I’ve always loved an origin story. Show me the catalyst for Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman, or where Domino’s powers come from. Create spinoff series starring the quirky best friend or the mysterious sidekick and I’m totally there. Both serial and recursive, comics are the perfect medium for telling multi-strand, multi-character stories at multiple points in time. My all-time favorite origin story, though? The villain’s. Most likely, I’m already on board with the hero. Her backstory is pleasurable because it enriches her character, raises the stakes of her mission to protect, or perhaps complicates her loyalties to interestingly shift the way we see her relationships with other characters—all of which makes for good storytelling.
The villain’s origin story, though, has the potential to completely change the way I think of her. Even the coolest or most horrific villain is still merely a secondary character in the hero’s story. An obstacle they must overcome to achieve her goals. But the villain is the protagonist of her own story, and in that story her motivations for her behavior—whether it’s to take over the world, to use violence for political ends, or to destroy our hero—make characterological sense. These stories remind us that who is the hero and who is the villain is merely down to who’s telling the story.
While this is perhaps most familiar in comics terms, there is another genre that uses seriality and recursivity to open up space for characters who are the antagonist in one story to be the protagonist in another: romance. While some romance series follow one couple across multiple books, a large number of them are more loosely connected books that share a universe—a setting, a cast of characters, a family, etc.—but each book in the series features the story of a different couple. This is what my series, Middle of Somewhere, is: a queer romance trilogy, in which we meet all of the characters in the first book, but each book tells the story of a different couple. The first book, In the Middle of Somewhere, released last summer, and the second, Out of Nowhere, just came out.
The protagonist of In the Middle of Somewhere is Daniel Mulligan, an English professor from Philadelphia who grew up the intellectual misfit in a family of mechanics. He moves to Michigan for a teaching job and falls in love with Rex, a shy, flannel-clad furniture maker whose cozy cabin in the woods becomes the first place that Daniel’s ever really felt at home.
Throughout the book, we learn about all the ways Daniel’s brother Colin made life miserable for Daniel growing up, and their interactions on the page routinely leave Daniel hurt and upset. A great deal of Colin’s animosity seems to stem from his disapproval of Daniel being gay. In other words, Colin is 100% the villain of Daniel’s story.
About 2/3 of the way through the book, though, (spoiler alert) we learn that Colin is gay too. When the book first came out, the reaction to Colin was a consistent one-two punch that went: 1. “We hate Colin! He is the worst for hurting Daniel!” 2. “When will Colin get his own story?!” That is to say: I was writing a queer romance series, so the fact that Colin turned out to be gay automatically placed him in a category of potential protagonists, even though he was the antagonist of In the Middle of Somewhere.
Genre, then—queer series romance, in this case—changes the way the role of the villain signifies in the mind of the reader. If In the Middle of Somewhere had been literary fiction, for instance, the reveal that Colin was gay wouldn’t have shifted him from the category of the villain to that of the potential protagonist. But roping Colin into the genre by revealing his sexual orientation, meant that in the mind of the reader a whole new story suddenly blossomed, waiting to be told.
It’s not about sexual orientation in general, though in my series that was the signal to the reader. Rather, romance itself is a tool of empathy that readers of the genre are exquisitely attuned to. When they saw Colin in the arms of another man at an inopportune moment, the engine of the series began to thrum: here was total story potential. Being able to see someone in a romantic relationship helps us think of them as having a life outside their misdeeds or bad behaviors. It humanizes them.
Out of Nowhere is Colin’s story and, as a long-time comic fan and lover of the origin story, I was particularly excited to write a book that was essentially the story of how Colin became a villain. Not a supervillain, maybe—after all, my romance series doesn’t exactly have world domination or world destruction level stakes. But to make Colin understandable, sympathetic, even (dare I say it?) likeable to readers who loved Daniel and hated the brother who terrorized him … well, that was going to be a hell of a challenge.
Since Colin is the protagonist of his own story, though, and not simply the antagonist of Daniel’s, it was important to me that in making his behavior understandable I didn’t let him off the hook. This isn’t the kind of origin story with a dramatic secret reveal that ameliorates Colin’s behavior or renders it harmless. The harm he perpetrated stands, but we come to understand what circumstances caused it. Out of Nowhere isn’t a redemption story—kindness and love don’t undo violence and hate—it’s a story about how sometimes love helps us want to do better. Because we all cause harm. We all hurt people. We all behave badly. And we also fall in love, help one another, try again.
After all, even the most admirable heroes are the villains of someone’s story, and even the most despicable villains are loved by someone.
Roan Parrish is currently wandering between Philadelphia and New Orleans. When not she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—
Have a tip we should know? firstname.lastname@example.org