From Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.*
Although the above quote appears clever and wise, it is in fact circuitous and facile. This does not make it wrong, necessarily, but it does avoid the meaning of the proverb it seeks to replace. While it can be beneficial to approach a delicate point obliquely, it is quite another matter to dress up foul aims and desires in pretty words. This tendency to wrap wicked motives in fair attire is at the heart of the problem with the modern misunderstanding of villains.
Recently, Foxfier and I had a discussion about perennial X-Men* adversary Magneto. The Master of Magnetism has captivated audiences around the world over the years for several reasons. Having survived his imprisonment at Auschwitz during World War II, the cruelty and horror Magneto witnessed in the infamous Nazi concentration camp scarred him for life, as it exposed him to the worst side of humanity at a young age. He has carried these memories and beliefs from his initial introduction in the 1960s down to the present day.
This is the great tragedy and appeal of Magneto’s character. A brilliant man of talent who could do much good, he has instead become the thing he hates most. There is little difference between his idea of mutant supremacy and the racial superiority espoused by the Nazis. Professor Xavier’s attempts to convince him of this fact are always vociferously denied, a sign that perhaps Magneto does realize his position is the wrong one on some level, despite his protest of being “a realist” rather than the blind idealist he believes his old friend has become.
As stated previously at Song, this author has never understood the tendency of fans to fall in love with a villain who will not change his ways. I can comprehend and appreciate those who wish an antagonistic character would join the side of truth, beauty, and goodness. Hoping for a specific villain’s redemption, especially when there is ample potential for it, is a very good thing to do in and out of fiction.
What confuses this author is the belief that a fictional adversary is “awesome just the way he is.” If by this statement one were to mean that the villain is undeniably mesmerizing, capable, and frightening enough to drive the protagonist to new heights of heroism, then that is the definition of a “good” villain. Any “good” fictional enemy ought to be able to competently and believably raise the stakes in a story at the same time he forces the hero to reach greater levels of grace and strength. If he does not accomplish this goal, then the author has not done his job properly.
However, if by this statement one means that he esteems the bad guy simply due to his wicked behavior, this author has to wonder why. What is so interesting about being evil? In what way does it benefit the fictional world and the audience? How can it benefit the villain, who becomes less and less human the more immoral acts he commits? In short, what is it that others find so good about being bad?
It is almost impossible to avoid variations on the theme that “evil is better than good” in present-day fiction. The above quotation is just one example of this trend, as it attempts to clarify the paradox of the proverb it quotes. Evil always seeks to make those it wishes to corrupt believe they are fighting for something good or worthy. Otherwise, fewer people will support evil, which means it will be unable to grasp and hold those it seeks to devour long enough to accomplish its aims.
When someone says that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” he does not mean that any good intent of itself leads one to the netherworld. Rather, he means is that the “good intentions” espoused by adherents of iniquity are merely excuses that real life (and fictional) villains use to cloak their true motives. And these motives are, without exception, absolutely self-serving and self-centric in the extreme.
In the present era, when moral relativism is attempting to reign supreme, few novelists and storytellers are willing to admit this fact. To avoid calling a spade a spade, they circle and dance about the truth, doing their best to excuse their villains’ true motives by saying things such as “he had an abusive childhood and was carrying on that abuse,” or “she was sexually assaulted repeatedly, so it’s no wonder she snapped.” All of this ignores the fact that many more people who have endured such circumstances have not perpetrated crimes similar to those that scarred them for life. In point of fact, victims of domestic and sexual abuse largely do their best to avoid becoming abusers of any kind.
Using the above excuses to say that a villain or antagonist is “awesome just the way he/she is” is a form of moral equivalency. It equates a good, such as protecting others by permanently stopping someone bent on their destruction, with the crime of murder. There is no comparison between a Western hero’s shooting the bad guy to protect himself, a child, and/or the damsel in distress and the villain shooting an unarmed bank teller shivering in his boots. Yet today some novels and most other media like to make it appear that these acts are somehow the same egregious sin.
