When I learned this morning of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of American attackers, I found myself emitting whoops of joy. The whoops came in spite of myself, because like most Americans, I don't cultivate a practice of rejoicing at the death or destruction even of adversaries. But bin Laden wasn't just an adversary: he loomed large as the Enemy, the Dark Lord of our time. His death felt like a release, a vindication, the fulfillment of a long-frustrated quest for retribution.
Bin Laden had many of the attributes of a great villain or antagonist in fiction, and I think authors have something to learn by examining why. For one thing, bin Laden was huge in his ambition, which was no less than to defeat Western humanism and return the world to an idealized version of a medieval theocracy. Mythic villains have to be after something big, something that matters. And note that if the villain is to be a leader, that goal has to be one that comes to be shared by large numbers of people. It has to appeal to the followers' sense of identity, belonging, and highest values. For a villain to have power, he has to present a vision of the future that has a logic and appeal of its own, just as the idea of returning to an incorruptible emirate guided by the wisest men and best laws has appealed to so many in the Islamic world over the past ten years.
Beyond his vision and goals, bin Laden had other characteristics that made him charismatic. He was a billionaire ascetic, apparently indifferent to luxury or even basic comforts. He cultivated a reputation for courage, appearing fearless in the face of death. He carefully managed his image, appearing grandfatherly, beatific, and soft-spoken, beseeching Americans more in sorrow than in anger as he urged us to turn away from our leaders and our involvement in the Middle East. He had the trappings of goodness, even of saintliness. Remember, this was a man hundreds if not thousands of other men were willing to die for.
Too often in fiction, especially in fantasy and in writing for children, we create villains nobody would willingly follow. When we create monsters who rule only by fear and torture, like Voldemort, Sauron, the Emperor of Star Wars, and many lesser villains, we risk making stooges or cartoon figures of their followers. There may be a cathartic shudder of satisfaction in reading about the defeat of such creatures, but authors miss out on a chance to portray the true attraction of evil. Evil doesn't feel evil at first. It feels meaningful, powerful, perhaps convenient (think embezzlement) or perhaps noble (think of National Socialism restoring the dignity of Germany).
Our adversaries have their own ideologies, their own persuasive arguments, and even their own virtues. There is something to admire in them, maybe even something the heroes on our side lack. It shouldn't always be easy at the outset of a fictional work to decide where goodness lies. (One example of a series where it is not easy is Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials.) I believe even young readers can tolerate a degree of subtlety and initial uncertainty about where their allegiance should lie. And that's important. After all, the first step in fighting evil lies in recognizing it, wherever it arises.