"The Bad Guy in the White Hat: Changing Images of Heroes and Villains", with James Morrow, John Moore, Mario Acevedo and Rob Gates. Many people there seemed to be writers, and indeed the last few panels I attended here did have a workshoppy feel. Morrow was thoughtful, well-read and well-spoken and very much impressed me. Among other things, he said that the default for fantasy was Manichaeism (that good and evil are separate and opposed, and in a battle for control of the world). He also said that good can imagine what it is like to be evil (and choose not to do it) but evil cannot imagine what it is like to be good. (CF Sauron not even imagining that the Fellowship would seek to destroy the ring rather than use it for their own ends.)
Apparently 1% to 4% of the population is psychopathic, in that they set out to achieve their own ends without considering the effects of their actions on others. Villains have to have a belief that they are doing the right thing. They don't think that they are being evil; they are just working towards other goals. An example given was Osama bin Laden, who is a villain to many and a hero to some. The overall gist of the conversation did seem to be that villains have always been more complex than Black Hats and White Hats (a visual signal from the silent film era, when it was impossible to shoehorn much exposition into the piece).
There was a discussion of creators changing their minds, as if embarrassed about their previous definitions of good and evil – Han Solo no longer shooting first, as the 'new' Star Wars was marketed to kids rather than young adults, the change in E.T. in rerelease, where the Secret Service Agents, who had previously been wearing guns, were now shown to be carrying only flashlights, and Harry Potter, where Harry's dad James was originally shown to be a shining example, but as the books progressed and the readership grew older, became a much more grey character, with several flaws.
The panel and audience brought up many examples of villains in film and literature – Darth Vader, who was originally a genocidal villain (redeemed at the end; unsuccessfully in Jim Morrow's eyes), then developed as a character who had initially been good but flawed in the new trilogy. Quills was mentioned, in that de Sade was a depraved but self-aware character presented as more reasonable than the other main character who was depraved and did not admit it. (Similarly for Sweeney Todd – the hero being a self-aware killer versus the depraved judge who claimed to be otherwise.) The TV series Dexter apparently features a serial killer who only kills serial killers, a tactic that allows him to live with himself.
The conversation turned to women and GLBT villains – the latter more acceptable according to Rob Gates (who runs the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards) and the former less acceptable, possibly for PC reasons, but also because male readers do not find it satisfying to have a female character killed. (Also, the major reason to kill a female character – because she goes against her nature and becomes a sexual being – is now unfashionable, according to one audience member who clearly had not seen the band the other night singing about "cougars" and how they "aren't right". Then again, she did sound to be from Australia, which is a civilized country.)
Talking of women and sex, the next panel was on the subject of Writing SF Erotica. Interesting panel; not particularly well-moderated, which meant that the conversation rambled a little and didn't answer the question in the handbook, "How far has SF come since Barbarella?" However, it did answer a number of unasked questions, such as the existence of a website which uses artists' maquettes to model threesomes in every combination of sexes and positions, so that you can describe accurately whose thigh is near whose ear without bending yourself into a pretzel trying to do it yourself. (No, I don't have the URL. I will Google it later.) Some very good writing tips at this, another workshoppy panel.
In between the villains and the threesomes, we had the 2008 Hugo Awards, another star studded fanstravaganza.