They are not. If a man has no choice but to kill someone trying to kill him, his wife, his son, or the whole human race, then the person he dispatched is the one guilty of a crime. The man defending himself, his family, and his species is innocent of any culpability. He did not initiate the fight or seek to commit the heinous act, only to prevent it. Therefore, he is blameless while the attacker is guilty.
Due to this maelstrom of equivalency, many good villains are treated as bad or uninteresting if they lack a “sympathetic” backstory or some “clear” motivation that cloaks their evil intent. In certain cases, this critique is justified. A villain that is evil just for the sake of being evil, as the antagonists in the Captain Planet animated series were, are not good adversaries for the hero. They are caricatures; bogeymen meant to push an agenda. The bad guys in Captain Planet were not real people, anymore than Captain Planet and his entourage were believable heroes.
This does not mean, however, that a limited backstory and a straightforward motive automatically create a recipe for a bad villain. On the contrary, these two things can make a fictional enemy quite as mesmerizing, frightening, and horrible as those with detailed histories and well-articulated desires. While this seems counter-intuitive to many writers and critics today, that is only due to the fact that they and the academics who taught them have confused “simple” with “simplistic.”
Among its definitions, “simple” means “having few parts: not complex or fancy.” Simplistic, on the other hand, means “too simple: not complete or thorough enough: not treating or considering all possibilities or parts.” (Thanks, Merriam-Webster Dictionary*.) For a fictional villain, therefore, to be simple means that he is direct in his aims, pursues them in an uncomplicated manner, and is honest – i.e. straightforward – when he declares his purpose. A simplistic villain is one that does the same thing only to satisfy the message the writer is pushing. Since it is not the villain’s chosen goal, he has no choice but to be one-dimensional, “a puppet on strings” to quote the twisted version of the song in from Pinocchio* in Avengers: Age of Ultron.*
The villain of the latest My Hero Academia* film, Heroes Rising, is a good example of this. Known as Nine, this desperado has received a great deal of flak from fans since the movie released. Despite his power and the fact that he poses a very tangible threat to the teenage superheroes-in-training, many believe he is the embodiment of the one-dimensional trope. They declaim that Nine is “boring” or “flat,” complaining about his “lack of clear motivation” and the fact that we do not get to see much of his backstory during the course of the film.
You may have guessed from reading the above that this author has no such issue with the character. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is the fact that Nine was not meant to last beyond Heroes Rising. He was made to pose a serious, believable threat to the cast of My Hero Academia for a brief time in the overarching narrative of an ongoing series. Unlike the main villain in the series, Nine did not need to have his backstory fleshed out or his motivations written in fancy cursive. He just had to present the teenage heroes with a credible risk to life and limb.
And he succeeds perfectly. His power, skills, and drive all combine to make him a potent villain during the course of the film. This more than compensates for his lack of backstory, while his motivation is painted in fine, quick brushstrokes. He believes that the strong should lord over the weak and that the present construction of society, which treats both strong and weak as equal under the law, ought to be abolished. And he is more than willing to kill twenty teenage heroes to do just that.
For many, this straightforward motivation seems too simplistic to be believable. But just because the incentive is base does not mean it is one-dimensional; the temptation to absolute power should never be underestimated. With full possession of his Quirk, Nine could easily set himself up as a king or even a false god, giving him the power to rule over a wide swath of territory. He is strong enough to send cars miles away from his position into the air and tear apart buildings with the winds he can generate. A man with such power would be susceptible to the belief that the “rules” of decent society – such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – ought not to apply to him.
In a perfectly fallen world, with no glimmerings of grace or hint of love, strength rules supreme. We see this fact on perfect display in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters*. All the devils in Letters are engaged in a game of using one another to further their own ends. They each claw over one another to reach a position of power and stay there, lording over and “eating” those weaker than they are.
No one in this system is ever secure or happy because there is always the potential that they will be toppled from their high position and become slaves to someone stronger. Fear, hatred, lust, pride, greed – these are the only things they know and recognize as legitimate emotions and motivations. Everything they choose to do is motivated only by selfish ambition. Whatever they can get out of each other and/or mankind, they will not hesitate to seize it, no matter who among them gets hurt.
