doom, Darkseid, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), and so on and so forth.
The Mistborn Trilogy, for as cool as the heroes are and for as much fun as Allomancy is, doesn’t have villains that fall into either category for me. This means the heroes are striving and fighting and struggling against enemies I find somehow underwhelming or the threats they pose seem abstract or indirect, rather than visceral and horrifying. There is nobody pitching lovable little Bran out a window on page 35. What we’re given is institutionalized cruelty on a social level. This is, of course, every bit as cruel and terrible as pitching a little boy out a window, but it doesn’t always feel that way. It is very easy to disassociate oneself emotionally from the cruelty of social institutions. That is why, after all, so many social institutions are cruel in real life. Sanderson, of course, is making a statement about the cruelty of social institutions; his work is, on some level, meant to be political and religious critique. I can appreciate that, of course, but that still doesn’t engage me.
I need my bad guys to pitch kids out windows on a whim, simple-as.