Any of these character types on their own would make a compelling villain. Downworlders are the offspring (whether literally or symbolically) of demons, most of which are mindless monsters driven to hurt and destroy. As a result, many Downworlders succumb to impulses much darker than the ones their more human counterparts even possess. In fact, a case could be made that the evil that Downworlders do is tied directly to their demonic heritage. Either their inclination to do harm is innate (as with faeries, who are born with a cold, capricious nature), or when they transition into their new life, new instincts develop that push them to do harm (as with humans turned into vampires, who must struggle against the new desires burning under their skin).
But in the Mortal Instruments series, Downworlders aren’t villains, not really. Not as a group. Just because someone is turned into a vampire doesn’t mean they have to be evil. Simon struggles with the change, still wanting to be the boy he was before he was bitten, and while he stumbles on his path, he still strives to be better. Luke sought to master his werewolf side in order to keep his loved ones safe, and seems to have succeeded. Magnus may possess a physical manifestation of demonic heritage (his cat eyes), long life, and the ability to do magic, but otherwise he seems as human as anyone else.
Of all the different creatures we meet during the course of the Mortal Instruments series, there’s only one who proves himself to be utterly unredeemable, fantastically evil, and gloriously unhinged. And he’s not a Downworlder at all; he’s human.
The Life and Crimes of Valentine Morgenstern
It’s probably no surprise by this point that there’s a special place for Valentine Morgenstern in my heart, a place I reserve for the most deliciously evil characters. Right from the start, Valentine’s role is clear. It’s in his name (or at least his last name). Morgenstern means “morning star,” a reference to Lucifer, who fell from heaven for his sins against God.
Valentine, raised in Idris, was an exceptional child who excelled at his Shadowhunter training and seemed poised for great things. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, these great things skewed toward the darker end of the spectrum. He is extremely attractive, intelligent, and possessed the kind of charisma that would have served him well as a politician, if not a king. Instead, Valentine became the leader of a splinter group of disaffected young Shadowhunters who believed they were superior to the Downworlders and that the Accords that kept a peace between the two was an offense. After his father’s death at the hands of a werewolf, Valentine’s negative views on Downworlders became even more extreme, and the Circle became a rebellion in truth. Valentine no longer simply wanted to discuss the superiority of Shadowhunters; he set his sights higher than that. He wanted to break the Accords.
Valentine interests me so much because he’s a man of extremes. He is an idealist who wants to see evil purged from the world, but he became a revolutionary willing to do anything—evil included—to keep the Accords from being renewed. He is a zealot who wants all Downworlders destroyed, but he is also an opportunist who has no qualms against using those very same Downworlders to achieve his goals. He is a father who loves his adopted son enough to forgive him his rebellions and repeatedly extend an olive branch to him (in his own way), but he is also a monster who experimented on three children still in the womb without their mothers’ knowledge or consent and without caring about the consequences.
For a man who despises all that Downworlders are, Valentine’s deeds rival any of their greatest crimes with ease. He has started wars, drafted armies of demons to torture and kill fellow Shadowhunters—the same people he was claiming to try to save—and even gone up against the angels themselves, thinking that he knows better than they. Even the worst of the Downworlders tend to kill their victims quickly. They don’t keep them chained up in their basements for sixteen years, torturing them for their secrets. And through all of this, Valentine still considers himself the hero of his own story.
In an attempt to bolster his army in the early days of his campaign to acquire the Mortal Instruments, Valentine created a number of Forsaken by using runes on mundanes. He knows that the mundane body cannot handle the runes, that it becomes misshapen and twisted and that the end result is a sort of mindless monster. He knows too that once a person becomes Forsaken, there is no turning him or her back. And Valentine still condemns his army to insanity and eventual death.
Vampires drink blood in order to survive. It may not be the most noble action, but they do it to survive. When Valentine murders Downworlder children, it is with much darker motive: to quench the Mortal Sword in their blood, in order to swing its alignment from angelic to demonic. He kills to strengthen his control over the demon hordes he needs to strike out at the Clave.