This is what makes the philosophy of Nine and other villains like him more complex and dangerous than they first appear. These fictional adversaries do not “just” want a society where the strong rule; they want a society where they are the undisputed rulers of the strong. Where they are free to do as they please, regardless of who it harms or what it destroys. The only “love” shown in such a world would be “the basest sentimentality,” to quote The Avengers’* Loki. A passing fancy would be the sole reason for individuals in this type of society to show interest in anyone weaker or less capable than themselves.
Screwtape’s “affection” for his nephew Wormwood is a prime example of this. He does not care for Wormwood’s well-being, only his own. When his nephew fails to capture a soul for Hell, Screwtape is only too happy to “devour” him in the young Englishman’s place. The only “love” he has for him is what he can get out of him – mainly nourishment, either from someone else or from Wormwood himself.
A man who would do this same thing, and/or burn the world down just so he could rule over the ashes, is truly a dangerous villain. We don’t need to see his backstory or to have a detailed description of his motivation to recognize him as a threat and fear for the protagonists’ safety. Screwtape, Nine, and other villains like them are perfect just the way they are. Adding any more information about either of them to the narrative would overburden the story and obscure the point that true heroism puts the good of others over the good of oneself, no matter the cost to the hero (or heroine) in question.
If these goals seem too extravagant, consider the case of Evelyn Adler from the film Gifted.* A mathematician of great skill, Evelyn is determined to defend the thesis that solves one of the great Millennium Prize Problems in the field of mathematics. When she proves unable to accomplish the task on her own, she falls back on a secondary plan by trying to have members of her family do it for her. Both her husband and son prove unable to pursue the subject, whereas her daughter excels at math. Evelyn then forces her gifted child, Diane, to do the job she cannot. She thus brings Diane to suicide after giving birth to a daughter at the age of twenty-seven, whom she entrusts to her brother Frank (played by Chris Evans).
Throughout the film, Evelyn remains entirely dedicated to this objective. She cares less about her family’s emotional and intellectual well-being than she does about the honor of proving the solution to one of the six greatest mathematical questions of the 21st century. She willingly deprived her daughter of a normal life interacting with others and with the outside world, keeping her from being able to function in society. This is a process she is quite happy to repeat with her granddaughter, Mary, whom she did not even recognize as a blood-relation when she was born. Only when the girl proves to have her mother’s capacity for math does Evelyn show the slightest bit of interest in Mary and Frank.
Evelyn is a horrible person completely dedicated to her straightforward goal (solve one of the Millennium Problems) at the expense of others so she can win fame as the defender of the answer to the equation. She becomes progressively worse and more destructive as time goes on, pursuing a “good” end by despicable means and at a terrible cost. In many ways, she is the embodiment of the proverb at the head of this article: “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” It is also, one might add, littered with the bodies of those who have unintentionally and innocently “stood in the way” of those with “good intentions.”
From this it should be clear that, while a writer ought not to make his villains one-dimensional, neither does he need to convince himself or anyone else that they are anything less than evil. Even the redeemable adversaries who face off against heroes do not typically begin the tale as particularly nice or sympathetic people. That is what the redemption arc is for. 😉
Should your story include a villain with a straightforward, uncompromising, base desire like the one espoused by Nine, Screwtape, or Evelyn, do not try to “deepen it” or sugarcoat it, future writers. That is just an attempt to excuse his/her bad behavior. Let the villain revel in his wickedness if you must, but do not allow him to get away with excusing it. Nail him to the wall and let your heroes pound him into the bricks. They – and your readers – will thank you for it.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Her short story “Death’s Shadow” will appear in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue this August. Order them today!
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Need some more inspiration for straightforward villains? Try Thomas Tan’s League of Angels, Monalisa Foster’s Ravages of Honor, and Lori Janeski’s The Carter Files: Phoenix. The antagonists in these novels are sick, deranged, twisted, and far from one-dimensional. Pick them up today!