Villains, Punishment, and Fiction

Electric Chair photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I decided to offer some thoughts closely related to another recent post, about how we view evil and punishment in fiction. Generally we are fine with the bad guy getting what he deserves, except in cases when the villain wins for the purposes of the story and the character development. But there is an opinion I’ve seen floating around pockets of the blogosphere that looks at punishment itself as if it is barbarism, even when a fictional character gets his just desserts.

Everyone’s still reeling from the massacre in Aurora, CO. My prayers go to the families and friends of all the victims. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for them to find comfort and acceptance in the face of this indescribable horror. It’s heartbreaking when we hear of another shooting. We have a hard time contemplating the kind of acidic evil it takes to point a gun at a crowd and shoot indiscriminately, a jolt of recoil ending the life of someone’s daughter or son. We recognize a need for the perpetrator to face justice because of their actions.

I have seen and heard of many dark things, and still I cannot picture the kind of monstrous transformation I would have to go through before I did something similar to what James Holmes did. Make no mistake: all of us are capable of such evil. All too often I underestimate the darkness that resides in my heart and think I couldn’t possibly become James Holmes or Charles Manson.

It’s not a question of “Can I?” but “Will I?” There but for the grace of God go I, as the saying goes. Even though we have a conscience and can choose good, the potential for evil is always there. It’s not restricted to sociopaths, the mentally disturbed, or people who subscribe to a different worldview. The key lies with human choice.

And since I think good fiction is true to life, I believe we should integrate that understanding into fiction — the realization that tremendous evil can come from anyone. Maybe that realization is why the notion of punishing others makes some people squeamish. Almost no one wants punishment for a crime to catch up with them, after all. By nature, punishment is rough, hard, and always should be treated as a somber affair. Some people are so perturbed by punishment, they start talking as if it shouldn’t even be delivered.

Even with fictional villains, some don’t like the idea of a villain receiving it. I won’t name names, but I know of three or four specific people (though I am sure there are many others) who have a sneering disdain for “good vs. evil” stories when good curb-stomps evil. As if these stories were crafted to appeal to people with anger management issues. They prefer stories where the ideals of forgiveness and mercy are always going to have the last say; good triumphs over evil by mercy, or diplomatic talk, or using something abstract but attractive (like beauty or decency) to entice someone away from dark intentions. They’re very emotionally disturbed every time the side of good throws a fist.

Or a hammer. I just had to use this photo again.

They think beauty can save the world. They can’t imagine a version of the Joker who isn’t just misunderstood and won’t be wiled away from his anarchy by the right painting or poem. Every bad guy becomes Darth Vader, bad on the outside but with a good streak on the inside that will surely enlighten them in the right circumstances.

To their mind, seeking punishment makes you a vengeful, vindictive, even cruel individual. Even when you honestly look for justice and not petty revenge, they can’t tell the difference. Most likely, a lot of these people don’t know what it really means to be the victim of true evil, never knowing what the need for justice tastes like to someone who has been beaten into the ground. I don’t know what it tastes like, either. I haven’t had to face that kind of darkness just yet. But there is more to punishment than getting even.

This romanticized view of human nature, that evil men surely will listen to diplomacy and kindness, crumbles away when we look at the implacable evils in the real world. I can already hear Alfred Pennyworth’s speech from The Dark Knight:

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

That’s why punishment is needed. That’s why it has a vital place in fiction. Because some men and women can’t be talked out of their depravity and injustice, and will not seek forgiveness. We should forgive them anyway, but forgiveness is not antithetical to ensuring they are punished.

Of course, not every story needs or benefits from villains. Some have their focus elsewhere. Sometimes it is best to show a villain mercy, or gently lead them away from their evil. And sometimes when there is a villain, they get away with everything. We need those stories as well, of course. But we also need to keep seeing villains punished in some stories, to remind us of the need to punish them in real life. If we keep saying “Oh, how sad,” at every single tragedy, and silence the inner cry for a penalty for a senseless and evil act, we will inevitably look for solutions to human evil in the wrong place.

Again, the need for punishment arises out of human choice. Mercy and forgiveness form a beautiful language, one I wish everyone understood and spoke. But some people refuse to learn it.

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