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How to Detect an Unreliable Partner

A Personal Perspective: How great writers depict villains.

Key points

  • It may be helpful to look at how the great writers engage our interest in a villain in order to recognize one in life.
  • Shakespeare's Richard 111 seduces with his sincerity, his wit, and his skillful use of flattery.
  • Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley engages our sympathy with his childhood story: an orphan brought up by an aunt who calls him a "sissy."

It is perhaps useful to look at the villains portrayed in literature and discover by what means they are able to engage our interest, to hide their evil doings behind a certain facade, to make us follow them and at moments identify with them and even to root for them.

If we take Shakespeare's Richard 111, surely one of the earliest anti-heroes, we notice from the start of the play how he speaks directly to the audience, confides in us: "Now is the winter of our discontent," with apparent sincerity. Early on in the play, he admits to his ambition, his diabolical plans, and with his wit and frankness wins at least our interest and a certain fascination in his outrageous acts.

In the scene with Lady Anne, he manages to seduce even this woman (and perhaps his audience) whose husband and father-in-law he has just killed. He uses flattery and at the same time blames her, the victim for his crimes, telling her that these deaths are her fault, he has killed because of her beauty and his great love for her.

"Your beauty was the cause of that effect—

Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep.

To undertake the death of all the world,

So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom."

He offers to die himself, giving her his sword, telling her too, that she must use her Christian forgiveness and have pity on him. He wins her and to some extent his audience by the use of such outrageous behavior.

If we take a more recent example of a villain like Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's "Talented Mr Ripley" he is presented from the start as an underdog who has suffered in his childhood, an orphan, losing his parents and living with an aunt who calls him a "sissy." He gains our sympathy immediately in a scene where his aunt makes him run beside the car, for example. We are moved because he is hardworking and ambitious despite these considerable setbacks, and because of his starry-eyed admiration for his friend, Dickie Greenleaf who has everything he wants: class, money, a boat, arrogance. We begin to root for him and we wish him success despite that he takes Dickie Greenleaf's place and goes on from there to kill again.

These examples show us how dangerous an account of unfortunate circumstances that might gain our sympathy can be particularly, if told with wit and humor and apparent self-deprecating sincerity, a confession of sins: "I've always been a narcissist, I know." Flattery, of course, can charm us instantly. And how easily we can be made to feel guilty for the sins of others.

All of this when in the hands of someone skillful can be used to gain our interest and even our approval. So beware.

Copyright Sheila Kohler Used with Permission
Source: Copyright Sheila Kohler Used with Permission


Richard 111 by William Shakespeare

"The Talented Mr Ripley" by Patricia Highsmith ( Norton)