Whenever I hear someone talk about getting even, or enjoying “karma,” I wonder about their media literacy. Aside from the occasional Inigo Montoya out to avenge their father’s death, rarely is the hero’s story a revenge plot. As a literary device, revenge is generally only employed to generate sympathy (however slight) for the villain. If you are plotting revenge, or laughing as someone “gets theirs,” ask yourself whether you really want to be a villain because that’s how you will come across.
villain n. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes [from the Oxford English Dictionary].
I almost didn’t finish my post for Writer’s Quote Wednesday on time this week because I’ve finally lost all hope that Spring will ever arrive and resigned myself to staying in bed with this stupid flu, but I chose Emily Bronte’s line about treachery and violence because I’ve been trying to better understand the burning desire some feel for what they consider justice.
Retributive justice, revenge plots, and the Western bastardization of karma are all based on the notion that justice looks like a pair of scales that balance rightness/goodness in the universe. To take justice into our own hands involves appointing ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner. It makes sense, then, that the original use of the word “villain” was to refer to someone who was low-born with a head full of ignoble ideas.
I like Bronte’s quote about treachery and violence because it emphasizes these fundamental characteristics of someone walking around with a revenge plot: (1) their own spear is something they’ve “resorted” to, which has consequently made their character more base, and (2) it hurts to be angry and vengeful; it’s like a violence we do to ourselves. It is the violence that a villain does to themselves and villains rarely end well in fiction.