Last week we exclusively premiered the book trailer for Marie Lu’s latest young adult dystopian, The Young Elites—a story of one girl’s descent into evil. In order to channel her character, Lu explored the darkness inside of herself and discovered that the line between hero and villain is an easy one to cross.
Let’s all admit it. Darkness is interesting.
Mass murderer Loki attracts wild throngs of fans all too happy to bow down to him. We adore the Joker even more than we adore Batman. My nephew calls Darth Vader “Lord Vader.” Maleficent > Princess Aurora. Sherlock is our favorite borderline psychopath. And Heisenberg is perhaps more famous now for blue meth than for his quantum mechanics research.
But villains aren’t the only ones in fiction who reveal moments of darkness. Even Superman—perhaps the most insufferably good guy ever—turned interesting inMan of Steel when young Clark Kent gets into trouble at school, rushes into a broom closet to hide from his teacher, and then burns his teacher’s hand by heating up the closet’s doorknob.
What? Even our noblest caped crusader is capable of intentionally hurting others in his anger? I’m in.
It’s no secret that we love our villains and anti-heroes. There is something fascinating and freeing about a person who doesn’t give a shit what others think, or who actually hits back when someone hits him. We don’t want to be bad guys in real life, but we all have a little villain living inside our heads, and sometimes, we want to see that mirrored back at us in fiction.
What is it, though, that actually separates villains from heroes? Anakin Skywalker has a tragic past, incredible powers, and dark secrets—but so does Superman. Why does Superman become a noble defender of mankind, while Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader?
This was the spark that inspired the idea for my latest novel, The Young Elites, a story about a girl named Adelina who is essentially the teen female version of Darth Vader, and her downfall into darkness. Villains are the heroes of their own stories, so the saying goes. I wanted to tell that story.
Finding that story, however, was much harder than I thought. The line between being an anti-hero and being downright evil is a thin one—and just as nobody is interested in a completely good guy, no one likes a “mwahaha” bad guy either. Just as we want to see a hero overcome his flaws, we also want to see some sort of reason in a villain’s madness, an explanation and a justification for why they do what they do. We want to see them shoved into darkness, not gleefully walk into it.
So I went back to the drawing board, again and again, with Adelina. Since the story is told in her head, I had to find a way to make even her darkest thoughts seem logical, maybe even morally right, from her twisted point of view. The problem was that the only way to do this was to become Adelina—become a villain—myself. And to become a villain, I not only had to bring out the little wicked voice in my head, but I had to stay that way for months on end, dwelling on my past sparks of badness.
Like that time in elementary school, when a kid made me so angry that I hit her. The time I cheated on a Computer Science test in high school. The time I was in college, and a loved one tried to apologize to me by buying me a brand new Macbook Pro. I responded by selling the Macbook on eBay, and then sending the person the receipt. It was the last time we ever spoke.
The time I shouted something so heartbreakingly mean to my mother that I made her cry.
I dwelt on these memories for a long time, letting them buzz around my head until I felt a little like a villain myself, like I could understand Adelina’s thirst for revenge and desire to lash out, as well as her guilt and grief. Like I could be Adelina. I sank until I started to wonder: What is the difference, really, between a hero and a villain?
Sometimes, there is none. Sometimes, the only difference is that you are obviously the hero, which means that guy over there must be the villain. That’s the moment when you start to wonder if Magneto really is on to something, or if maybe you’d see Superman differently if the story was told from Lex Luthor’s point of view, or if Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister is someone to root for.
When the villain can convince the reader that she is the hero, then you’ve succeeded. Even if you ultimately want Walter White to go down in flames, the Lannisters to lose the crown, or Darth Vader to be defeated, you still secretly cheer for them. You cheer not for their victory, but for their redemption. Because in their redemption, we find a chance to redeem ourselves.
Sometimes, that’s the only thing separating a villain and a hero.
Marie Lu (http://marielubooks.tumblr.com/) is the author of the New York Timesbestselling novels Legend and Prodigy. She graduated from the University of Southern California and jumped into the video game industry, working for Disney Interactive Studios as a Flash artist. Now a full-time writer, she spends her spare time reading, drawing, playing Assassin’s Creed, and getting stuck in traffic. She lives in Los Angeles, California (see above: traffic), with one boyfriend, one Chihuahua mix, and two Pembroke Welsh corgis.