All of the things he does are in service of a single endgame: to cleanse and purify the Shadowhunter race and return it to its former glory. Once Valentine summons Raziel, he plans to ask the Angel to remove the angel blood from any Shadowhunters who do not drink from Valentine’s altered cup—which means that the newly human Nephilim, still covered in Marks, would instantly become Forsaken. Such was Valentine’s plan for pruning what he saw as a corrupt government and population: mass murder.
Humanity: The Root of All Evil?
What makes Valentine’s actions even more disturbing is the fact that Valentine is human. He’s not necessarily predisposed to acts of evil the same way demons are. While I say that Valentine is human, that’s not entirely true. He, like all Nephilim (and Clary and Jace more than the rest), has the blood of an angel running through his veins. If anything, that should bolster his humanity. But Valentine’s humanity isn’t, like Simon’s, a counterweight to his darker impulses. It’s the source of them.
What does it mean to be human? The word “humanity” refers to the human race as a collective whole but also to treating people with sympathy and compassion. One of the synonyms for “human”? Humane. All three words have the same root, suggesting that treating others with compassion, in a way that is humane, is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. That because we’re human, we are predisposed to acts of kindness, in the same way that the Mortal Instruments series suggests that a demonic heritage can, and sometimes does, predispose one toward more brutal behaviors.
But being human has a dark side too. When we talk about human nature, it’s almost always cast in a negative light. It’s an admission of our failings. “I’m only human” is what we say when we make a mistake or when we strive for something only to fail. “What can you do? It’s human nature” is what we say when we, or others, don’t live up to our ideals of benevolence. In short, to be human is to wrestle with two related but contrasting ideas: that our nature is inherently compassionate but that we will act without compassion often, and we must accept not only that it has happened before but also that it will happen again.
Fundamentally, then, to be human is to know what is good, to be tempted by what is evil, and to choose to strive, over and over again, for the former over the latter. If this sounds like the same struggle Simon experiences in becoming a vampire, that’s not an accident. After all, Downworlders are human too; it’s what makes them different from demons. They are not mindless creatures driven only to destroy. They too can choose. (And who’s to say that the root of Downworlders’ darkness isn’t human in origin, just amplified by demon blood beyond what a normal person experiences?)
Valentine is exceptional only in that, though he like all men is born with a choice between acts of humanity and acts of destruction, he chooses destruction almost every time. He isn’t an animalistic devourer trapped between worlds, hungry only for something it can shatter apart and rend between its jaws. He’s a man, a cultured man. And even though he knows the pain of loss and the dangers of war, he sees violence as having more value than kindness.
What makes Valentine such a great villain, however, is not that he is a cautionary tale about following one’s darker impulses. It’s that he’s familiar. Shades of Valentine echo in every history class, every time we learn about a despot’s rise to power or a cult leader who sacrifices his followers rather than be swayed from his plans, because Valentine’s not trying to destroy the world, bring about the end of days, increase his personal abilities, or take on the powers of a god. He’s trying to change the world.
Valentine reignites a race war. He starts an actual war. But his motivation is a high-minded one: He’s trying to change things for what he believes is the better. He’s trying to preserve—and then improve upon—tradition. Shadowhunters were originally given their powers by the Angel in order to protect humanity from the demons and the Downworlders. Valentine just wants to make them purer. Stronger. He wants to make them better. And in that, Valentine’s evil is the most human one of all: evil done in the service of the same ideals that are supposed to inspire us to strive for good.
This is part of why I love Valentine so much as a villain. Take away the supernatural elements, the behavioral disorders, and his “unique” views on parenting, and he’s the kind of villain we see every day. He’s the smooth-talking politician filling up news networks. He’s the charismatic leader of an oppressive regime who has the undying loyalty of his followers. He’s the parent who just can’t accept that his children are not carbon copies of himself and cannot accept that they may hold different beliefs. His behavior is chilling not because we can’t imagine it but because we all too easily can.
