The beautiful villain.
[photo courtesy: Flickr Creative Commons; 28 Misguided souls]
We've all read or watched them on telly. The gorgeous, sexy but inexplicably nasty villain.
In fairy-tales as children nearly all the villains were ugly. The hideous witches, the ugly stepsisters, the revolting trolls and ogres - all domineering and tormenting the beautiful Rapunzel's and Cinderella's of the world. Children tend to relate better to the ugly villain - an individual that evokes revulsion and horror through looks alone. As we grow, the villain's ugliness matters less. As you hit the tweenie age bracket, the villains can become more physically appealing - the Ice Queen in the Narnia Series for example. She is beautiful, but flawed. She is icy and her cruel nature is what the reader finds abhorrent. By the time we are reading as teenagers, we've learned that sometimes the shiny apple is the one with the rotten core.
The beautiful villain is an interesting device used in writing. The beautiful villain exists on the premise that "beauty is only skin deep". This is a notion we are reminded of constantly as self conscious teens - but ignore completely as we rocket into our 30's and beyond. In a world of plastic surgery and airbrushing, beauty and what it hides is an intriguing concept. We all know that those perfect A-list celebrities without a single frown line are all screaming primadonna's, manic-depressives or weirdo's in their spare time don't we? Or do we just hope they are - as we sit in front of our computers in our pyjama's googling their images?
As it is human nature to compare oneself to another, I think readers get a little sick of flawless heroines with whom they cannot relate. So, I see the beautiful villain as miniature rebellion of sorts! A rebellion against the commercialised and unattainable image of beauty. The lustrous skin (without any dry patches), the flawless brow and the breasts that never sag are more or less unattainable to the average individual. So using that flawless beauty as a clever veneer to hide what lurks beneath, is automatically engaging.
The fact that beauty (in the West at least) has become so commercialised, has changed a few things in modern literature. We like our heroines to be pretty, but its perfectly acceptable if they're a little plain or chubby - because it makes them real. This is not to say that all heroines must be ugly and all villains must be beautiful. The trick is to make characters readily believable and accessible to the reader and make them want to read.
Using a beautiful villain is sure to engage readers, but only when written with tact and care. Lets face it as I go to bed with a good book (after smearing my face with wrinkle fighting cream) I get a little kick out of knowing that 'plain jane' eventually gets her guy, and the obnoxious silicone Barbie doll finds that Ken has run off with the Kewpie doll!