Six impossible things

The Villain Continuum

Every person in the world has their own perspective, and most of them are different from yours. It follows that if you want to do realistic characters, many (if not most) of them will have perspectives that differ from yours. Which means that in order to make your characters realistic, you will have to understand those different perspectives at least well enough to portray them convincingly.

Nowhere is this understanding-the-other-side-of-things more critical than when a writer is trying for a realistic villain. A writer who makes no attempt to really get at the reasons why their villains or antagonists do what they do is going to end up either with the classic “I do this because I am an Evil Guy, bwahaha!” villain, or else with an unrealistic caricature of whatever position the villain represents.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what the writer wants to do, which is fine. If that’s not what you want to do, you need to think about the reasons why your villainous characters do things and the ways in which they justify their actions to themselves.

Generally speaking, villains fall into two categories: those who do not recognize that what they are doing is wrong, and those who do recognize it, but think their actions are justified. The ones who don’t recognize the problem at all are, pretty much by definition, psycopaths, sociopaths, or some other version of totally lacking empathy and a moral compass, and usually fall into the “Evil Guy bwahaha” category.

Just to the right of this far end of the evil spectrum are the villains who don’t think that what they are doing is bad, wrong, or evil, but who recognize that most other people would think so. They generally have at least a thin justification for what they do, not because they need to justify doing something wrong (because they don’t think it is), but because they need to justify taking the risk of ruining their reputation or getting thrown in jail if they get caught by the folks who do think it’s wrong.

Here is where you get villains who think they can get away with things because they are geniuses, or better than everyone else for some other reason. You also get the ones who are expecting a payoff that is worth the risk – they’ll get to be king, they’ll be rich, they’ll be completely safe from the horrors of their past – and who are convinced that they deserve this payoff because of their genius or miserable childhood or whatever.

Then come the villains who do not recognize what they do as evil, not because they are sociopaths, but because they neither understand nor accept any alternative view as important or valid. Their actions are justified because they benefit someone who deserves to get that benefit. For a classic villain, that deserving person is him/herself, but it can be the corporate stockholders, the people of Enemy Country X, etc.

What ultimately makes this person a villain is that the hero and the readers do not agree with his/her judgement. The villain doesn’t deserve to be king, or the people of Enemy Country X don’t deserve to take over Neighboring Country Y (even if Y used to be part of X several hundred years ago). Or the readers agree only in part; the villain’s goal is reasonable, but it doesn’t justify his/her methods. The villain may deserve to be king, but not if he has to murder the current king in cold blood to gain the throne. It might be a Good Thing for Countries X and Y to be rejoined into one country, but not if X has to invade Y to make it happen.

Some of the most intriguing villains are the ones who have this kind of mixed situation: they have a worthy goal – saving the country is good, right? – but their methods are over-the-top unacceptable (saving the country by sacrificing a large group of innocent people is not good). A little farther along the continuum, villains start to shade into the sort of anti-heroes who are amoral misfits, on the right side by chance rather than choice, and other ambiguous characters who are faced with a choice between two morally unacceptable alternatives, who are wracked with guilt over their own perceived misdeeds (which may not be all of them), who do the right things for all the wrong reasons, or who have sympathetic traits or redeeming features like rescuing puppies or loving their families.

Eventually, you get to the “villains” who really aren’t villains at all by the usual definitions; they’re antagonists who have perfectly reasonable goals that just happen to be mutually exclusive with whatever the main character wants. Usually, this is something like getting the promotion, the lead role in the production, or some other Good Thing that only one person can have, meaning that anyone else who is competing with the main character is opposition/antagonist even if they are perfectly nice people. Sometimes, it’s a clash of good ideas: Jennifer wants to build a hospital on the last vacant lot on 64th street, while Marion wants to build a free arts center.

And finally, you work all the way over to the “villain” who is, if you look at him/her objectively, a classic Good Guy Hero – working for Truth, Justice, and Freedom…and demanding that everyone else live up to his/her impossibly high standards Or Else.

The two ends of the spectrum – the Truly Evil Bwahaha Guy and the Totally Good Hero Dude – don’t usually require a ton of understanding or motivation. They’re supposed to be extreme versions of their type. For all the other characters, the writer needs to put at least a little thought into understanding their point of view, and the more complex and/or ambiguous the character, the more clearly the writer needs to understand why they feel justified in doing what they do.

  1. “The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.”
    –Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog

  2. Thank you for this! I love a well-written villain, they are among my favorite characters, but I still struggle with writing them. This will most certainly help!

  3. My favorite is when different characters follow different moral compasses. A great example is the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Commander Norrington is a law-and-order man. What the law says, and societal custom says, is what is right. Captain Barbosa is a true pirate’s pirate: always looking out for number one, never minding who is hurt along the way. Will Turner is guided solely by his love for Elizabeth. Anything done for her sake is justified. Jack Sparrow is complicated: a pirate for sure, but with a streak of kindness and compassion that Barbosa is missing. Each character does (mostly) as their moral code dictates. But they are sympathetic enough that it is easy to switch points of view as to who is the villain.

  4. “Nobody wakes up and thinks ‘What evil shall I do today?’.” Well, I suppose certain sorts of mad people might, but I tend to feel that using mad people as the villains is cheating.

    My favourite villain is the guy the hero went out for a drink with last week.

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