Valentine’s ultimate fate is particularly poignant because of how his plan is unraveled. When Clary creates the Alliance rune at the end of City of Glass, she turns what Valentine holds up as the flaw in the Angel’s plan—that Downworlders have gifts that the Nephilim don’t—into an asset. And she does it from a place of compassion and heart. From humanity. Valentine is literally brought down by the antithesis of all he holds dear: Shadowhunters working with Downworlders, as equals, both bringing something unique and important to the table.
It’s not just how Valentine is defeated that is important, it’s who defeats him: his children, who are strong enough to do so only because of what he has made them. They have every reason to become like him—Clary through blood, Jace through upbringing—but they reject him instead. (Even the name Clary gives her new rune, Alliance, shows how far she is from her father.)
It’s the humanity in Valentine that makes him so fascinating. And in the end, it is his own humanity—his need to leave a legacy, through his children—that leads to his demise.
Scott Tracey was born and raised near Cleveland, Ohio. His debut novel, Witch Eyes, is a 2012 ALA Popular Paperback pick and one of the top ten LGBT Kindle books of 2011 at Amazon.com. His lifelong love of villains (and a serious aversion to apples) started with the Evil Queen in Snow White. You can find him on Twitter at @scott_tracey, and on his website at http://www.Scott-Tracey.com.
Kelly Link and Holly Black
In Kelly Link and Holly Black’s charming essay-slashdialogue, they deconstruct the idea of immortality in the Mortal Instruments books (the series does have the word “mortal” in the title, after all). Is it a blessing or a curse to live forever? And how are various characters changed not just by living forever, but by knowing someone who will? There are occasional interjections by me, but on the whole I tried to stay out of it and let the discussion unfold!
Immortality and Its Discontents
In Which Holly Black and Kelly Link Discuss Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments
Holly: When we sat down to talk about this essay, it happened to be in a room where Cassandra Clare was hard at work on her next book. We thought we would just have the conversation in front of her and see if she wanted to pitch in.
Kelly: It seemed appropriate, since this is often the way that the three of us work: Everyone doing their own writing, and stopping when necessary to discuss a plot point or read what someone else is working on and make suggestions.
So. Why do young adults (and for young adults, let’s go ahead and make it all readers) like books, like Cassandra Clare’s, about immortal beings like vampires and faeries?
Holly: Well, I remember as a teenager being constantly told that I was going to change. That every time I dyed my hair blue or declared my love for a particular band or book or thing, someone (usually my mother) would say that I would regret it once I was older. And I remember thinking that it seemed to me that the way people talked about getting older, it seemed a lot like getting possessed. Immortality is stasis, but stasis doesn’t always seem like a bad thing, especially if the alternative is losing some essential part of one’s identity.
Kelly: So immortality is change, and it’s also stasis. The best of both worlds! I guess it offers the chance to continue to be yourself, even as the world around you changes. And that seems exciting—as if you’re the thing that the world revolves around. And of course, as everyone will say, young adult fiction offers the opportunity, without risk, to explore different kinds of lives and adulthood and choices. Like science fiction, it’s a literature of what-if. And the biggest what-if of all is, What if we didn’t have to die? One of the very first stories is the story of Gilgamesh, which is all about trying to defeat death. Every culture’s first stories are about their gods, who live forever.
Holly: Well, living forever seems pretty sweet. As Raphael says to Simon in City of Glass, “You will never get sick, never die, and be strong and young forever. You will never age. What have you got to complain about?” Is there anything to complain about?
Kelly: If there wasn’t anything to complain about, then there wouldn’t be any story. Stasis is the enemy of plot. When Raphael (vampire) says that to Simon (now a vampire too), Simon thinks: “It sounded good, but did anyone really want to be sixteen forever? It would have been one thing to be frozen forever at twenty-five, but sixteen? To always be this gangly, to never really grow into himself, his face or his body? Not to mention that, looking like this, he’d never be able to go into a bar and order a drink. Ever. For eternity.”